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Gavin Jones: Social reform demands new forms of leadership

Gavin Jones
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According to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, over the next five years, the UK population will grow by 3%, but the over-65 population will grow three times as fast and the number of over-85s will increase by a staggering 15%.

This will result in annual cost increases to the NHS of £109bn, in today’s terms, by 2066.

The IFS says we face a choice: increase the size of the state; reduce spending on health, care or pensions; or reduce spending elsewhere. None of these choices is great.

Social reform on this scale is a process and in such circumstances, the job of leadership is not to come up with the right answers but the right questions. The role of leaders is to enable the conversation society must have about these challenges, in a constructive and responsible way, so the compromises we must make strengthen our democracy.

Because the challenges are so great and the pace of change is so fast, our existing models of leadership can only ever be provisional. We must be open to an approach that places more emphasis than before on collaboration, openness and transparency; these are the forces that shape our social, economic and political landscape.

New models of leadership must get to grips with new forms of power. If old power works like a currency and is jealously guarded by a few, the new power of networks operates like a current; it is open and peer-driven. As Heiman and Timms say in Understanding New Power: “The goal with new power is not to hoard but to channel it.” Leadership’s task is to nurture these new forces for the greater good.

In Essex, we are making a deeper commitment to collaboration inside and outside the council. Power exists as much in networks as in hierarchies, and the system, not the organisation, is our most important operating unit.

We are putting the potential of digital transformation at the centre of the council. This might mean our traditional ways of leading are no longer appropriate when our role is not to make decisions for people but to provide them with choices.

We are exploring the power of collective intelligence to add value to local democracy and to enable us to benefit from the wisdom of crowds. There is no monopoly of good ideas within County Hall. We are addressing the organisational culture to encourage a greater appetite for innovation; as leaders, part of our role is to unleash employees’ creativity.

Politicians talk about ‘cathedral projects’: long-term visionary endeavours that cannot be completed in a political cycle, but that stand as testament to what society can achieve. Addressing the impacts of our ageing society might be the cathedral project of our times. It demands leadership that puts securing our communities’ long-term wellbeing ahead of other short-term pressures.

Gavin Jones, chief executive, Essex CC

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