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VIEW FROM THE TOP: FACING THE FUTURE

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Merton LBC may be without a chief executive, but it is still tackling issues head on, says Eleanor Kelly ...
Merton LBC may be without a chief executive, but it is still tackling issues head on, says Eleanor Kelly

In common with many other councils, Merton LBC is focused on being assessed as 'excellent' in 2006. It also faces the search for a new chief executive to ensure that outcome is delivered. But, unlike others, the council started on the systematic implementation of an ambitious programme of organisational and managerial change seven months before it started on the process of filling the vacant top slot.

I act as interim executive director and Richard Rawes, the director of environment and regeneration, fulfils the role of acting head of paid service.

This innovative approach, which blends internal and external skills and strengthened with a healthy dose of challenge, was the brainchild of the leader of the council. He felt that appointing an interim chief executive would signal a hiatus in the improvement programme on which the council had already embarked. Similarly, appointing a change manager would signal that someone from outside would be responsible for change and the organisation would lack the impetus it needed to own and drive improvement internally.

Seven months in, as the council starts its recruitment process, the signs are that the leader's faith in the organisation to rise to the challenge with a minimum of external intervention was well founded.

So what has been achieved? In reality much more than can be contained here. Crucially, excellence has been defined in a three-year business plan, in terms of service delivery and in organisational effectiveness. Targets have been reviewed and reporting levels streamlined. Cross-council projects are underway in five key areas, including a resources review to achieve a policy-led budget.

Best value, scrutiny and external audit have all been geared into a convergence of priorities. A top-level restructuring has focused on having a corporate body instead of a corporate centre, embedding the ownership of partnerships across the authority, taking a more holistic approach to regeneration and creating a new customer services department. Senior management is more visible and cohesive, with a sharper focus on decision making. There is a new approach to customer contact and internal and external communications are being improved. Persistent barriers to change are being tackled head on.

We believe the potential of the council is now being realised because our innovative partnership made it so clear things were being done differently. This was about teamwork, open and shared ways of working, tailored support and a conduit to best practice, not dependency.

The local government challenge has been described as two teams playing into one goal. Here, the councillors and officers are genuinely playing on the same field. The councillors have defined the goal of excellence and the officers are playing to win. They are now in the market for a captain of the officer side - he or she will inherit the team, the playing spaces and the transfer budget. Candidates can be assured the council is a much stronger promotion prospect than its comprehensive performance assessment league position of 'weak' would portray.

Eleanor Kelly is a director of Public Sector Consultants Ltd (see here), and is currently a part-time interim executive director for Merton LBC.

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