This year’s Solace summit in Liverpool was the best that I have attended.
Why? Well, most importantly, so many of us were there: more than 300 chief executives and senior managers. While I love my peers with a passion that runs deep and wide, it was the presence of a large cohort of directors and other senior leaders that added an important richness.
For example, I chaired a session examining the link, or lack thereof, between inspection and improvement in children’s services and was delighted to find that the questions and observations were coming from unusual suspects, as well as the more familiar participants in such discussions. This is important and heart-warming. When was the last time your director for regeneration voluntarily attended a session that, by their own admission, was outside their comfort zone?
The summit was also significant because of an undercurrent of constructive tetchiness and frustration made possible by getting our mojo back. Let me explain. At last year’s event in York I consider that the society’s membership collectively regained its confidence; it was as though we were saying that we’re back; we will no longer be cowed into staying at home for fear of being asked why we’re not chained to our desks counting the pennies.
This year the vibe had moved on and we heard much talk about the need to exploit this renewal, and the rhetoric associated with it – bold and brassy though it undoubtedly is – and turn it into something tangible and edgy. In other words: less talk and more action.
The determination to do this manifested itself in several ways.
First, constitutionally, we agreed a set of reforms designed to strengthen the Solace impact and brand; all the former separate bits of the society are now homed under the Solace Group.
To give this change real strength and purpose, we consequently expanded the number of membership roles to ensure that we had a highly active, broad and balanced policy resource. Colleagues stepped up to the plate, meaning that we now have the strongest ever line-up of spokespeople covering all the critical areas of local government business. No longer will I have to be the society’s mainstay rent-a-gob.
Second, we took our values-based leadership proposition a step forward. We have been talking about the criticality of this approach for some time now, but the change in mood music was a signal that, on the back of more public sector controversies, we had to act. We decided that the society should, with other professional bodies, develop the equivalent of a code of conduct for its membership and, in doing so, lead a more focused, driven and sustained debate about how accountability should really manifest itself.
We know this isn’t easy but, just as we are no longer frightened (it was a faux fright if you ask me) of coming to our summit, so we are now no longer prepared to fudge the issue of producing an ethical code that will demonstrate publicly that we can hold ourselves to account for living our values.
There was much, much more. The programme hummed with outstanding input. There were medals, flash fiction and, probably the most important ingredient of all, intensive networking and idea exchanges left, right and centre.
The summit felt truly and fully animated and this can only be good for each of us individually; we are human and we need the benefits of re-invigoration from time to time. But it’s good for our councils and communities too because we bring back that added vim and vigour to our places and it is infectious.
I know one shouldn’t do this, but I have to cite a real example. I had a few words with Martin Smith, chief executive of Ealing LBC, at the end of the summit as we were preparing to leave and he commented that the summit had been a great success and that he would be going back to his council feeling energised.
So, I dare anyone to tell me that a couple of days in the brilliant city of Liverpool wasn’t a great use of our time. Solace’s leadership is alive and kicking, increasing its self-awareness, and that can only be a good thing.
Tempus rerum imperator.
Mark Rogers, chief executive, Birmingham City Council, and president, Solace