Friday, April 29, 2011

On Suffolk's Situation

To readers outside Suffolk, this is about the CEO of Suffolk County Council. I am writing about her because she has been at the centre of Suffolk County Council's direction in recent years and has, almost from day one, been a controversial figure.

It is fashionable, especially if you're not a Conservative - and possibly now if you are - to publicly denigrate Andrea Hill. Everything she says, does, believes and wears tend to be conflated into a big soup of hostility, to such an extent that some Councillors (who should have known better) have described her as a 'hate figure' on the streets of Suffolk.

The truth, of course, when you separate things out is more more complex. So let's look at that soup - and its ingredients. First let's deal with the simple stuff. There is, without a shred of doubt large slices of misogyny and snobbishness in all of this. I can' honestly imagine a man in her position, earning what she does, getting as much stick. There are council CEOs all over the UK who get more who none of us have ever heard. Then there's the poorly concealed irritation that a youngish woman from an ordinary Essex background can get a job normally reserved for the grey-headed, Children - normally sons - of the Revolution.

Other ingredients are more subtle and complex, concerning her personality. Again we can break this down into character and style. Lined up on one side I can mentally list countless people I know who have worked with her and found her to be an inspirational manager. She is viewed by many as brave, thoughtful, principled and smart. My own experience of her is really positive. She strikes me, as an experienced CEO, as someone who clearly 'gets it' in her analysis of public services. Furthermore, I actually like her. In person, she isn't the hard-nose people make her out to be. While resilient and strong, I know that, like any decent human being, she really struggles with the negative attention that she receives. Who wouldn't?

Part of Andrea Hill's problems have been the fault of politicians. She, not the Leader, was the public face of the Council following her selection as CEO in 2007/8. Some put this down to her desire for attention. While I am sure there is some small truth in this, certainly early on, I think overall she has been put in an unfair position - the public face of the Council but unable, like a politician, to respond and engage as only the Leader can. The last leader, Cllr Jeremy Pembroke, was a good man, but treated the role as a chairman-of-the-board role. Which, in good times, worked OK - just. However, the Council has, since 2009, needed much more visible and clear political leadership. The absence of this has put Andrea Hill who, while a talented manager is no politician - into the frame more than is normal or right for a CEO.

But my purpose here isn't to lionise Andrea Hill. It is to say that the truth is more complicated than it seems. I do have my criticisms of her, made in other blogs. I feel her public style has been too confrontational, too dismissive at times. I don't think she has managed to get enough support for her more radical policies beyond the very top group in the Council. She has possibly underestimated the potential for rapid improvement in public sector organisations run by politicians. And while her 'political management' skills in terms of dealing with the Leadership are supreme, her ability to respond to the public mood isn't strong. But, after all, she is not a politician, so this isn't actually a proper criticism.

What next for Andrea Hill? Although, like us all, she has her faults, I have felt that she had the right idea and was courageous enough to speak frankly about the need for change. Compared to many of the non-entitities you see as CEOs of councils, she is intellectually and in vision-terms, plainly superior. Until recently, it seemed that she would lead a programme of change which would be historic in UK local government terms. As such , she had my quiet support. Since coming into local government in 2009, I couldn't believe how poor most services were and how a deep municipalism seemed to conspire against a public desperate for better services. Andrea Hill understands that and came up with a plan to make that better.

What recent events have shown is, at best, that she lacked the political skill to get the big changes through and at worst, depressingly, that there is in fact no appetite for radical change in local government and that she made a big misjudgment in trying to be so radical. Neither , in my view, were they true, are not something to incite the kind of oppobrium she has received. What we probably have here is an ambitious CEO who may have over-reached herself. Not a firing offence in my book.

What will happen now remains to be seen. A regime which has washed its hands publicly of her strategy has, in effect, disowned her, and if I were her I would be considering where else my talents might be used. I would be surprised if she wasn't, given that the little political cover she did have has just been removed. Without explicit support from the leadership, I think her position is tenuous. As a Lib Dem politician, I shouldn't really say this, but I did actually think she was, while she, had top level backing, a good thing, overall, despite the negatives.

I hope in writing this I have separated the soup of criticism into its separate elements and shed a little light on what I believe is a complicated situation.


Peter Savage said...

When did it become the Chief Execs role to come up with policies and convince politicians to support them. All of us voting next Thursday naively thought it was the other way around

Craig Dearden-Phillips said...

Peter, Few local politicians come up with strategy and policies without significant officer support. They find the officers they believe can help them in their overall vision. Most local pols don't know enough about enough to come up with policy on their own, I find. Occasionally it happens but exception not rule.

Edward Harkins said...

Craig it’s an important point you made about politicians’ routine dependence on their council’s officers to advise on policy – and at times to even initiate policy making.

I would extend this to the national political level where, in my experience, there have been Ministers with the same lack of policy competence that you attribute to local authority councillors.

In Scotland we have had a whole trainload of civil servants in the devolved administration who have been advising on policy on, for example, what passed for community empowerment. My judgement is that at times those civil servants have possibly even driven or dominated some policy development. I think this is at least part of the reason for the dislocation in policy on community empowerment and why community empowerment has failed to work up any significant traction in Scotland – and may now be a bit of a dead letter.

The civil servants have come and gone through the revolving door and, meantime, notions of transparency and accountability in parts of the policy-making process seem to have become very muddy and unclear indeed.

It seems axiomatic that this situation applies also at the local authority level, but I do not sense that these are matters that the public-at-large have much comprehension of.