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Donna Hall: ‘You’ve got to go for it big style’

donna hall 003
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Donna Hall insists the chief executive’s role is solely to provide thought leadership and set the cultural tone, thereby inspiring change by motivating staff and residents

“It’s been the best eight years of my life so far.” So says Donna Hall of her stint at Wigan MBC, nearly all of it as the council’s chief executive, which comes to an end on 25 February.

Ms Hall shocked many in local government in October by announcing her impending departure when seemingly at the height of her powers. Through its ground-breaking Deal, the council has devised what is widely regarded as the most coherent rethink of service provision in response to austerity, while Ms Hall has been a driving force behind Greater Manchester’s devolution. 

staff deal

staff deal

Attendance reward scheme winners. Ms Hall says Wigan’s success is not down to her, the management team or politicians but the staff

But Ms Hall tells LGC she has not finished yet: “I love local government and I think I’m too young to completely hang up my boots – I’ve got a lot more to contribute.” While she was previously announced as the new chair of the New Local Government Network, Ms Hall says she is also seeking another position in local government or health: “I’m not in a mad rush and I want to make sure it’s the right thing I choose for the next role because it’s probably going to be the last one.”

So why is Wigan so well regarded? Ms Hall describes the authority as “completely financially sustainable”, freezing council tax for the sixth successive year, while seeing improvements in a range of metrics, including resident satisfaction in 2017, as The Deal orchestrated change.

“We thought, well, we’ve got a choice here – we can either curl up and die and blame the government or we can try and do something different,” says Ms Hall of The Deal’s creation. “We’ve taken nearly £160m out of our operating budgets through management of demand.”

The council has sought to empower residents to take control of their lives, allowing the town to withstand the scaling back of services. Ms Hall says The Deal, influenced by the work of the social entrepreneur Hilary Cottam, is centred around the “constant rebuilding of relationships with people so we don’t just process them as a unit of need”.

the deal in numbers

the deal in numbers

“It’s very much about residents feeling they’ve got a say over services and what happens in their local patch and building up local networks,” she says.

“Rather than having the production line mentality of the ’40s followed by the outsourcing privatisation market model of the ’80s and ’90s, we’re now moving into much more community-based, networked local solutions, trying to support people to be the best they can be, throwing away the clipboard and the processing aspect of what we used to do.”

Ms Hall is critical of how in many areas, “people [are] being passed around the system” by public services. “I’m sorry, that’s not why I came into public service,” she says, going on to criticise how councils were allowing the number of children taken into care to rise “exponentially”.

“I’ll be honest – I don’t think it’s because more children are in danger. It’s because of the inspection regime and the way we’re taught that if you don’t process them down this route you’ll get into trouble and get a bad Ofsted rating. That’s not helping anybody,” she says.

“[Wigan’s approach involves] sitting down with families and working out the root cause, which is often debt, it’s often mental health, it’s often drugs and alcohol, and trying to rebuild those families from the inside out, and seeing them as people, not just a tick in the box.”

It’s very much about residents feeling they’ve got a say over services and what happens in their local patch and building up local networks

The Deal “reconnects staff to their public service values”, says Ms Hall. “No one becomes a social worker because they want to take kids into care – they do it because they want to help people.”

Inevitably, not all staff warmed to the ‘Be Wigan Experience’. “Initially, we had folded arms, we had tumbleweed moments,” says Ms Hall. However, fortnightly sessions with staff seemed to break the ice, for most anyway.

“It only takes a couple of people in a team to drag it down in terms of morale, in terms of productivity and energy,” she says.

“What we’ve said is that if you don’t really buy into this working differently with communities philosophy, if it’s not for you and you want to reach for your clipboard, we’ll help you in a dignified way to exit the organisation.”

Ms Hall expresses disappointment that so few local areas have a similar “overarching philosophy that’s wraps around everything – businesses, schools, young people, social care”.

“You see that a lot of councils have separate initiatives for separate things but this is our plan of plans, what has held everything together,” she says.

“It’s easy to go down the piecemeal route, you don’t upset anybody, everyone’s still got a job, but nothing’s connected – there’s no overarching thought leadership.

“I think the role of the chief executive is to provide thought leadership and to set the cultural tone, they are the only two things. I see my [chief executive] colleagues who get involved in massive regeneration projects, who like to do that stuff, I just think that’s not the job of the chief executive, that’s the director of economy or regen.

“Our job is to really bring that strategic coherence to a place, to set the moral and cultural tone and to kind of fire people up. If you can’t inspire people as a chief executive, what else do you do? You don’t deliver any services, do you?”

While she insists that Wigan’s success is “not down to me, my management team or the politicians – it’s very much down to the staff”, it has also occurred in tandem with the rise of Greater Manchester as a whole. This has been latterly led by mayor Andy Burnham (Lab) who “didn’t worry about what powers he had, he just came up with things he felt people in Greater Manchester were passionate about like homelessness, ageing and cycling,” Ms Hall says.

Greater Manchester was right to extend the scope of its joint work, she insisted. “If we just stick with transport and economic development, we are missing the biggest opportunity local government and combined authorities have which is health, people, welfare reform – that’s where all of our money is going. If we don’t deal with that side of things then I don’t think there’s a point in having a combined authority.”

It’s very much about residents feeling they’ve got a say over services and what happens in their local patch and building up local networks

Asked if the conurbation’s boroughs were likely to wither away, as its combined authority prioritises the needs of neighbourhoods of 30-50,000 people, Ms Hall insists a single council for Greater Manchester would be “too big”. Her experience on the advisory panel for Lord Kerslake’s review into Birmingham City Council led her to believe the Midlands council “does need to be broken down”. And she has a similar harsh warning for the county council within whose boundaries her previous authority Chorley BC is located.

“I’ll get shot by Lancashire but I don’t care. It needs to be either two or three unitaries. It’s dysfunctional. It will never solve its budgetary problems because it’s not close enough to residents,” Ms Hall says.

“I think the reason the counties are struggling is they are too big and unaccountable to communities.”

She said counties were rooted in a “very top-down, a very paternalistic command and control structure that was 1940s-created”. Unitaries, in contrast, found it easy to “create this different dynamic by vesting power in communities”.

Overall, Ms Hall also has harsh words for local government more broadly: “I think we’ve gone backwards a bit.”

She named Gateshead MBC, Leeds City Council and “a couple of London boroughs” as being among the few to “push something forward that’s different”.

“You’ve got to really go for it big style because it’s not for the faint-hearted, this different way of working.”

In Wigan the baton will be passed to Ms Hall’s deputy Alison McKenzie-Folan who was selected after the council decided against opening up the recruitment process to external candidates.

Ms Hall expresses relief that this meant an incomer wouldn’t arrive saying, “’I don’t like that Deal, that was Donna’.”

“It isn’t Donna – The Deal is everybody, it’s in our DNA, it’s in all the politicians, it’s in our partners, it’s in the chief executive of the hospital, just as much as it is in our council. It’s in our frontline staff, in social care, it’s in our discharge team – it’s in everybody working together.”

Donna Hall: CV

Chief executive, Wigan MBC, 2012-2019

Previous roles:

Deputy chief executive, Wigan MBC

Chief executive, Chorley BC

Deputy chief executive, Blackburn with Darwen BC

Head of strategy, Salford City Council


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