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Susie Kemp: working in a cycle of continuous improvement

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Not every council chief executive will start a discussion about their place espousing how easy it is to leave their area. Yet for Susie Kemp at Swindon BC, the town’s transport links and connectivity are a source of pride. 

“One of the best parts of our town is that we are brilliantly placed in terms of our location. The connectivity we have here in Swindon is fantastic,” said said Ms Kemp.

“The work we’re doing along the Cambridge to Oxford corridor is going to be really important for Swindon as a place. We’ve been very pleased with the conversations we’ve been having with our neighbours all the way up to Cambridge.”

Swindon broke with the rest of its traditional county of Wiltshire in March by joining the sub-national transport body England’s Economic Heartland. Council leader David Renard (Con) said at the time that this was because the council was “committed to finding ways to continue improving our links with other successful areas of the UK”.

But according to Ms Kemp, Swindon is looking not just to the east, but to the west as well, placed as it is in the “gateway” between the two.

“Our relationship with the Wiltshire Local Enterprise Partnership is important,” Ms Kemp said, pointing to the growth fund money apportioned by the LEP to help develop the town’s connectivity.

“I’ve never worked in a council where there has been such support for the growth agenda from elected members. It is really positive and really good,” said Ms Kemp, who was previously Swindon’s corporate director of resources and growth before she was appointed the council’s permanent chief executive last month.

In terms of priorities, Ms Kemp pointed to Swindon’s place and her role in improving the council’s efficiency.

One example of the council’s efficiency drive was delivered on July 18 at the annual Paperless Awards, at which Swindon won the Management and Culture Project of the Year accolade for its work in going paperless as an organisation.

“We were printing 15 million pieces of paper and we’re going to get it down to 1 million,” Ms Kemp said.

The role of technology plays a large part in the chief executive’s vision for a future which is as effective as it possibly can be - “it helps us realise our priorities”, she said. Ultimately, however, technology remains a tool and not a panacea for Ms Kemp in her mission to transform the council into an efficient and effective place in which to work.

“The fact is that we’re getting a rise in demand like every other council and to meet that demand we need to use more technology,” she said. “I need to free up every spare penny of taxpayer money to be able to pay for anyone who’s vulnerable and needs our help. I need to make sure we don’t waste a single penny in running this organisation. I will need that penny to help someone who needs it.”

Within the council, Ms Kemp’s priorities lie primarily in “being efficient and effective” in what she termed “the Swindon programme” of efficiency savings.

Ms Kemp said: “We’ve got a very robust programme. It’s about reading the numbers and understanding what they’re telling you. I want to make sure we’ve got a sustainable organisation to realise those opportunities that we’ve got ahead of us.”

To this end Ms Kemp said that she welcomed the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy’s proposed resilience index, calling it a “really good move”.

“I need to see the detail and I haven’t studied it yet but I think the idea of it is a really good thing,” she said.

The experience of Northamptonshire CC was a “terrible” lesson for many in local government management, Ms Kemp said - and one that directors would have to learn from.

“I long for the day again when we’re in the cycle of continuous improvement. That culture of continually improving is really important for local government,” she said.

According to Ms Kemp, the “deciding factor” in her career came early on at the age of 21, when she started out by working with local property developer Roger Smee as he fought off a bid from media magnate Robert Maxwell for Reading Football Club.

“Working in the same arena as those two very dynamic men was a fantastic and defining moment for me,” she said, as it helped her understand the “games people play” in order to succeed at business.

Aged 25, she started a new recruitment company before stepping down to start a family.

Later, Ms Kemp became a councillor, ultimately serving as West Berkshire Council’s opposition Tory leader. In this role, Ms Kemp was part of the peer review team at Ealing LBC in 2005, where she realised her background in business could be put to better use.

“I realised then, on that review, that I wanted to be a council officer because I just realised: ‘I’m as good as they are’. So I stepped down as a councillor and became an officer, because I realised that that was what I wanted to do.”

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