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Deborah Cadman: Leadership means securing the best for our places

Deborah Cadman
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The first half of 2017 has shown little let up from the unforeseen, dramatic and often tragic events that marked 2016.

The unexpected election and the even less expected result in themselves would normally be sufficient to keep those of us leading public services occupied, particularly when that national political uncertainty is magnified by the historic start of the negotiations for the UK to leave the EU.

However, more affecting are the shocking and tragic events that have occurred since the election announcement in April: the Manchester arena, London Bridge and Finsbury Park Mosque terror attacks are horrific reminders of the fragility of life. These vicious and cowardly attacks strike at the heart of our society’s values.

The reaction to these events also provide examples of incredible compassion as people are drawn together by the positives that unite not prejudices that divide.

The Grenfell Tower tragedy is an equally distressing loss of life, but one where grief has turned into anger directed at the establishment over a perceived lack of respect for the community. There is much more investigation, information and heartbreak to unfold with this; however, there have been failings and the authorities have questions to answer.

As citizens, we all have a responsibility to be positive members of our society; however, the public sector, and particularly those of us at its leadership, have additional duties to enable safe, prosperous, and thriving communities. This means that our leadership roles are changing from simply leading an organisation to being more place-focused. Understanding the strengths and needs of our local places is a powerful way of securing more locally appropriate approaches and sustainable solutions.

As leaders, this presents us with complex challenges. It requires influencing, beyond our own organisations, a broad range of stakeholders including local people, partners, councillors and staff, and working with, not doing to, our communities.

To do this, we will need to clear on the purpose of what we do: how it will improve outcomes for local people and places. Safe and thriving communities are part of the equation; however, a thriving economy completes it. That is why encouraging inclusive growth, which benefits as many as possible, and not just growth for its own sake is important. It is also why a place-based focus is essential to ensure local relevance.

The ineffectiveness of historic, centralised, top-down approaches was an inspiration for the devolution movement that has now created metro-mayors and more locally autonomous decision making. It has created a shift in governance for England with greater opportunities for meaningful local control. Consequently, whether in an area with a devo-deal and mayor or not, as public sector leaders we need to capitalise on the opportunity this shift provides for greater local autonomy. This is not a power-grab, but an attempt to enable locally grounded approaches that will deliver thriving economies, safe communities and better outcomes for local people.

Whilst public spending constraints will remain challenging, this approach facilitates a more asset-based approach focused on maximising local strengths such as skills, businesses and the environment. This will be more important than ever with the government tackling the gargantuan task of leaving the EU.

Our task is complex and will require more of the step-changes we’ve engendered to create 21st century public services. Collaborative leadership has become increasingly important across public services and that blurring of organisational boundaries will continue. We also need to be ready to challenge existing paradigms, delivery models and expectations. Technology is opening a realm of new possibilities. Social media, the internet of things and wearable tech are already part of daily life. The scale and pace of technological change offers incredible opportunities but also an unprecedented level of risk.

That our environment is changing is without doubt. The opportunities and challenges for public services along with the way is that they respond will continue to evolve and transform. However, what 2017 has already and often painfully taught us is that the need for public services to focus on securing best for local people and places.

Deborah Cadman, outgoing chief executive, Suffolk CC and future chief executive, West Midlands Combined Authority

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