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The LGC Interview: Safeguarding children 'keeps me awake at night'

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Outgoing Worcestershire CC chief executive Clare Marchant talks to David Paine about her local government career

Clare Marchant Worcestershire

Clare Marchant Worcestershire

The outgoing chief executive of Worcestershire CC believes people in the top jobs in local government “underplay how tough” it is and has warned council leaders against viewing chiefs as “just highly paid administrators”.

Having started out as a management trainee with bakery firm Rank Hovis McDougall, Clare Marchant has had a varied career which has also seen her work for Deloitte Consulting and the Department of Health.

She joined Worcestershire in 2010 as head of change. Two years later Ms Marchant became assistant chief executive before gaining the top post in 2014.

“It’s really bloody tough job, and I think we underplay how tough a job it is,” she said. 

“Safeguarding children has absorbed more of my time and been more difficult to crack than anything in my entire career”

The biggest challenge “without a shadow of doubt” Ms Marchant has faced is safeguarding children. She said: “It is still the thing that keeps me awake at night.”

An Ofsted inspection last autumn rated Worcestershire CC inadequate and found the council had failed to protect vulnerable children in care and left them at risk of “significant harm”.

Ms Marchant said: “We went into that knowing we were not a good children’s social care service but [Ofsted’s report] was probably more disappointing than I envisaged.”

She said improving the service was “not a case of putting a bit more money into the system and changing a few managers”. She said bringing about the necessary cultural changes in the council’s workforce is “at least 10 years in the making”.

“In the seven years I have been here and three-plus years as chief executive, safeguarding children has absorbed more of my time and been more difficult to crack than anything I have done in my entire career,” Ms Marchant said.

It is at times of great difficulty that chief executives and senior managers need to seek help from their peers, she said. The week after the Ofsted judgement Ms Marchant spent a day with Nottinghamshire CC chief executive Antony May, “which was absolutely the right thing to do even though at the time I just wanted to bury my head under my desk”.

The type of candidates councils appoint as directors of children’s and adults’ services needs to change from beyond someone who is “professionally good”, said Ms Marchant. “It requires brilliant skills relating to stakeholders, excellent financial management, being able to lead a workforce, and being able enact change,” she said.

How political leadership teams perceive the top job in a council also “really matters”, particularly in relation to bringing through the next generation of talent, said Ms Marchant, who described herself as a “visible” and “approachable” leader of a workforce.

Very clear lines about what the political and managerial leadership teams do is important. “If you retreat into a head of paid service role who is there to tick the boxes I don’t think you will attract the right calibre of people. People at this level are not just highly paid administrators and if you treat them like that you’ll just turn off a load of people.”

Ms Marchant is leaving Worcestershire at the end of this month to head the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service.

While she is leaving the sector on her own terms, Ms Marchant is concerned about the number of high-profile sackings and suspensions in recent months.

“When their departure is not handled with particular dignity and respect, that does concern me,” she said. “People at chief executive level come in to do a bloody good job and they are usually 100% committed and they make massive sacrifices for what is a 24/7 job.”

A commission sponsored by the Fawcett Society and the Local Government Information Unit found sexism is rife in local government among elected members.

Having worked in manufacturing and consultancy Ms Marchant said she was “used to a bit of banter” but added: “There is the odd occasion [in local government] where the banter goes a bit too far.”

There is not “systemic sexism” in the sector though, she said.

While local authority leaders and their cabinets are “increasingly” taking on the role of shaping policy giving chief executives more time to implement plans, the sector does, however, “lack agility” and has a tendency to “cry wolf”.

“You need to pick your time when you say this is becoming so tough now that something fundamental needs to be done,” she said.

“In social care, and we saw this before the general election, something absolutely needs to be done about how we fund social care in this country. But in 2010 saying we couldn’t reform and make efficiencies wasn’t the right call because we’ve proved we can.”

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