Few senior officers have had as unconventional a leadership journey as Essex CC’s new executive director for corporate development. Jason Kitcat was the leader of the first Green administration in England, leading Brighton & Hove City Council for three tumultuous years, before leaving party politics and arriving in Conservative Essex as an officer.
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However, in an interview with LGC, Mr Kitcat says that he and Essex are a natural fit. “I’ve followed my passions and have tried to land in places where I share their values,” he says.
Part of the reason Essex CC falls into this category is its enthusiasm for entrepreneurialism and technology. Mr Kitcat describes himself as “still part of an atypical demographic for local government”, with his technology and private sector background equipping him for a role which essentially boils down to questioning the status quo and working to modernise the council.
The position gives Mr Kitcat oversight of strategy, policy, communications, project management, insight, digitalisation and commercialism.
Mr Kitcat’s unusual journey started with a computer science degree and most recently saw him serve as head of policy and public affairs at the online accounting firm Crunch. His career has included developing private social networks for alumni organisations, helping to build the social networking site Netmums.com and a role with open data body, the Open Knowledge Foundation.
“I think it’s really positive that Essex are dipping beyond the pool,” Mr Kitcat tells LGC. “There’s a risk, particularly in difficult times, you select people who’ve done it before. While you might get security, you get the same solutions applied over and over again.”
Mr Kitcat’s status as “someone who’s slightly different in local government” first began in eight years as a councillor in Brighton. After his first-term he nearly stood down, considering it “too hard to have a family, be a councillor and have a decent job”, but he stood again and saw the Greens become the city’s largest party. When the first Green leader lost enthusiasm for the role, Cllr Kitcat faced a dilemma of whether to stay on with a tech organisation growing at over 60% a year or devote himself to politics.
“How many chances do you get to be a city leader? So I went for that and did that for three very interesting and tumultuous years, learning a huge amount,” he says.
“I came to realise that I loved local government but I didn’t enjoy the politics bit so much. I stood down, went cold turkey, left the party.”
Mr Kitcat had successes, including brokering an agreement on equal pay, securing a city deal – with neighbouring Tory councils – and increasing the use of public transport and cycling. However, with the council under no overall control and his administration unable to force through a referendum to increase council tax to invest in services, he was always left trying to balance party members’ radicalism with political reality. He stood down at the end of his second term.
“I came to realise that I loved local government but I didn’t enjoy the politics bit so much,” he says. “Or maybe I just got the politics out of my system. I stood down, went cold turkey, left the party.”
“One of my strengths and weaknesses as leader was pragmatism. It was a weakness in that some in my party felt that I wasn’t doctrinarian or ideological. But, actually, I was able to work across local government. Brighton is surrounded by a sea of blue councils but we got lots of stuff done and we won a city deal from a Conservative-Liberal Democrat government because we focused on achieving stuff.”
Mr Kitcat’s Green past did not deter Essex. He knew chief executive Gavin Jones, through work in the Key Cities organisation, and deputy leader Kevin Bentley, through Local Government Association peer support work.
“This opportunity came up last year and I had a conversation – would you take a crazy ex-politician like me? They said that doesn’t rule you out so I put my hat in the ring.”
Mr Kitcat says local government’s lower pay levels can deter some with a tech background. “If they can make 30 or 40% more working for the private sector in London or San Francisco, why wouldn’t they?” But he says scale is an equally important issue.
A job with Twitter sees you flying around the world, working for “hundreds of millions of users”, while a council job means you sit “in one place in a draughty old building”. He urges digital collaboration between councils. A social care app shared across local government is a “better use of resource” and the scale of its implementation makes it “more exciting for the developers involved”.
Just weeks into his new role, Mr Kitcat says he is concentrating on understanding Essex. Asked how the idealist who first stood for election would regard his current position, 10 years on, Mr Kitcat insists he sees no contradiction in values.
“I’m still following a similar path which is about trying to make change in the world that I believe is for the positive. This is another interesting step on an unpredictable journey.”