Senior council officers and political leaders are operating in a “pinball machine” and need to do more to reconnect with their communities, especially as the country comes to terms with its role in the world after leaving the European Union.
That is the view of Coventry City Council chief executive Martin Reeves, who has urged his senior management counterparts at other local authorities to do more to talk to each other and help formulate cohesive responses in a rapidly changing world.
In an interview with LGC Mr Reeves also spoke about his 18 months as interim chief executive of the West Midlands CA, a role he took on alongside his day job and which came to an end last month.
The former Bedfordshire CC chief executive and head of performance improvement at Westminster City Council said he had “learned more professionally and personally” during that period than at any other point in his career.
On a regular basis something pings in from left, pings in from right, or comes up from an area you’re not expecting
Combining the combined authority role with his permanent position at Coventry, where he has been chief since 2009, was the “most demanding and challenging” experience of his career.
“Looking back, it’s physically and mentally really tiring. You need a huge amount of resilience to do this.”
Mr Reeves led the combined authority since its inception in 2016 and describes it as a “very different beast” to a single council.
Overseeing a body made up of seven constituent councils and 10 non-constituent councils covering about four million people is “really tough … just physically getting around to make sure you spend time with colleagues”, said Mr Reeves. But investing that time is important.
He said: “To keep everyone feeling there is real added value about being part of a combined authority is really hard work and it will continue to be like that – to keep selling the benefits and binding everyone together and being honest with them.”
Spending more time with other chief executives, senior officers and politicians has in turn taught Mr Reeves to be “much more patient and understanding” of different people’s styles when it comes to making decisions.
“It’s not for everyone to have a style like mine – an anxious, Tigger-like, high-octane energy,” he said. “That’s not everyone’s cup of tea, particularly when they want time to reflect. It doesn’t make one style good or bad. One thing I am coming back to Coventry with is realising that in the context we’re operating in, which is really tough and will continue to be tough, you really need to bind people in in very different styles.”
The size of combined authority workforces varies from just 17 in Cambridgeshire to around 2,000 in Greater Manchester. The West Midlands directly employs about 400 people but Mr Reeves does not believe it should grow much bigger because the authority’s “programme of delivery and expectation, although high, peaks and troughs”.
While the work is “very intensive” Mr Reeves said “there are times where there is a slight lull in the programme” and having a large workforce would not provide “the flexible model you need”.
Mr Reeves referenced issues including cohesion – which three-quarters of West Midlands officers said had worsened in their area since the Brexit vote – and austerity as adding to the complexity of chiefs’ jobs.
“Our residents, the sector, key stakeholders, national and local politicians, and chief executives, we’re in this pinball machine where there is almost perpetual motion going on, ricochet effects everywhere,” Mr Reeves said. “On a regular basis something pings in from left, pings in from right, or comes up from an area you’re not expecting.
“As leaders we need to acknowledge the fact we’re in this really tough, perpetually changing, potentially collateral damage, ricochet effect environment and talk about it because it is really hard and challenging.
“But also, and this is really important, our communities, particularly with Brexit and everything else, are looking for meaning and connection. The big challenge for us is how we reconnect people and communities to each other. Leaders and local government have got a major role to play in that.”
Despite the challenges Mr Reeves, a past president of the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives & Senior Managers, insists being a chief executive is an “an incredible privilege”.
“It’s a big responsibility but incredibly exhilarating,” he said. “It is an amazing opportunity but we need more diversity and people from different backgrounds and perspectives to help us lead through.”