Dorset Council chief executive Matt Prosser is on a mission to sort out local government leadership.
Newly installed as the president of Solace, he has a list of priorities: moving to multi-year funding settlements; encouraging government to invest in social infrastructure – with a focus on prevention and early intervention; and investing, ‘as a matter of urgency’, in the workforce crisis.
That last one, ‘the biggie’, includes bringing young people into local government, creating the next generation of local government leaders and his commitment must be contagious – his daughter is now one of the young people who has joined the sector.
‘I want her to be able to go wherever she wants in local government, not to find any ceilings and not to think that actually this isn’t a place to have a career,’ he says. And he is keen to diversity the workforce – although he admits anything local government does now to improve the ‘pipeline’ on diversity will take five to 10 years to come to fruition.
As someone who is often part of the technical interview process for aspiring chief executives, he believes there are fewer and fewer people willing to step up to the top job, leaving less experienced candidates in the mix. Solace has a role in developing that experience, making sure people are supported as they step up.
It is one of the reasons the society is ‘having a push on membership’, Mr Prosser explains. He wants local government to know what the society can offer in terms of support, while it also maintains its role as a voice to represent senior leaders in the sector.
‘We are trying to do a little bit more influencing behind the scenes with Government,’ he says, but that means there is less visibility for Solace in what it is actually achieving. He believes it has garnered some concessions on council finances – although not as much as the sector would have liked. ‘I think we are having an influence, but there is a long way to go,’ he admits.
One of the big issues for Solace – a multi-year finance settlement – was unlikely to appear during this year of financial flux, but the policy statement released by the Government in advance of the settlement was a step in the right direction, albeit one that came at the 11th hour.
‘Like any business, local government needs some certainty,’ he says. Getting the principles for council tax and the precept in advance ‘would be really helpful to plan the budget process’, he suggests. ‘We also wanted them to allow us to carry forward budget deficits on a rolling basis, like the NHS, over a limited period of time’. That has yet to materialise.
He admits there was a time, pre austerity, when money was not so tightly squeezed and ‘I’m not necessarily certain that we used it quite as wisely as we could have done, with hindsight,’ he suggests with diplomacy. ‘Now, local government has to be one of the most efficient– if not the most efficient – parts of the public sector. If we were given funding… I think we would use it far more wisely.’
Thus far, it has been governance and culture that has been the downfall of failing authorities, rather than a lack of cash. The triumvirate of statutory posts needs to be in place, but there also needs to be a culture ‘where they’re actually listened to, and that comes from both officers and elected members’.
‘If we look at the quality of decision making some authorities have made in the recent past, just how much information was that decision based on?’ he asks. ‘How do we make sure new chief executives are properly supported [with training and advice]?’
It is why he is ambivalent about the new Office for Local Government (Oflog) – Michael Gove’s plan to monitor local government data and performance – until he knows exactly what it entails.
‘If you look at the data in isolation from the decision making and the culture of an organisation, it’s not necessarily going to say what you want it to say,’ he tells The MJ. ‘So the jury is still out for me as to whether it will be able to deliver what I think our secretary of state wants it to deliver, which is to ensure they can see what problems are coming down the track.’
With a degree in geography, and a masters in marketing, Mr Prosser’s career path – which started in Shepway BC, marketing the leisure department – is not exactly archetypal. But he says recruiting is about recognising the right experience and attitudes over plucking all our leaders from the same roles. It is looking towards the less traditional, younger, more diverse candidates that is the future of local government leadership.