Transport in the North………

Last week “The Economist” magazine carried a piece about investment in transport infrastructure across the English regions. A small graphic showing capital investment in infrastructure placed Yorkshire and Humber at the bottom of the regional league table. London (of course) topped the table by a country mile with estimated expenditure at a little under £2000 per head of the region’s population. In Yorkshire and Humber it was put at less than £250 per head.

As we endure the pleasures of bus based Pacer trains from the 1980s, under investment on the East Coast Main Line, congestion on the M62, A64 and A19 and the absence of a modern mass transit system in Leeds, I am sure we all take comfort in the benefits of the new Elizabeth Line at £15bn and a new trains programme for Thameslink valued at £6.5bn. Let’s not mention Crossrail and maybe even Crossrail 2 to come or the dubious benefits of HS2 to the north and north east.

Government announcements in July ended hopes of transport investment in south Wales, the East Midlands and the North in favour of London – “the highest priority”.

The productivity benefits of investing in modern transport infrastructure cannot be denied. That after all is the basis of the investment in London and the south east, but it is negligent almost beyond belief to ignore the  pressing and significant needs of the regions, and the North in particular, to such an extent, and to forego the social and economic harvest that investment in the North would bring.

Who do we need to recruit?

Charles Wilson of Penna wrote an interesting piece in a supplement that came with the MJ last week. The article was about  embracing digital in the public sector. He gave 7 reasons why it’s hard to attract digital talent into the public sector, one of which struck me as having a much wider relevance when thinking about the future shape of the workforce in local government – it was out of date recruitment processes and means of engaging staff.

The proposition was that the sector needs to recognise that much of its work in the digital space is project based or time limited and therefore it needs to be more willing to hire contractors and interim managers rather that thinking of permanent appointment as the standard approach.

I would take that observation and extend it well beyond the realm of IT and digital. I think that there are in fact many areas of operation with local government where the recruitment of the right people on a permanent basis is hard and where the need for a permanent appointment is not in fact essential, although we usually think it is. Clearly any time limited activity would be prime for this approach, but what is time limited? Why not extend fixed term commissions to management roles in general? That way we might have more success in matching skills and experience to current need and be more able to replace outmoded skills and approaches more quickly.

While I would never advocate the excesses of zero hours contracts in public services I do think there is scope to see more flexible public sector workforce models involving several forms of staff engagement  as benefitting both the organisation and the service user/funder.





Leaving Angus Council….

Well, the end is nigh as they say, and as far as writing things here in the role of Chief Executive of Angus Council is concerned it has in fact now arrived. This will be my last posting here in that role. My official last day with the council is 31st May, but with some of my 2017 leave allocation remaining I will exit stage left a little over a week from now on the 23rd of this month.

My six years in Angus have flown by – although at times I confess it did feel as if time was moving exceeding slow, as it sometimes does. Some meetings are just meant to test us!

The council has changed a fair bit over the six years since 2011 as we made the best we could of increasingly difficult circumstances for local government and public services in general. If anyone out there thinks I have done a reasonable job as Chief Executive in the face of those pressures it is largely down to the hard work and dedication of the Angus Council team, and the credit is theirs.

I am off to pastures new – “retirement plus” as it is called these days. The plus for me will entail, all being well, a few minor roles in other people’s shows to keep me off the streets and out of trouble. More of that will feature here in June and beyond. And there will certainly be a lot more time for family, grandchildren and of course motor cycle racing with David, ITFC and cricket…. amongst other things.

Thank you for looking at these posts over the years. There will be more from me in the future, but for now goodbye and good luck!


There’s an election ….. Pt 2

This afternoon we had a small get together in the Canmore Room in Forfar to say thank you and farewell to current councillors not seeking re-election on 4th May.

The council term is nearly over and like me you are probably asking where did those 5 years go?

Officers and members work closely together and in many ways running the council is a truly a team effort. This is far more the case than most members of the public realise.

In my experience council officers have great respect for those who put their heads above the parapet to stand for election and then commit to a role as an elected member – often on top of a busy family or working life – often both.

As the council term comes to an end it’s only right that the service given to our community by departing councillors is recognised. That’s why we organised the event this afternoon, in particular so that senior officers and colleagues in Committee Services, who work closely with councillors, could say thank you to members for their very real assistance and support over the last 5 years.

The last term has been one of the toughest I have known in my almost 40 year career. And there have also been personal losses for us all to come to terms with.

In particular I am thinking of the death of Provost Oswald last year. Helen gave so much to our communities in Angus and to this council that it is hard to quantify. The numbers attending her funeral service were a clear testament to the high esteem in which she was held. I was so pleased that her husband Ed was able to join us in at the event.

For the last 2 council terms we have provided departing councillors with a certificate recording their service to the community. It’s always seemed slightly wrong to me that those who give so much to our community walk away with not even so much as a piece of paper that confirms that yes, they were once part of something, and made a difference.

In ascending order of years served those leaving Angus Council and not seeking re-election are –

Cllr Martyn Geddes           5 years of service

Cllr Jim Houston                  5 years of service

Cllr Ewan Smith                  5 years of service

Cllr Mairi Evans MSP           10 years of service

Cllr David May                    10 years of service

Cllr Margaret Thomson      10 years of service

Cllr Paul Valentine             10 years of service

Cllr Iain Gaul                        14 years of service

Cllr Rob Murray                    22 years of service

My thanks, those of my colleagues, and of the people of Angus go to them all.



There’s an election….

Well – the end is nigh as the placards say. On 31 May my time at Angus Council comes to an end. But between now and late May – a little over a month – there is the small matter of the Scottish Local Government Election. 

For the next 4 or 5 weeks my diary is dominated by matters related to the 4th May elections. As I have said in previous blog, the public is almost universally unaware of the large and complex operation, hidden from view, which delivers democracy in Scotland and the UK. In Angus 100s of people and a huge amount of effort is involved in preparing the 5 minute exposure to the process that the voter experiences, either at home completing a postal vote or the polling station.

The election of a new council and the hand over to a new Chief Executive is truly a watershed for the organisation with new leadership in both the political and officer spaces. With the revised management structure agreed by the council coming into place over the next few weeks the council is moving forward again, and the new cohort of elected members (almost certainly including some not so new!) will complete the transition.
If you are assisting with the election on the 4th at a polling station or at the count in Arbroath on the 5th of May, a big thank you from me in my role as Returning Officer. We couldn’t do it without you.

 As for the result….well, we shall see. We do know that several serving councillors are not seeking re-election so there will be a number of new faces, and the power of the ballot box to deliver the unexpected is fresh in our minds just now.

Whatever the outcome for individuals on the 4th I take my hat off to all those who put their heads above the parapet in 2012 to seek election to the council, and who have worked hard to serve our community in the 5 years since.

A lightness of touch …..

I have heard the phrase “a lightness of touch” used twice in the last few days.

The first occasion was on BBC radio when someone was describing what had led her to include a particular piece of music in her 8 records on Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs. A musician with lightness of touch.

The second occasion was in a conversation about our current crop of national political leaders. The point being made by the person who was speaking was that too many of them seem unable to portray anything other than “I am always right, the other side is always wrong, and I am going to win because of that … and I can shout louder than you”.   Shades of the playground. There was, my friend said, no lightness of touch.

But what about leaders in public services? There are times when clear and bold direction is needed, but I do believe that a lightness of touch will often achieve the outcomes being aspired to. For lightness of touch in leadership to succeed it must be rooted in trust. The trust and confidence of the leader in those supporting his or her role.

The need that leaders sometimes exhibit to be to the fore all the time, to be the person centre stage, the one doing most of the talking, in control may actually have the effect of weakening an organisation rather than making it stronger.

A strong organisation is one populated by empowered people who get on and do a good job without micro management from the top in the shadow of the great leader. Discuss, as the exam papers say.

Change …. someone else’s job…?

Our Exec Team meeting this morning was given over, as it is once a month, to scrutinising the progress of our transformation programme. Lots of talk of “pipelines”, “idea summaries”, “benefits realisation” and the like.

In the course of the meeting there was also some conversation about change in general and how well the organisation is embracing it. The issue was the extent to which the business as usual focus of our managers and their teams is preventing them from applying the resources needed to deliver on the change agenda. Service redesign make big demands on any organisation’s resources, and we do have to maintain service delivery. That goes without saying. So what is the answer?

I fully accept the idea that change is the new normal. In public services the way we do what we do is, in a nutshell, unsustainable. Current service formats are by and large unaffordable into the future. We have to identify and implement delivery approaches which safeguard services and access to them in forms which are not only affordable but which also match the aspirations of individuals and communities. We have to accept that the expectations of service users in relation to public services are increasingly shaped by the 24/7 self-service availability of the all the other things we all do in our lives. At the council we just have to get with the programme….

Which brings me to the question of the extent to which a corporate transformation programme is a straightjacket constraining innovation in the organisation rather than supporting it.

My response to that is that it’s certainly not our intention to constraint and require conformity, but some things have to be corporate. And somethings are in fact better done at scale across the whole organisation. But in the new normal every team needs to get on and do what it can to innovate and improve. The questions we have to ask ourselves before we act at team level are “how will what I plan to do now impact on others? Does it complement the big picture or contradict it?” What I am saying is get on with it, but be mindful….