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This is Manchester, we do things differently here

Joanne Roney OBE, chief executive of Manchester City Council, speaks to PSE’s Luana Salles about the region’s pioneering plans for growth and reform.

Were it not for her Birmingham birth certificate, one might be excused for thinking Joanne Roney is a northerner through and through. Not only has she solidified her local government career as Sheffield City Council’s executive director and Wakefield’s chief executive, but she also speaks of Manchester, her new home, with incredible zest and genuine adoration.

“I came to Manchester because it’s a city that has a fantastic track record of reinventing itself, being at the forefront of change, of thinking through innovative solutions to complex problems,” Roney, who was appointed the city council’s new chief executive in April, told me. “It’s a great opportunity to be here. In some ways, particularly on the devolution agenda, Greater Manchester (GM) has a history of working together for over 10 years. Its partnerships are very embedded.

“In many ways, the ability to accelerate change, the transformation of services and continued economic growth of the city is on a roll already. Joining a city that’s in that position is great – not that I don’t still love Birmingham,” she joked.

The devolution puzzle

It has not been smooth sailing since the CEO took over the reins from the council’s former longstanding boss, Sir Howard Bernstein: the city, much like the rest of the country, saw a tumultuous general election, a momentous mayoral election and, unfortunately, survived one of the darkest moments in its history after the horrific terror attack of 22 May.

But Roney is hardly fazed by the challenge; rather, she seems to thrive off its opportunities. Working with the new mayor, for example, has been a whole new experience, one which the CEO argues has been working really well across all 10 localities in GM.

Since Andy Burnham won the mayoral election earlier this year, the region has updated its devolution strategy to incorporate elements of his manifesto into the long-term plan. Albeit broken down into 10 areas of focus that encompass a wide range of ambitions, it is tied together by the same golden thread as before: a strong emphasis on growth and reform.

According to Roney, the new document, entitled ‘Our People, Our Place,’ fits in seamlessly with the region’s two other key strategies: its ongoing health reform agenda, driven by GM Health and Social Care Partnership, and its Internationalisation Strategy.

“The GM approach is in those two brackets of growth – what is it that we need to do to grow our economy? – so that is where your Internationalisation Strategy would come from, because that’s about ensuring GM stays at the forefront of worldwide investment. That’s part of what we’re doing to grow, how we build on our world-class facilities, how we work with our universities, how we work with our businesses and continue to grow them,” explained Roney.

“The second part of our devolution ask is around reform, and that is where the big agenda for GM in the transformation of health and social care [comes in]. That’s more about doing it in individual localities, but we’re bringing each of those local plans together to transform the system as a whole. And that’s being done across the whole of GM: really rethinking how all partners can work differently to transform services.

“And, of course, those two agendas are linked by things like transport, skills, infrastructure investment and the Industrial Strategy.”

Taking time to listen

Roney’s colleague, Burnham, who speaks to PSE on page 26, has become well-known for his keen focus on rough sleeping – one of the city’s greatest challenges at the moment, and one for which the mayor has set ambitious targets.

But while he appears to take the lead on the issue in the media, the chief executive is also no stranger to the subject: not only did she work at influential charity Shelter in the earlier days of her career, but she has also been volunteering on the side to tackle the situation with a more personal touch. Just a few days before we spoke, for example, she had spent two hours at Mustard Tree, GM’s homelessness charity, working with people to help them polish their CVs, talk about job applications and work on their confidence through mock interviews. Not long after, she received a call from one of the participants saying that he had been offered a job.

“It’s really important for me here, in this job, to be connected with the people who deliver services, but also the people who receive those services,” she said. “If I’ve done anything in the eight months I’ve been here, it’s been to try and focus very much on learning through talking and listening to people on the frontline.

“It saddens me to find myself dealing with the same challenges that I was dealing with in the 80s, but I think that you never forget the experiences of working with people to transform their lives. The Manchester approach of co-producing and redesigning services with homeless people, with communities, is really good.”

As well as dedicating her time to working shoulder to shoulder with the public, Roney has implemented a volunteering policy in the local authority for all staff to contribute back to communities – which will not only benefit those who rely on services, but is likely to bring in a fresh perspective for staff who may not have approached services from such a personal angle before.

c. Transport Pixels 34265989353 9796cb5cce o editImage © Transport Pixels

Abuzz with energy and prosperity

Asked what area she has been most passionate about so far – although it’s evidently hard to pick just one – Roney revealed that she has been leading on school readiness. The CEO is working with other colleagues across GM to build on the work that started before she joined the council in order to achieve better outcomes for all children in the region.

But despite the new schools being built, Manchester’s growth is stretching far beyond education: it is aiming to deliver over a thousand affordable homes in the city centre per year, invest in skills, and fully harness the benefits of projects such as HS2 and The Factory, a planned £110m arts and theatre venue. The economic growth agenda is, as a whole, thriving.

And it extends beyond the city centre, too – a determination best encapsulated by the expansion of Metrolink, the region’s tram network, which has been connecting people from all across the borough and whose ‘Big Bang’ Second City Crossing link has just opened.

“It isn’t just the city sucking up all the opportunity and all the investment,” Roney stressed. “[In November], I was working with the chief executive from Salford to look at the connectivity between our two cities – not just in transport, but in jobs, in growth, in opportunities and digital clusters, how we’re growing our businesses, as well as our public realm.”

As if by magic, the very day that we spoke Manchester announced the perfect example of this public realm effort: a ‘Bee in the City’ trail is to be installed across the region next summer, featuring more than 80 supersized bees – the city’s iconic symbol, stamped even on the floors of the council’s grandiose Town Hall – whose profits will be auctioned off for the We Love MCR charity. Although the trail is still to be mapped out, Roney hopes it can stretch down to other boroughs, including Salford, in a tangible demonstration that Manchester truly stands together – in strength, in spirit and in place.




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