Little indicates a sector reacting to a changing world like the emergence of exciting new job roles.
The last few years have seen councils caught in flux as the sector evolves, matures, expands and modernises. It has demanded powers and, in many parts, made great strides in receiving them.
Local government has been recognised for its ability to streamline, innovate, collaborate and integrate where others in the public sector have failed to do so. It has faced challenges like never before – from the struggles of austerity to the tragedies of terrorism and the Grenfell fire. All this stretches the sector to its limits, demands a swathe of new skills and requires the stability of strong, dynamic leadership.
Earlier in the year, we saw brand new posts in the Northern Powerhouse and Greater Manchester filled. Now, following the election of six new regional mayors, management teams are springing up in the combined authorities.
The most movement appears to be happening in the Midlands. Following the announcement that Suffolk CC chief executive Deborah Cadman would take up the top post at the West Midlands Combined Authority, she is now looking to build a senior management team around her. At the same time, the Midlands Engine is seeking a chief executive and programme director.
Elsewhere a chief executive has been appointed to the Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority, while the West of England Combined Authority is also searching for a new boss. Many top council chief executives will be eyeing up these new posts as an opportunity to affect change in a completely new way.
Senior partner for the leadership & talent practice at GatenbySanderson, Jody Goldsworthy, suggested these new regional posts are representative of a shift in the way services need to be co-ordinated and delivered in this fast-paced new world. ‘There has been a recognition that we need to think differently about the way services are delivered – and the funding envelope being under pressure has of course been a driver in that,’ she said.
‘There has been a genuine focus on the purpose of organisations. It is almost as if some of the challenges in recent years have magnified the lens on that social purpose.’
In response, different localities are configuring services in different ways, with these regional, strategic organisations taking co-ordination roles, leading on commissioning rather than delivery.
‘What I am particularly interested in with some of these new senior roles in these central organisations is co-ordinating. It is not so much about leading organisational delivery but impacting outcomes by influencing the organisations that sit underneath,’ Ms Goldsworthy said. ‘We are seeing the unpicking of transport in the Midlands, while in Greater Manchester the way authorities are dealing with people flowing centrally is really interesting to see.
‘Departmental structures are being unpicked and dismantled in terms of delivering something for the greater good. I’m watching the West Midlands with interest as to whether it will take on health in the way Greater Manchester has.’
The focus now is on how localities can make the most of partnerships. Ms Goldsworthy continued: ‘It is about taking matrix working to the next level by not just cutting across but organising a hub. It is about the ability to influence upwards as well as across organisational boundaries.’
But these new roles require new leadership styles and are pushing council bosses to adapt, too.
Ms Goldsworthy said the individual chief executives of the authorities that make up some of the combined structures are ‘having to let go in terms of budgets and powers, which they are having to give over to central or collaborative control for the greater good’.
‘What we are seeing is the ego being left at the door. We think [leaders] are very much focusing on outcomes and deciding what is delivered locally and regionally in terms of economies of scale.’
Ms Goldsworthy said the sector has long talked about the ‘demise of powerful hero leaders’. Instead, things like influencing and collaboration are becoming more important markers of successful local government leaders, as opposed to ‘direct hierarchical control’.
But what are the success criteria for such roles? Ms Goldsworthy said recruiters are looking for strategic thinking, the ability to build relationships with counterparts, and people who can make tough commercial decisions across boundaries.
Naturally, this search for new skillsets opens up the roles to people outside of local government. ‘There are some really open-minded conversations going on about how transferable skills from outside the sector can be brought in. They are almost a little bit freer to make decisions about how they use the selection process because these are completely new organisations. They have license to think differently. This is something that has constrained local government in the past.’
But Ms Goldsworthy said there is an appetite for ‘getting the balance right’ between the private and public sector. She continued: ‘You definitely need someone in the team who understands local government and how the sector operates, but they are being very open-minded about looking for skills from outside the sector as well – such as commercialisation and digitisation.’
Recalling structural changes in the health sector in recent years, Ms Goldsworthy has a strong warning for leaders in local government. She remembers that some health bosses reacted with panic to the dismantling of the strategic health authorities. Other, more successful, leaders grasped it with both hands.
She continued: ‘I think for right-minded leaders this can be a really exciting time. For leaders to succeed, they have got to accept change. All individuals have different appetites for change and risk aversion, but the leaders who are going to be at the top are going to be the ones who really embrace change.’