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David Pearson: 'Success builds momentum for change'

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While David Pearson’s career has been characterised by permanence having spent his entire career in various jobs at Nottinghamshire CC, it has been defined by change.

The county’s deputy chief executive and corporate director, adult social care, health and public protection is retiring in January after 36 years in which he has frequently taken the lead in transformation. He was most recently involved in the development of the Nottingham and Nottinghamshire integrated care system, one of the most advanced examples of collaborative working between the NHS, social care and beyond to improve lives.

Mr Pearson tells LGC he traces his desire to improve the lives of disadvantaged people back to when his mother told him the sad story of how his grandmother spent 30 years of her life in a psychiatric institution.

After a year spent as a community service volunteer working with young offenders in Northamptonshire, he then became a child care social worker based in one of Nottingham’s poorest areas.

His knack for multi-agency working first came to the fore when setting up employment projects in Bullwell, including a welfare rights centre which is still in existence.

After a brief stint in child protection, he became a senior social worker in one of the country’s first community mental health teams.

“I was very young to become a team manager and only three years post-qualified,” Mr Pearson tells LGC. “It was a very exciting opportunity because all the mental health services were based around the hospital so we were moving in multi-disciplinary, multi-agency work with psychiatrists, community psychiatric nurses, psychologists, social workers and occupational therapists.”

Mr Pearson later moved into “change management” and became the project manager for the reorganisation of social services when Nottingham City Council was established in 1998. He then oversaw the closure of 15 residential care homes and the building of five new ones, a task he describes as “enormous” due to its political sensitivity and impact of people’s lives.

“It was at the point I thought I could probably operate at the more senior level and I was encouraged to do so by another director and senior managers,” he says.

He admits to later being surprised to be appointed director of social services and, after taking the advice from a book on leadership, his first act was to phone his mum.

“[She] was very proud of me but didn’t know what I was doing,” he says.

Mr Pearson then opted to take on the adult social care and health brief when the Children Act 2004 introduced the requirement for a dedicated director of children’s services.

Reflecting on how local government has changed over the last three decades, Mr Pearson says the “extraordinary” increase in demand and needs, particularly in adult social care, has coincided with councils becoming much more focused in their approaches. But he is also struck by what can now be achieved.

“I had the realisation when I started as a social worker that the life expectancy for someone with downs syndrome was 23, which was the age I was when I stepped into Nottinghamshire social services. I am 60 in January and the life expectancy is now 60. It is an incredible feat of technology and innovation that enables us to keep people alive,” says Mr Pearson.

While much has changed, Mr Pearson says certain principles of effective leadership have remained constant.

He says: “Trying to balance the being positive in leadership roles about what we can achieve and the value of what we do while being authentic about the challenges is something that lasts over time. Relationships are key. We can’t do anything without trust, thinking across agencies and walking in each other’s shoes.”

As president of the Association of Directors of Adult Social Services in 2014-15 and a member of the advisory panel for the forthcoming social care green paper, Mr Pearson has also worked on a national level with ministers and civil servants. But he says the same approach to relationships applies.

“People want to understand the evidence, but they also want to understand the stories because that captures the imagination and that works with the public as well,” he says. You have got to take the time to understand other people’s perspective. That is what builds trust.

“The boost of success builds momentum for change. If you have got examples of things we have done together, learned together and achieved together, and it has made a difference to the public, you can ask how much more can we do?”

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