Solace’s new chair talks to Ruth Keeling about her hopes for the future of the society and the wider local government family
More from: Killian aims to build up sector's capacity
It is a tough time for many professional societies, and this is true for Solace as much as it is for anyone else. Belt tightening means subscription costs are questioned, redundancies and downsizing means the membership pool is ever shrinking.
Solace has had to cope with its own downsizing, both in terms of membership levels and in personnel, and has seen considerable change in personnel over the last year – the departure of David Clark to head up Solace Enterprises was followed by the departure of his co-manager director successors Mike Bennett and Kathryn Rossiter.
Now the body has a new chairwoman, Essex CC chief executive Joanna Killian, following the decision of Derek Myers to stand down after four years. She admits that some people may have found the decision not to reappoint a single managing director as “curious”, but she insists it was the right one. “There is some good capacity within the organisation”, she says, and that will be supplemented by buying-in support when needed and by utilising the expertise of its members. “My goal is to build on the networks of skilled leaders that we have across the county and use their talent to help us to create a very strong vision and develop some clear priorities to think about and lobby on.”
Solace already has good networks in areas such as adult social care and children’s services, she says, but not so strong in areas such as economic growth and infrastructure – key policy areas in the current economic and fiscal situation. By using these networks to understand and explain the multiplicity of policy changes as well as reflect back to central government their impact in different places, Ms Killian believes Solace will provide value for money for members and keep them on board.
The drastically changing policy landscape – business rate retention, welfare reform, health reform to name just a few key issues – presents a real challenge for councils, especially smaller ones. “I do really worry about small councils trying to understand it and implement it,” she says. “That is not being pejorative – it has been necessary for them to strip out so much corporate and financial capacity.” Professional networks will be “really important”, she adds. “Solace can make sense of this for all councils.”
Ms Killian describes the fiscal situation as “bleak - and there’s every possibility it will get bleaker” and she is pessimistic about the likelihood of central government tackling the adult social care funding crisis, a key lobbying point for the LGA. “It’s just too difficult at this point in time,” she says. “There is no point in banging a drum about having no money. There is no money.” The sector’s response must be to mitigate the effect on services and help politicians decide what can’t be done anymore.
Financial cuts also place performance and governance at risk, she says, as councils decide to do away with performance officer roles or reporting systems. “It has been sad to see a number of authorities find themselves in difficulty with children’s services,” she says. Sector led improvement is the right move, she says, “but it needs teeth. There is really good evidence when things have gone wrong the LGA and the sector has stepped in and supported change – whether that works going forward? The jury is still out.”
She is more optimistic about community budgets, another key offer from within the sector and which it is hoped will play a major role in the next spending review. While she is “anxious” about how the place-particular work of the four pilots can be utilised nationally, she has high praise for the civil servants seconded to Essex and the way they have been selling the project to ministers and colleagues in Whitehall.
But even if they do not succeed in persuading ministers to take community budgets forward in the long term, it has been a success in Ms Killian’s eyes because of the joint working and joint aspirations it has identified within Essex. “Even if government does not agree to all our asks, we are still going to do it. It will take longer, but it is necessary,” she said.
Similarly, she will be a keen advocate of it to colleague outside of the pilot areas and in Solace’s wider network regardless of central government’s participation. “We have been lucky to be able to do it at pace and with government support, but people need to be trying this all over the place and make sure every penny goes further, because there are going to be fewer and fewer of those in future.”
The future of the chief executive
Despite Solace’s decision not to have a single managing director, Ms Killian is a fierce advocate of the chief executive function.
“There has been an awful lot of bashing of chief executives and their role,” she says.
“It is peculiar that in the City the debate is about proper corporate governance and separation of the role of chief executive and chairman.
“I just don’t see why it should be different in local government.”
A former shared chief executive with Brentwood BC, Ms Killian is lukewarm about joint posts: “I just don’t see it growing exponentially as a model” - and ice cold about the ‘no chief’ approach - “It is not the right one”.
The chief executive role is changing though, she says. Councils not only have to do “the basics” - bins, children’s services - with less cash, they also have to focus on generating economic growth and wealth in their communities.
To do so, she says they need to forget about the structures they’re working from and simply be “good partners”.