Tuesday, April 26, 2011

New Broom, New Strategic Direction - What next for Suffolk County Council

Bit of a local politics blog this. But don't switch off, it's interesting! Suffolk County Council has been in the news all year for its big plan to divest all local services to social enterprise, private businesses and voluntary organisations. Under its radical CEO, Andrea Hill, Suffolk was going to be the first English Council to respond to financial constraints not with simple cutbacks, but with Organisational Transformation.

I use capitals here deliberately because this was as much part of the plan as outsourcing services. Under this analysis, the Council's whole modus operandi was outdated and needed to be changed quickly - and by force if necessary.

This was all going fine until a series of events this year which, cumulatively, led to the New Strategic Direction being, for all intents and purposes, junked. Firstly, the CEO herself was caught in some unfortunate and largely unfair media spotlight. Secondly, the Council decided, in its wisdom, to intro the policy by cutting road crossing patrols for kids. And thirdly there was a series of resigniations: the Leader of the Council, the Director of Resources, the Monitoring Officer. Following this, there was the tragic, potentially related, suicide of a senior manager in the Council.

Then an election. Odds-on favourite, and close ally of the Leader, was, to everyone's surprise easily defeated by the backbench Chairman of Scrutiny on a promise to review the new direction and to tend to organisational morale said to have hit rock bottom. His first act on getting elected was to restore crossing patrols and to order an external inquiry into the management culture of the organisation. The new leader, possibly wisely, sees stability and a pause for reflection, as the most urgent current need.

As a Lib Dem Member of the Council, I am supposed to welcome all of this. And I certainly do welcome the pause for reflection and the assertion of political control after a difficult period in which leadership seemed to disappear from view. But I wonder whether, despite the confrontational communication of the New Strategic Direction, it was actually, the right overall policy for the Council long-term. By placing services outside the Council it gave space for new providers and a diversity of supply which is still sorely lacking. If the outcome of all this is to stop this movement to new providers, I think we will have lost an opportunity.

What can be learned from all this? On reflection, this is a big lesson to anyone seeking to bring in fundamental change. While alignment between the top team is essential, this isn't enough. The middle of the organisation has to be brought on board. While the New Strategic Direction enjoyed some support, both from Councillors and Officers, this was always a minority. Culturally, it always felt like a very tough line - get on board or miss the boat. It felt very confrontational and unyielding.

This is where leadership gets tricky. Part of being a strong leader is being that figure of granite and conviction. People tend to like this. But another element of leadership is getting alongside people, including opponents, acknowledging feelings and fears, and seeking to bring them with you. My hunch is that not enough of this went on, leaving a large constituency of the alienated.
There will always be detractors, but if this becomes the majority, you can find yourself in quicksand should circumstances change, as they just have in Suffolk. There is almost no residual support for a strategy a lot of people felt didn't hadn't embraced them. Leadership, if it is about getting people to follow you, is a test that some leaders, particularly those with a tough message, struggle to pass.

I really do feel for anyone trying to lead change in a crisis. It ain't easy and the medicine is always pretty awful. There is also a reality that institutional self-interest has to be tackled - and that this hasn't been tackled in the past. You see Lansley struggling now, as the leaders of Suffolk did, with ideas which, essentially, took change too far too fast for many of the key stakeholders - including the public - to deal with.

Interestingly, my hunch is that, once the dust settles the new leadership will embark on a path that isn't much different from the New Strategic Direction set out by Andrea Hill. It will have a different name. It will be slower, more consultative and done with less pzazz. But the essentials of it - divestment of council services, the build-up of community capability and a new role for the council as commissioner rather than provider will, over time, prevail.


Rob Fountain said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Rob Fountain said...

Yeah, my experience is that Councils are very definitely 'oil tankers' - large, cumbersome and essentially one-directional. Takes a long time to turn them.... try and do some jet-ski style "donut" U-turn and you'll get more than a little wet. The hull will creak, gravity will rub its hands and the only way out is a sharp wrenching of the wheel back in the original direction of travel.

Whether we want to aim for councils that are more like speedboats (or a colouful flotilla, lead by a brave and robust tug?) or will always favour the stability of scale... well that's a debate for landlubbers to thrash out.

Over and out. x

Craig Dearden-Phillips said...

Rob, you make a good point - possibly THE point. Is it really possible to do Year Zero turnaround when you have democracy and no real money to do it with. Perhaps, and it weighs heavy to say this, we can't really do localism and all the change we want very quickly. If this sounds defeatist it probably is. I can't really see where next for Suffolk - indeed for LG in general.