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Jo Miller: 'I won’t keep my trap shut about things that are wrong'

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The local government career of Jo Miller, a chief executive with a strong personal focus on social justice, started inauspiciously when she was appointed a trainee solicitor on Nottingham City Council without realising the full nature of the post.

“What I didn’t know was that it was [overseeing] bloody poll tax prosecutions! This was not quite what I had in mind really,” Ms Miller told LGC.

However, from this beginning dealing with the impact on the poor of Margaret Thatcher’s local tax began a career in British local government that culminated in becoming presdent of the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives & Senior Managers and arenas far from council officers’ traditional comfort zones – she arrived at her LGC interview fresh from appearing on Radio 4’s Women’s Hour.

Ms Miller had spells in her birth city at Liverpool City Council, the private sector, Wirral MBC, Knowsley MBC and Bradford City MDC before becoming deputy Local Government Association chief executive. This latter role paved the way for a four-month posting at Doncaster MBC in 2010 as government intervention began following a decade of scandal which involved the conviction of 21 councillors in the ‘Donnygate’ corruption trial and involving the deaths of seven children known to the authority.

Ms Miller said the council was perceived to have “smallpox – nobody would touch it”, and colleagues advised her against going there, even temporarily.

CV: Jo Miller

Chief executive, Hutt City Council

2019- Chief executive, Hutt City Council

2012-2019 Chief executive, Doncaster MBC

2009-2012 Deputy chief executive, Local Government Association

2007-09 Deputy chief executive Bradford City MDC

2004-07 Director of corporate and customer services, Knowsley MBC

“It was listed as the basket case, wasn’t it?” said Ms Miller. “At its heart it was an authority that had forgotten how to function. It didn’t have the basic rules of governance. It was very focused on itself and its internecine warfare. And it had forgotten that it was to serve the people.”

However, Ms Miller was always conscious of its “pockets of brilliance” and her belief that “the worst thing you can do in an organisation that’s struggling is to treat it like a leper”. She added: “I was determined that when the chief exec’s role came up, I was having it.”

“You have to put a lot of heavy tilling into that infertile ground before you can see a flower bloom,” she stated. The tilling began accompanied by commissioners but Ms Miller says it was “rocket boosted” when Ros Jones (Lab) was elected mayor in a year later in 2013. Once they had worked to “gain each other’s trust”, they became a “pretty formidable partnership”.

As well as “get all those basics right about governance and people and property and processes”, the duo “changed the role of the local authority to be the convener of the system”. This changed the emphasis from “what it can’t do or what it doesn’t yet have” to it being “a place that is relentlessly focused on making the best of what it has and what it can go for”.

During the transformation there were difficult times. Ms Miller remembers the year during which education secretary Michael Gove was deciding whether the council should have a children’s trust as being “very lonely”. She says the intervention had “hermetically sealed” the children’s services department, resulting in the wider sector not engaging with it.

Ms Miller said she devoted much energy to “telling people that I was going to be around for quite a while” when staff were used to a high manager turnover that enabled them to keep “their head down and carry on doing what they’ve always done”. The council overcame its “drawbridge mentality” to learn from the best, she said.

Doncaster’s struggle against adversity left it well-prepared for austerity. Ms Miller credited Ms Jones and members for taking “very difficult decisions very early on”. She insists the authority’s “best days are yet to come”, if it carries on with its “what matters is what works” ethos, rather than adopt an increasingly common “private good, public bad, or the other way round” mindset.

She said the council only does business with “good business”, working with firms that treated their workforce and the environment well. The proportion of its spend done locally has risen from 50% to 70%, resulting in an extra £33m being retained in the town.

Ms Miller also spoke about her plain-speaking style, indicating that she would focus on “listening and learning and building effective alliances to enable effective decision making”, rather than speaking out, on her arrival at Hutt City Council.

However, she continued: “It doesn’t work for me to keep my trap shut about things that are inherently wrong because I don’t believe that silence [encourages] people to buy in to what you’re trying to achieve.

“At the same time, not all diplomacy is conducted with the best megaphone. There are lots of sotto voce conversations on things. I may have been an inconvenient truth for some people sometimes, but I don’t apologise for it.”

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