Sticking with simplicity

By Heather Jameson | 13 July 2021

It has been quite a year for Barking & Dagenham LBC chief executive Chris Naylor and he is, he says, in reflective mode.

In addition to dealing with the pandemic, he spent ten months as interim chief at Birmingham City Council, faced a stalker attacking his home and moved house as a result, was named The MJ’s chief executive of the year 2020 – oh, and there was the emergency appendix removal that he almost forgot about. It’s fair to say he has been busy.

Speaking virtually from the kitchen of his aforementioned new home, he admits he was pleased, humbled and ‘a little bit mortified’ with The MJ Award. Both that and the Birmingham role put his head above the parapet in a local government sector that doesn’t really like to show off too much.

Like everyone, he is reflecting on the past 18 months, and the long-term impact of COVID-19 on the country. During the second World War, he says, 70,000 civilians died and the impact of the Blitz is still a ‘visceral’ moment in our history. COVID has taken nearly double that number of people.

‘I don’t think we have got to the point as a nation where we have worked that out yet,’ he says.

As the pandemic hit, Chris was just arriving in Birmingham on secondment as the interim chief executive. ‘Everything just went crackers. People were working all the hours God sent, delivering remarkable things.’ At the same time, his family was being subjected to a series of attacks – fires in the garden, slashed tyres, smashed windows – from a stalker.

It was a scary time, he says. And it gave him an insight into the failures of a public sector system that saw the police turn up repeatedly and treat each attack individually. ‘It’s a bit of a cliché, but that gets you to experience how public services don’t join up,’ Chris says.

In the end, the attacker was caught on CCTV and charged with criminal damage – but not with wider stalking charges – and the family decamped to Hertfordshire.

In Birmingham, the Government was privately voicing its concerns over the city’s capability to deliver the Commonwealth Games and respond to the pandemic. Just as its fears subsided, he was named The MJ’s chief executive of the year.

His reflective mood has made him stop to think about what he is good at, what personally motivates him. ‘There are lots of different kinds of chief executives out there, and for me it is about knowing what kind of chief executive you are and trying to find the places and the people to work with where what they need is what you do.’

He makes it sound simple – which coincidentally, is the first thing he lists when it comes to his style as a chief executive.

‘What I like doing, and what I think I am good it…is finding a route through complexity and trying to bring as much simplicity as possible,’ he says. Once people understand the issues facing them, it is then about setting the goals to fix them.

‘You spring from that analysis of “what’s the problem” into “so what do we need to do about it”, and then build organisations that can achieve more than they thought possible before. That’s what I like doing.’

Nominated for The MJ Award for his work at Barking & Dagenham, he is insistent it is a partnership, and leader Darren Rodwell started the process of improvement before he joined the council in November 2014.

The London borough’s journey to change started far further back. In 2006, 12 British National Party councillors were elected.

‘Everything that is hopeful and fearful about the 21st century plays out between the station and the town hall [in Barking] every day,’ he says of the vibrant borough.

While the population is growing, it also faces an extraordinary amount of churn. Between 2011 and 2021, one ward in Barking saw a 91% resident turnover.

‘In the last ten years, lots of places have had huge fiscal challenges, massive demographic change, profound issues around identity and belonging. In hindsight, I think the 2006 BNP moment was less a weird aberration and more a canary in the mine that showed something is not right with people’s sense of belonging and home, and prospects for the future, and that’s what was playing out.’

It was a lightbulb moment for some of the politicians who realised the public had lost confidence in them. ‘When I was appointed, a lot of the heavy lifting had been done. It was the perfect context for me to do what I love doing,’ he says. That is, cutting through the complexity, making it into a simple mission, and reforming the organisation ‘to do some remarkable things’.

He describes three missions in Barking & Dagenham. The first was to increase the pace and scale of growth. When he joined, if the rate of building homes had continued, it would have taken 85-100 years to build the number of homes needed. Six years on they have tripled housing delivery, and have just had their first revenue dividend cheque from the regeneration company of £10m.

The second challenge was to ‘pivot away from a needs-led approach to public services, to one that works with people before they get into crisis’, he says.

And the third priority was building trust. ‘It isn’t a “nice to have”,’ he says. ‘It is fundamental to what we are about.’ It runs across basic service delivery, to community participation and engagement.

Chris says: ‘When I won the award for chief executive of the year, I genuinely won on behalf of that movement of people that decided enough was enough, and 15 years later this is what happened.’

For Birmingham, he says: ‘I do feel it was a huge privilege to be asked to go and help…And it was a massive deal for Barking & Dagenham to release me.’

Again, he had three priorities that were delivered – and a fourth that sneaked up on him while he was there. The first was to deal with the pandemic – and allay the Government’s anxiety over how it would cope as infection rates started to rise.

‘Birmingham nailed it,’ Chris says. ‘And I’m not taking credit for that.

‘There is something about its size, that is often described as a problem, but when it comes to managing a crisis, reading the epidemiology across 1.2 million people in the morning, making a decision by 9 o’clock and having it implemented by lunchtime…it is flippin’ awesome.’

The second priority was to ease fears over the city’s readiness to deliver the Commonwealth Games. ‘I left Birmingham with that issue resolved,’ he says.

The third was taking Birmingham out of its quasi-intervention. While the Government-appointed independent improvement panel had long departed, the council’s non-executive advisers were still in situ.

Birmingham may have been getting better, but when he arrived he says there was a lack of a solid performance management plan, just ‘vague tasks, no milestones, no individual accountability’. By the time he left, there was a blueprint in place and a solid financial plan.

Now, he says, the city must seize the opportunities at its disposal. ‘Birmingham City Council owns more land than the Queen and Merton College, Oxford. It has a huge, huge ability to grow out if its [financial] problems.’

A fourth priority rose rapidly up the agenda – the Black Lives Matter movement bringing race issues to the fore. ‘We started quite a profound conversation in the organisation about race,’ he says. ‘We ran a sort of gender pay gap-type analysis for race.’

The report found people of colour on average were paid 7% less than their white counterparts and were more likely to be pushed out. ‘That’s not okay,’ he says. ‘It’s an important conversation to have, and we are having it in Barking & Dagenham.’

‘It has been a cracking year,’ Chris says. ‘I wouldn’t change any of it – well, obviously [with the exception of] the lunatic stalker...’

He tells The MJ: ‘I’m your chief executive of the year, I’m living in a lovely part of the world, my family is safe. I learned a lot in Birmingham. I don’t think I have ever worked as hard.

‘I think the job of the chief executive is to work with the willing and to leave things better than when you got there, and that is what I did.’

Chris Naylor was The MJ chief executive of the year 2020. The finalists for The MJ Achievement Awards 2021, can be found here

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