A winning champion for change

By Heather Jameson | 10 February 2021

By the time The MJ Awards 2020 winners were announced in October – a little later than planned – our Corporate Director of the Year had already announced her departure from her post. The then-director of adult social services and deputy chief executive at Northamptonshire CC Anna Earnshaw’s talent had not just been spotted by our judges, she had also been named as the new chief executive for the new West Northamptonshire Council.

Even the reorganisation, foisted on the county and districts as part of the improvement, has become a positive. ‘In the beginning, everybody thought it was a punishment. We are all in a very different joined up place. We have got over that – it’s happening,’ Ms Earnshaw says. ‘It is very exciting but really interesting to be starting from scratch.’

Revealing the winner at the virtual awards, Jes Ladva, partner at sponsors Odgers Interim, said the shortlist were all worthy winners. ‘They included those with impressive careers to date, and impressive careers to come.’ Ms Earnshaw is no exception.

She has always worked in and around local government, starting in Southampton, working on council tax. ‘I worked for Capita for 14 years, on a range of different services, always supporting councils,’ she tells The MJ.

As well as designing transformation programmes, Ms Earnshaw nearly always stayed on to help deliver the change. She ‘spent a long time’ in Barnet LBC and Birmingham City Council.

When she arrived at Northamptonshire CC in 2016, she says her main job was ‘partnerships’, supporting the director of adult social care to build relationships across health and social care – she took on the director role in 2017, even though her background was not social care.

‘If you talk to directors of adult social care around the country, not all of them have come from a social care background’. But she says the combination of a private sector discipline and a public sector ethos – alongside her transformation and partnership experience – were ideal.

When she arrived Northamptonshire was struggling financially and the social care department had a £26m overspend. She set about changing the finances and the culture of the department.

‘We stuck together as a team. We had a philosophy that every single decision mattered,’ she says. ‘We turned it [the financial deficit] around, but that’s not what really mattered. What mattered is the people.’

She says the service – and the council – has really changed since then. Social services are now out in the community, with real improvements to the results. She has built strong partnerships with health and has delivered £36m in savings overall in two years.

Ms Earnshaw tells The MJ: ‘We haven’t in the past had that great a relationship with the district councils. I wish we had joined up health and housing more. Now we have the opportunity to do things differently.’

But despite her excitement at the possibilities, she says she knows she will need to be careful not to focus on the care agenda – she has a full top team in place ready for the start of the new council on 1 April.

As soon as the council is live, the council will agree a three-year corporate plan – not an easy task during single year finance settlements – and a strategic plan for the place. The potential of a delay to the elections is ‘not ideal,’ she says, as Northamptonshire was already overdue its elections due to delays in setting up the new unitaries and last years’ cancelled elections. ‘We want members elected with a clear plan to take forward,’ she says. ‘But there has been a really strong consensus so far.’

She will also have staff. Ms Earnshaw is currently running the shadow authority with a skeleton staff before April when existing Northamptonshire staff transfer across. Currently, she laughs: ‘I am master of everything and commander of nothing.’

Not being able to meet the staff is the biggest challenge – although she points out that there is plenty that is not ideal. You would not necessarily choose to reorganise local government at the same time as transforming it, in the middle of a pandemic.

For now, both West Northamptonshire and North Northamptonshire Council will be housed in the controversial headquarters of Northamptonshire – One Angel Square – but it will be reviewed at the end of the first year. They will share the children’s trust, but there is also a host of other services that are shared to make transitions smoother. They even embarked on a joint recruitment process for the senior staff.

As the new councils replace Northamptonshire, the commissioners put in place to turn around the failing authority will depart – with the exception of the children’s commissioner who will stay in post for now.

Although they represented a Government intervention, she praises the commissions and how supportive they have been. ‘It [the turnaround of the council] was massively challenging. They’ve really helped us achieve it.’

When she was called into the office by Northamptonshire chief executive Theresa Grant and told she had been shortlisted for The MJ award, she says she was expecting it was for something bad that had happened. ‘It took a while to sink in,’ she says.

Does your local authority have a star performer you want to nominate for the Corporate Director of the Year award, sponsored by Odgers Interim? Or is your council excelling in other areas? The MJ Achievement Awards 2021 are now open. For details, go to awards.themj.co.uk

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