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….


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?

What makes change work?

It’s all about change at the moment. New thinking, new models and more. The MJ tells me that the LGA in England are looking at setting up a new insurance mutual. My former employer in North Lincolnshire has established a trading company to sell its services. Aberdeen City Council has gone for a bond issue to fund investment in infrastructure. All big and positive changes. There are many more examples, and some from Angus too.

But this morning’s Leadership Forum at Angus Council (our top 100+ managers meeting) reinforced for me that fundamental to successful change in local government are some more simple things. I have in mind –

  • Acknowledging that the customer/citizen experience should be the principal driver of service re-shaping
  • Accepting that change can lead to good things – and usually does
  • Coming to terms with the fact that there are some things we just won’t do anymore
  • Knowing that while hard times may lead us to dig in and defend our bit in fact we need to do the opposite and work as one council supporting each other
  • Grasping that we don’t know as much about our business and its customers as we think we do, or as much as we should
  • Understanding that people can be frightened by change and what it means for them
  • Communicating better, and more often, to help alleviate those fears wherever we can