We are in a period of great challenge for local government but look between the lines and there are opportunities.
The post-election climate is uncertain. Brexit negotiations are underway; the mood music around austerity is changing; and a minority government will likely rule with a pared-back legislative agenda and a weakened central mandate. There will be no less pressure for local leaders to deliver but they will need to be more proactive in areas such as growth and public service reform.
Collaboration across sector, silo and departmental lines will be vital. In areas like health and social care there is a critical need to create relationships that can sustain a different way of working. This is the essence of system leadership. As we struggle with the inevitable logjams around funding and market reorganisation, chief executives should ask: are we doing enough to model our positive vision for place-based health?
Councils have a unique role in connecting with place. Recent tragic events in Manchester and London illustrate the need to rebuild trust between communities and institutions. This is leadership aligned strongly to purpose. None of it happens by accident.
The need for places to drive new models of growth will persist. The government has made commitments around the relationship between industrial strategy and place but none of this will mean much unless we can create narratives for change that have a chance of sticking and generating economically and socially productive investment. Good chief executives will go beyond the ‘art of the deal’ to bring partners together as part of collaborative growth and human capital strategies.
We should judge our success by the extent to which marginalized people feel they have a stake in change. This throws up challenges: do we know who they are? Do we have enough insight about them? Are we prepared to listen and redesign services in ways that give them a chance to thrive? There is risk in innovating the way we work but the risk of inertia is far greater.
This brings us back to leadership. This year we piloted the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives & Senior Managers Ignite programme. It will be running again in 2017-18 in partnership with the Local Government Association and the Department for Communities & Local Government. It is a space for chief executives to work on these issues with peers, and to reflect on the perspectives of others outside the sector in a safe and structured environment. Building on this learning and reflection is critical and working on our skills and relationships helps us understand how to make progress on local ‘wicked issues’. If we aren’t prepared to learn and change, the transformations we design will fail.
Deborah Cadman, chief executive, West Midlands Combined Authority and Henry Kippin, chief executive, Collaborate