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Blair McPherson: A failing service tests if we are all in it together

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Serious failings and bad press can lead senior managers to micromanaging the service.

It is exhausting. But it works. Standards improve, and reputation is restored. Senior managers now feel able to take a cautious step back.

Then a new problem arises. A critical audit says senior managers have been distracted, are too inward-looking and lack a corporate – in other words, holistic – perspective. Meanwhile business planning is underdeveloped, performance management is too narrowly focused, and there is little forward-planning and a general lack of a strategy.

Having dug themselves out of one hole, members find themselves in another. They are frustrated and angry to find themselves in the media spotlight for the wrong reasons.

Last time they replaced the whole department’s senior managers. This time some cabinet members are pointing the finger at the chief executive. Others say the authority is being subject to unfair levels of scrutiny.

Is it a failure of leadership, or more complicated? If it is a leadership failure, it could be managerial or political. Likewise, members may have been misled by reassuring reports or might have been naive in not asking the right questions.

People will ask whether it was predictable that – given the seriousness of the practice failures – senior managers and politicians would try to micromanage the service, blurring roles and opening the organisation to criticism that it is failing to look at the bigger picture.

Auditors may also be charged as unreasonable in recognising that the service problems have been addressed while expressing concern about a lack of a corporate response and an absence of long-term planning. Is their view justified that if wider issues are not addressed the same problems will reoccur?

Likewise, is the additional scrutiny identifying problems common to most authorities in these uncertain times? And is the level of scrutiny distorting priorities and diverting officers and members’ attention?

These questions are largely rhetorical: in any event a local authority must restore confidence and rebuild its reputation. The first step is to recognise that when one part of the business is in serious trouble it has ramifications for the whole organisation. This means the whole organisation must work to get out of trouble. This requires both political and managerial leadership.

When one part of the business is in trouble the rest of the business is inclined to be thankful it’s not them. The attention of chief executive, the board, the media and the public will be elsewhere.

The typical response is to be sympathetic to colleagues but assume there will be little or no ramifications for other directorates. At any rate, they feel there is little they can do to help even if they had any responsibility. How wrong these views are!

There are questions about relationship between members and officers, which won’t be limited to one directorate or set of individuals. Other questions will look at roles and responsibilities, members’ priorities and budget decisions – but above all just how corporate the organisation is.

Being corporate means you’re all in it together and expected to help each other. Sadly this is not the first response of most members or managers. The old silo mentality persists, which is why you need political and managerial leadership.

Political leadership takes responsibility, is not defensive, and doesn’t allocate blame. It acknowledges failings and expresses confidence in the plan to address the issues. Leadership is shown by engaging with the local media and fronting meetings with the public to regain their confidence.

Managerial leadership is about motivating staff demoralised by persistent criticism, taking responsibility for implementing the plan agreed with members, retaining focus on the bigger picture, persuading members to allocate more resources, and bolstering members’ trust in officers’ ability to deliver and their willingness to give frank progress reports, even if the news is not always good.

Political leadership should extend to offering practical support to the service that’s struggling, including protecting the directorate from budget cuts, taking money from elsewhere in the organisation, funding some additional management posts, and lifting its recruitment freeze for selected posts.

At the same time other directorates can be expected to cut management posts. Capital investment may be reprioritised. And IT upgrades may be made at the expense of other directorates. That’s the reality of being in it together.

Blair McPherson, former director, Lancashire CC

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