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The recognition in the Queen’s birthday honours list of Stella Manzie’s significant achievements, which has seen her become a dame for services to local government, is testament to someone who is not afraid of a challenge.
Her ability to take on and overcome complex challenges has marked her out as a formidable leader and one of local government’s elite troubleshooters.
Having already received an OBE after a stint as chief executive at West Berkshire Council Ms Manzie left in 2001 to drive improvement at Coventry City Council which, at the time of her departure in 2008, was rated as a three-star authority by the Audit Commission.
Before that point Ms Manzie’s achievements had already caught the eye of senior civil servants and she was appointed a non-executive director at the Treasury in 2005 and received a CBE in 2007.
Then between 2008-11 she served as the Scottish government’s director general for justice and communities before moving on to Barking & Dagenham LBC - an area not short of challenges.
While she was only there for 18 months, reportedly due to relations souring between her and its then leadership, former leader Liam Smith (Lab) was however full of praise for Ms Manzie. He said she had “been a highly visible and vigorous chief executive who has achieved a great deal since she joined us”.
That vigour all of her experience was needed for Ms Manzie’s next challenge.
In 2015, Rotherham MBC was on its knees after a damning report by Dame Louise Casey found it was not fit for purpose, following the child sexual abuse scandal in the town. The scale of the problems in Rotherham, with young lives damaged and some councillors still in denial, would have been daunting to many.
But the team of commissioners, led by Derek Myers and with Ms Manzie responsible for the day-to-day running of the council, devised an improvement plan which has paid some dividends. Many powers have since been handed back to the council and its children’s services were rated good by Ofsted earlier this year.
Then came Birmingham.
Last year the city council was in dire trouble, with its problems on the verge of looking intractable.
Its recent history had been one of strong figures arriving amid expectations of improvement only for hopes to be dashed amid some extremely challenging financial problems facing the council.
If the council’s deep and long-standing financial problems weren’t enough, with the council being subject to oversight by a government appointed improvement panel since late 2014, Ms Manzie faced a series of damaging and costly strikes by refuse workers and calls by unions for her to resign.
Agreement was eventually reached to end the dispute, with the council forced to compromise on planned savings.
In an interview with LGC in January, following the appointment of Southampton City Council chief executive Dawn Baxendale on a permanent basis, Ms Manzie admitted she would “be crazy if I don’t say there are things I might look at differently with the benefit of hindsight”.
But with an element of defiance Ms Manzie said the job in Birmingham was not any more or less difficult than any of her previous roles. She added Birmingham was now in a “good position moving forward”.
During a session at the Local Government Association’s annual conference, Ms Manzie provided a candid appraisal of the characteristics of councils that risk intervention.
She named corporate governance deficiency as a “signal that something might be going seriously wrong”, with a lack of clarity over decision-making typically giving rise to a culture of “blame and counter-blame”.
Ms Manzie also criticised “over-complacent officers” who often exhibited a “sense of inwardness – they’ve no idea of anything else that’s going on in local government”.
While clearly not one to mince her words, she also offered an insight into how strong leadership is not just about calling out those out who let standards slip and exposing difficult truths, but it also creates the conditions for people to flourish.
Reflecting on her time at troubled councils she said previously “hidden people” would rise up from within and “blossom in an environment of greater openness and leadership”.
There is no doubt Ms Manzie has regularly risen to the challenge.
By Jon Bunn, senior reporter