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.

A couple of things – a New Chief at Angus Council and Agile working….

Many congratulations to Margo Williamson on her appointment as the next Chief Executive of Angus Council. Margo, currently our Strategic Director for Children and Learning, will take over in the council’s 21st year as its fourth Chief Executive when I step down in May. And what a time to take charge. I suppose at any time in history those responsible for leading or managing almost anything will have proclaimed that it’s never been as challenging. This time for us in local government it may well be the case.

But there is good news for Angus. We have a brilliant team of people in management roles right across our organisation from the Exec team out to every part of the council, and there is a new Chief Executive coming into post at the end of May who over the last few years has shown the drive, passion and creativity any council planning to weather the storm will need. But no council is a one person show. Never was. Never will be.

I know that Margo is already engaging with the issues and the people to shape her plan for the next stage of our council’s development, and we will be working together on more than a few things over the next three months. Watch this space as they say. Colleagues inside the council should have a look at Margo’s new Blog on the intranet home page.

And now to Agile….as of last week I and the council’s Exec Support team are formally into the council’s Agile programme, although in reality we have been working in that way for quite some time. I was “well impressed” by our Agile protocols document published a short while back. It’s a readable, accessible guide to agile working. Why can’t all council communications be like that one? Well perhaps some just can’t, but many could be a lot more readable than they are. Like everyone else on the agile journey at first it all seems a bit odd, but we have the right tools and my own feeling is that productivity is up and stress is down. Being confident that it’s ok to work away from base or at home, and that work really is a thing we do and not a place we go, is the key that unlocks agile.

By the way, I have just been told that if Angus has had three Chiefs in its first 21 years that makes the average tenure 7 years – so far so good! – so when I go after 6 and a bit years that makes me a slightly below average Chief Exec….nice to have friends!

The digital world – doing good things well…


I read a short item on LinkedIn today that was essentially saying that big businesses are afraid of the digital world. I think there is something to think about in this as far as local authorities are concerned.

In the main councils are quite large and complex organisations. They are traditionally organised into service based silos, although in most councils this has changed a lot in the last ten years or so. And they are characterised by risk aversion, certainly in comparison to most private sector organisations, large or small.

Councils are, in principle by their nature, likely to be nervous about change, especially the kind of fundamental change in working practices or service shape and delivery that a move to digital might entail. Except of course councils aren’t autonomous beings. They are inanimate organisations but populated by human beings. So it’s the attitudes and aversions of each and every one of us that will determine whether our council, or at last our bit of if, is fearful of the digital world, or willing to embrace it.

I recall my first encounter with a computer in the 1970s revealed a room full of fridge/freezer sized machines with reels of tape circulating on the front like something from an early James Bond movie. The logo of ICL (remember them) was proudly attached to each one. You communicated with it by means of coding delivered through holes punched in cards. Technology and me…well, we’ve come on a bit since then. And so has the potential of things digital to do good things well.


Five evil giants …

Just now I am reading the first part of Alan Johnson’s biography “This Boy”. It tells the story of his upbringing in a deprived part of London in the 1950s and early 1960s. This is Alan Johnson MP, the former Labour Cabinet Minister, dubbed by some “the best Labour Prime minister we never had.” I have previously read part 2 about his years as a postie and thought I would like to read the story from the start.

It’s a truly moving account of a poverty stricken childhood in a family deserted by the father, with a mother afflicted by a terminal illness and the upbringing of a small boy the responsibility of his older sister. That may not sell it to you as bed time reading, but it is a great read. His district of London, now fashionable, was in the 50s typified by run down indeed unfit houses and flats with the ravages of the Blitz still apparent, even 10 or 15 years after the end of the war.
A reflection he offers more than once in the book is on the position he and his mother and sister would have been in had they been living in the decade before the welfare state came into being in the late 1940s, rather than in the decade after. The NHS in particular plays a central role in his story.
At one point the book makes reference to the Beveridge Report that gave rise to the NHS, the benefits system and so on. Published in 1944, before the end of the war, the report published under the name of William Beveridge, a Liberal politician and academic, established the modern welfare state. This was in response to the need to tackle what Beveridge called the five “giant evils”. Squalor, ignorance, want, idleness, and disease. Squalor relates to housing, ignorance to poor education, want to financial wellbeing and need, idleness to unemployment and disease to sickness and ill health.
All of these giants impacted on substantial sections of society in the UK, afflicting the lives of millions and well documented in Alan Johnson’s personal story.
This reference to Beveridge started me thinking about modern Britain and the extent to which we have managed to rid ourselves of the five giants through 60 years of endeavour.
In a country troubled by poor but expensive accommodation in short supply, with too many folk reliant on food banks and a changing benefits system, and in which the prospects of our young people seem limited, perhaps our world, although greatly improved in so many ways, has its own version of the post war challenges?