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The future of local leadership

Source: Public Sector Executive July/Aug 2013

Kate Ashley reports from an LGA conference workshop discussing the changing needs and demands for public sector chief executives in 2018. 

With so many changes to the structure of local councils, and particularly leadership, chief executives are understandably apprehensive about their future. So what will this role look like in 2018? ‘The future role of the chief executive’ session at the LGA annual conference 2013 discussed the rise of shared chief executives, the balance with political leadership, and managing a completely different approach to public services. 

Chaired by Carolyn Downs, chief executive of the LGA, the speakers looked forward to what councils would need from their leaders over the next five years. 

While all three speakers came from different backgrounds and localities, they agreed on the need to focus on skills which would remain vital, as well as an expansion into new areas as public services are reformed. 

Expanding skill sets 

Sean Harris, chief executive of Calderdale & Huddersfield NHS Foundation Trust, said the important question was around the future skills required. 

Whilst there would be some developments to the role, Harris predicted “as many continuities as changes”, with chief executives increasingly called upon to create an environment for the workforce to operate effectively. This requires influence, collaboration, diplomacy and vision, and future chief executives will need to be “much sharper at old skills whilst learning new ones”. 

With huge budget cuts, councils must become better at spending. Leadership will be vital to making that work across different organisations and services. 

He said: “Chief executives will be needed more than ever as the old job becomes more demanding, skills become more demanding and the new job requires links to work effectively with partners.” 

Safe space 

Owen Williams, chief executive of Bolton Council, agreed that there is a tendency to “spend too much time on differences rather than similarities” and posited that focusing on what binds us could be more useful. 

Chief executives, he said, must put leadership into practice. Creating a “safe space for real conversations” could help managers to admit to struggling with tricky issues and to ask for help – essential to improving the quality of public services. 

The challenges for future leaders will be to turn talk of integration into reality, and to build services around individuals. In terms of “hooking into health”, Williams recommended that chief executives ask themselves how the NHS identifier number could be used to bring services together and develop a sustainable future.

Challenges ahead 

Helen Bailey, chief operating officer of the Mayor’s Office for Policing and Crime, called being a chief executive [she held the post at Islington from 2002-08] “the best job”. 

She recognised that chief executives were facing tougher challenges “in a world which needs it more, but values it less than it has done in my lifetime”. 

She talked of “more innovation than you can keep up with; delivering all the services that are business as usual; politics; money and the absence of it – as far into the future as anyone can see”. 

The public sector is far more complex than the private sector, but perhaps there should be more understanding of how local government operates, Bailey suggested. 

Bridging the ga 

Her current role involves introducing political oversight to the Met, creating a bridge between the culture of policing and government – something there could be more of in the future. 

There would be a huge amount of learning for the future role, Bailey said, bringing skills together to deal with difficult people, build relationships and provide strong leadership. Central government and politicians must focus on the ‘what’, while council chief executives have to work out the ‘how’ and manage the boundary between management and policy. 

In the future, whatever the role, she said “the same skills will still be needed”.

She added: “The ability to support and enable politics doesn’t die; perhaps it increases.”


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