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Matt Prosser: Cultural change key to new unitary's success

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When the process to recruit chief executives for the two new shadow Dorset Councils began this summer, there was only one applicant who was prepared to publicly announce they were in the running for the geographically larger of the two authorities.

It is not hard to see why Matt Prosser, chief executive of the Dorset Councils Partnership, covering North Dorset and West Dorset DCs and Weymouth & Portland BC, was considered the best candidate for the role.

Through having led the tri-council partnership, Mr Prosser said this experience of bringing organisations together was seen as vitally relevant for the new unitary council.

“The cultural transformation of the organisation is going to be a significant shift, both in terms of how it thinks as an organisation corporately and also how it responds to the communities around it,” Mr Prosser said in an interview with LGC.

Part of this transformation process requires a soul-searching exercise for officers and members to define what it is that they love about the current organisation, as well as what they value and what they would like to lose. The process then seeks to turn these aspirations into reality.

Even though key decisions for the new unitary, which goes live in April, cannot be made until its new members are elected, Mr Prosser said that a lot of work has been going on behind the scenes to help prepare a “transformation roadmap” for the new council.

“I think the [members are] being genuinely quite sensitive to the future. The [current] members could say how they want to do it, but then a new bunch of members might come in who say ‘no, we are going to rip that up’.”

Mr Prosser admitted this lack of a concrete plan posed a “challenge” for the new council, and for him as a leader, but he maintained that the new council was not “starting with a blank sheet of paper” as the six existing councils will “in a large part be contributing towards the new” local authority.

Part of this new culture will naturally involve a “potential reduction in headcount” for council staff – there have been reports more than 200 jobs could go – which would create a “challenge” for the new organisation, he said.

“Local government is driven by its culture, by the people who work for it, but we’re talking about reducing costs and the largest cost of our architecture is our people. Saying that, there is going to be a challenge about what happens when we reduce headcount in an organisation,” he said.

The other more definite reduction lies in the total number of elected members across the county. There are currently 206 councillors across Dorset’s current two tiers of local government, which will be cut down to 82, Mr Prosser said.

This reduction raises obvious concerns over the potential diminishment of democracy, a factor which Mr Prosser said could be countered through an increased partnership with town and parish councils, in a process similar to that seen in Cornwall and Wiltshire.

Another major area of interest for Mr Prosser, also national lead for digital leadership at the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives & Senior Managers, lies in the increased use of data to improve decision-making.

“Technology is rapidly changing and we are learning all the time,” he said. “For example, how do we release our staff and create the capacity for them to go and support people in their community?”

According to Mr Prosser, there are currently between three and six different systems that overlap each other in various areas across the councils’ services. This means that one of his main challenges will lie in how to “unpick the wiring” of these organisations to create a “simpler, more agile” council that reduces costs and bureaucracy.

On this point, however, Mr Prosser maintained that reducing delivery costs must be seen only as a by-product of simplification and not an end result. The real end result must be seen as an improvement in the overall quality of the council’s services.

When asked if it was his technological understanding that won him his new job, Mr Prosser said the selection panel was more likely to have been interested in his experience of transforming the tri-council partnership.

“Whether you see yourself as a leader in a digital age or a digital leader it doesn’t make a huge amount of difference, because at the end of the day it comes down to the quality of leadership. Whether you’re tech savvy or not, if you’re a good quality leader then you will find the ways of making things happen,” he said.

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