Only a few weeks ago I was asked by the recent alumni of the Local Government Association’s national graduate development programme to reflect on my experiences in local government.
This provided me with a good reason to pause and look back. I had the scary realisation that it’s more than 25 years since I took my first role leading an organisation; the first of six as either managing director or chief executive in quangos, councils and their arm’s-length bodies and now, the LGA.
The last 17 years of my career, working in, and now for local government, have been the best by a country mile. Supporting democratically elected politicians in their role as community leaders has been ever-rewarding. This is for the simple reason that when something needs doing, councillors make it happen.
This brings me to the first piece of advice I shared with the graduates: as a local government officer, never forget councillors make policy and set budgets. We’re their advisers and we must always offer the best possible advice, without fear or favour. Councillors welcome balanced advice with clear options. It’s their right to ignore the advice.
If they take a different route to that recommended, officers must accept their decision and get on with implementation, with just two exceptions: if the decision is illegal, or jars with officers’ moral or ethical framework. The former must be called out. The latter means it’s perhaps time to polish the CV.
Secondly, working in councils has added political intrigue compared to central government. Civil servants serve the government of the day. Local government officers work for all councillors across the whole political spectrum. Even in councils with sizeable one-party majorities it’s important to remember that all councillors have a significant contribution to make. Elections regularly confound pundits’ predictions. Any council officer who has forgotten to live by the ‘whole council’ doctrine may find changes in political control uncomfortable.
Thirdly, politicians are elected community leaders. The best politicians not only take the applause for great decisions, but will also appear on national and local news programmes when things don’t go to plan. If officers want to be the stars of local radio or Laura Kuenssberg’s go-to for comment, working as a council staffer might not be the best route. That’s not to say council officers need to be anonymous. Many council chiefs make remarkably effective use of social media and feature regularly in local government-focused media like LGC but it’s important to remember elected politicians are the principals in the communities we serve.
These three points might seem obvious but they’re worth repeating. We’ve seen too many colleagues leave their roles because of minor to major indiscretions against these points. The fourth reason for departure is failing to have a steel-like grip on operational and financial performance. One of my former leaders, who had a strong business background, often said “follow the money”, and they were right. We can get distracted by things we find personally interesting and ignore the decisions committing very large percentages of council resources.
Next on my list is the importance of stepping towards difficult issues. Senior leaders who stand still or step away from the tough issues will very quickly relinquish their right to lead. I never thought I’d quote a Billy Ocean lyric but “when the going gets tough, the tough get going”. This has been illustrated perfectly by the responses of councils in Westminster, Manchester, Southwark and Islington to recent outrageous attacks on our communities.
Although I was able to cover much more with the graduates, this column has space for just a handful of points about personal resilience and legacy. So, I leave you with this. Being clear about the important things, and not just the urgent, is key to keeping perspective and balance in life. A key part of the balance is looking after our own health and wellbeing.
When I look back through the years, I often think of the huge impact Claire Clancy – Claire Coates as she was then – had on my career in my early twenties. Claire, who was then leading a Training and Enterprise Council in Mid Wales, nurtured and developed her team brilliantly. She knew we could achieve things way beyond our self-belief. She supported us on that journey. With nowhere near Claire’s effectiveness, I’ve looked to repay her investment in me with my own colleagues. Twenty seven years later I’m still grateful to her. In terms of your own legacy, three decades from now, will today’s colleagues be as grateful to you as I am to Claire?
Mark Lloyd, chief executive, Local Government Association