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Jo Miller’s NZ move: leaving Brexit and Whitehall hubris behind

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Commentary on the Doncaster MBC chief executive’s new role in New Zealand

So why is Jo Miller to swap serving as chief executive of an austerity-ravaged northern metropolitan council whose population is reeling from benefits cuts for the same position in a progressive and green country unaffected by Brexit?

In some respects the answer to this question is as apparent as Mrs Merton’s to Debbie McGee, “So, what first attracted you to the millionaire Paul Daniels?”

Nevertheless, there was widespread surprise on Wednesday when Ms Miller announced she was to swap Doncaster MBC for Hutt City Council (especially among any of her Yorkshire colleagues who initially misread “Hutt” for “Hull”).

Although it has been reported that Ms Miller previously applied for the Birmingham City Council chief executive role, @jomillerdonny, as she is known on Twitter, has been synonymous with her adopted South Yorkshire town. Her affinity for it runs deep.

When Ms Miller arrived in Doncaster its name was a byword for scandal but through her work with mayor Ros Jones (Lab) the council has been turned around.

Personally, as LGC editor, my first dealing with Ms Miller was when she (rightly) berated LGC for repeatedly using the prefix “troubled” before references to her council. With huge economic gains, educational advancements, the end of intervention and more stable politics, there is no doubt that Doncaster is troubled no more (other than by the austerity and central indifference which trouble all authorities).

“Doncaster has achieved much in my seven years here,” she said in a statement. “I am proud of the grit, hard work and selfless service that everyone in the borough demonstrates. That sense of shared endeavour, collaborative leadership and moral purpose with a desire to be the very best we can be for our place and people is very special.”

She describes her new role as starting “a new chapter in my public service career” and her enthusiasm of now working in a “country with a different set of challenges and opportunities”.

In a Hutt City Council press release Ms Miller confirms her whole family will emigrate. They “intend to live, work and educate our boys in Lower Hutt”.

The New Zealand council which will be her employer from July serves a population of just over 100,000 and covers a port area to the east of Wellington, housing many ambassadors who require proximity to New Zealand’s capital. It used to be the site of a car factory and has, like Doncaster, sought to reinvent itself for the post-industrial era, with its economy largely now being composed of SMEs.

Hutt City Council has 500 staff, as opposed to Doncaster’s 4,000. Although social care and children’s services are organised nationally, Hutt controls water.

Ms Miller will be working with another elected mayor, Ray Wallace (Ind), and just 12 councillors, 10 of whom are listed as Independent. There is one Green member and one councillor whose party affiliation is listed as “The Man with a Plan”, which is surely something to strike fear into any British chief executive.

One source familiar with New Zealand politics described it as a “country which wants local government”. Indeed, led by Labour PM Jacinda Ardern, it has the image of a progressive, forward-thinking, multicultural country. It is hard to believe that Ms Miller was not attracted by this.

Ms Miller has always been someone driven by whatever powers are at her disposal to change lives for the better. She may well find the conditions in which Hutt operates give her far greater ability to succeed.

This contrasts with the situation here, which she described in her final speech as president of the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives & Senior Mangers last year: “When you have policy implementation designed in a Whitehall Ivory Tower overflowing with hubris and an all pervasive centre knows best mentality, you end up with the unholy mess that is the design and implementation of universal credit.”

On the impact austerity and government inaction was having on senior officers, Ms Miller said in her speech: “It’s hard right now, I know it, you know it, we feel it. I don’t remember it being this difficult to be a public service leader, and I also know that we need brave, bold public service leaders more than ever.”

Many will be troubled (sorry Jo) that one of England’s most prominent chiefs sees the future as being more attractive elsewhere.

However, we will leave the final word for her: “Whilst I will always be a daughter of Liverpool, Doncaster and Yorkshire are now a part of me and I wish both the very best for the future, which I know is an exciting one.”

Nick Golding, editor, LGC

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