For much of 2020 ‘it felt like angry vengeful gods were throwing challenge and confusion into the world of us mere mortals’, said chief executive of Bradford City Council Kersten England.
This sums up the reaction of many of the chief executives approached by The MJ when first confronted by the pandemic in March. What did they learn by leading their communities and workforces through the toughest of crises, and what lessons will they bring with them into this year?
Firstly, Ms England, like many of her chief executive colleagues, is frank about how little they knew. ‘Who of us knew – really – how to respond to a global pandemic rippling along the fracture lines of communities across the world, bringing death and destruction?’
She added: ‘Every day brought new insights, learning and some humbling lessons for us personally, professionally and for our organisations. Above everything I was reminded of just how brilliant local government is and how privileged I am to work with so many talented and committed people.’
What stood out for her is that ‘our humanity is what makes the magic happen’, and we’ve lived and worked through ‘a moment when many of the distinctions between people’s personal and professional lives have fallen away’. She wants the better teams that have emerged from this to continue.
Money, people and ways of working have been moved overnight to create shared responses – and in her view this mustn’t be lost either as and when ‘normality’ returns. But she said the most humbling lesson is that work on social justice, equality and diversity has still only ‘reached the foothills’ at best. She – like other respondents – highlighted the way the pandemic has ‘wreaked disproportionate damage in the lives of the poorest black, Asian and minority ethnic communities’. Addressing this has to be ‘front and centre in the work to “build back better”’.
And everything works better when national and local governments work well together, she concluded. She has seen the best and worst of this in the last year. ‘When we work with parity of esteem and collaborate on policy design and delivery we serve our communities best. End of.’
Her view is echoed by chief executive of Coventry City Council and Solace National Lead on Finance professor Martin Reeves.
He said: ‘We have seen in real-time that Big Government attempting to command and control from Whitehall and Westminster does not work during a crisis. Local, placed-based responses and recovery does work – as local government sees the whole picture and can glue all the parts together if allowed and empowered to do so.’
One of the key lessons chief executive of Brent LBC Carolyn Downs will take forwards is a need to ‘communicate clearly, then listen’.
She said working closely with mutual aid groups and faith leaders, among others, has helped strengthen ties with local communities and ‘also opened up a genuine two-way conversation where we listen to feedback and adapt our approach’ that can be built on further post-pandemic.
Chief executive of the City of Edinburgh Council Andrew Kerr thinks the most enduring lesson he is taking with him ‘is how incredibly united and public-spirited our communities proved to be in the face of acute uncertainty and the upending of “normal life”’. He also learned there is a huge appetite among Edinburgh neighbourhoods to collaborate and ‘co-produce’ services with the council ‘and this is something we’re excited about exploring further in the months ahead’.
The impact of the pandemic on ways of living, working, shopping and recreation has accelerated some of the fundamental cultural shifts that will be needed to reach the city’s target of achieving net zero carbon status by 2030, he added.
Opportunities should be seized ‘to deliver differently but better’ in order to deal with the ‘wicked’ issues we now face, chief executive of Kingston upon Thames RLBC Ian Thomas stressed.
He highlighted that socioeconomic inequalities are set to widen amidst the deepest recession in 300 years – ‘and with no judgement being made on its merit, Brexit will surely make our context in the UK more volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous’.
In his view, such challenges call for ‘adaptive leadership, using the core pillars of emotional intelligence, organisational justice, development and character to address challenges and optimise opportunities over the medium-term, such as advancements in global technologies’.
Retired major general and former commander of British Forces in Germany, John Henderson thought his operational leadership days were over when he arrived as chief executive of Staffordshire CC five years ago. But 2020 taught him that ‘you’re never too senior or too experienced to learn’.
He added: ‘The strategic context is invariably complex, uncertain and ambiguous; the COVID response has been no exception. I had to learn again, in a different environment, to absorb those issues, and give tactical clarity and simplicity to those working in stressful situations.’
The importance of aligning responsibility, accountability and authority has been confirmed, he added. What is clear is that ‘systems work well where one decision-making body such as a cabinet or senior leadership team, is responsible for defining the outcomes; is accountable – financially, professionally – for the processes and, vitally, has the freedoms and authority to make changes to achieve the outcomes’.
In Rotherham, chief executive Sharon Kemp said the relationships and partnerships developed through collaboration over the last five years ‘have enabled information to flow, actions to be taken quickly and a safe space to deal with the many challenges’.
She added that without this commitment to collaboration which is a key part of the borough’s Thriving Neighbourhoods Strategy ‘I don’t believe we would have been able to respond so quickly and mitigate as much as possible of the effects of the pandemic.’
Chief executive of Calderdale MBC Robin Tuddenham said that a crisis, relationships and trust matter above all else. He added: ‘You reap the time you have dedicated to building relationships, and the longer the crisis lasts, the more this matters. You cannot command collaboration – it is built on months and years of conversations and joint actions.’
He observed that while remote working has transformed our lives, and brings many benefits, ‘some things can never be experienced that way, and we need to compensate for this’.
For many, reaching out to other chief executives for support proved crucial. Professor Martin Reeves said: ‘Acknowledging you are not OK is empowering for you and those around you’. For him, ‘the comfort of professional trust, respect and friendship and support networks from fellow chief executives has been the difference at times from coping and not’.
Looking after your own mental and physical wellbeing to ensure personal resilience ‘is not just OK – it is essential – as you try and do your best to support others’, he believes. And humour is ‘pivotal to retaining balance’.
In conclusion, what he has learned above all ‘is that even during the darkest moments, I was able to remind myself of the honour of working in local government and the heady privilege and responsibility of being a chief executive’.