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A tale of two councils

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Having now served for more than seven years as a chief executive, in two very different authorities, I have first-hand experience of peer challenges and weightier inspection regimes such as comprehensive performance assessments and comprehensive area assessments.

In my view, peer challenge adds real value to any authority irrespective of its performance or the tenure of its chief executive.

As a driver of improvement or as a routine health check, sector-led improvement ensures we continue to challenge ourselves. It can be especially useful to an incumbent chief executive because it helps drive out complacency or inertia.

A peer challenge team was invited in to both Blackburn with Darwen BC and Wirral MBC for similar reasons but in very different contexts.

In Blackburn with Darwen, where I was chief executive until the middle of last year, it was to provide challenge and focus in a high-performing authority.

In Wirral, where I went on to become chief executive, it was to help drive improvement in a council that had been criticised for failures in corporate governance.

Despite the differences, the two authorities benefited in the same ways: assurance and validation for the plans put in place to move forward; ‘expert’ advice from peers who had already walked a mile in our shoes; and clear direction on where further focus was needed.

In Wirral we faced major budget cuts and the need to improve corporate leadership and governance. There, our peer challenge also enabled us to celebrate our strengths in economic development opportunities and our loyal and committed workforce.

It acknowledged that while Wirral’s improvement strategy was high risk, the alternative was riskier. It also lifted our gaze from the immediate issues and set them further afield, pushing us to create a medium-term plan at the same time as addressing pressing problems.

This approach gave us the time and capacity to respond to the challenges that were on the horizon. The council has now adopted a three-year corporate plan linked to its financial strategy, which sets out a clear vision for our future and achievement priorities.

This, in turn, provides a solid foundation for long-term planning and continued improvement.

For Blackburn, the original peer challenge led to the additional advantage of providing a platform for my successor as chief executive to continue to develop the council’s reputation for improvement and innovation.

Peer challenge is relevant, appropriate and informative. It is specifically targeted to the needs of the organisation, and to a positive outcome that enables the organisation to move forward, while learning from the past, without becoming fixated on it.

Using a specialist team that understands your position avoids the formality - and cost - of a full audit or inspection. Staff, partners and the public feel inclined to contribute more candidly and enthusiastically to the process.

Local government is going through a challenging and testing time and its leaders need to steer a clear path through the choppy waters.

Peer challenge can be key to determining and guiding that course. To quote one of the recommendations for Wirral from our peer challenge team: “Hold your nerve, don’t lose your resolve. We think you are on the right path.”

Graham Burgess, chief executive, Wirral MBC

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