Saturday, October 22, 2011

Thoughts on the Suffolk Gene Pool

No, this isn't a piece on the natural qualities of Suffolk people!

This week, Suffolk County Council appointed a new Chief Executive, a lady called Deborah Cadman. I have never met her but have heard very good things about her and am sure she is highly capable. So what I am about to say now is not in any way about her personally (in the unlikely event that you'e reading this, Deborah).

What I found slightly depressing about the recruitment of Suffolk's new CEO was the narrow gene-pool from which the short list (and no-doubt the unpublished long-list) was drawn. Chief Exec of a District Council. An interim CEO. Head of a regional quango. Etc etc. What we had were a bunch of senior local government people all going for one of the few plum local government jobs currently around (most people are, strangely enough, sitting tight).

So what's wrong with that? Don't we need someone who understands how local authorities work, can deal with politicians etc? Well, yes, I guess so. But, far more than that we need people who can really manage change. When I say 'manage change' I don't mean the usual bullshit about 'doing things differently' that you hear at every bleedin' conference you go to these days. I am referring to people who have a proven track-record in adapting organisations from one set of external circumstanes to another.

Why so? Well, I don't probably need to say too much here but we are looking at flatlining economy and a public sector funded through debt. It has to have money taken out of it in ways that minimise social damage. Paradoxically public bodies need to invest in order to do this.

Of course this requires political leadership and few politicians, when push to it, are either fully cogniscent of the challenge or, if they are, much inclined to do anything. Therefore we need executives working alongside them that can help to move the terms of trade and give politicians the templates they need to take to the public come election time.

Now in Suffolk, we had one such executive in Andrea Hill. She had precisely the right ideas but lacked the other side of the change-management skill-set - namely the people and implementation skills to give proper momentum to necessary change. This, coupled with a misogynistic media witch-hunt did for her.

So this time, we have gone for what we know. A solid local government line up, nobody too flash and a solid track-record in the era just gone. What was missing, in my book was anyone with a massive track-record in the kind of change we're about to go into.

Of course, this would have meant going beyond the public sector. We would have been looking at people who had transformed companies or led turnarounds. For that's where we are now in the public sector - in need of turnaround. Most of the people leading local government today have not done this - they are incrementalists, most of whom only have experience of managing noughties-era growth.

I wish Deborah Cadman the very best in her job. As I said, she comes with an excellent reputation and I have no doubt she was the right choice from the shortlist. I am only sorry that we couldn't have made this choice from a wider range of people, including from other sectors which have undergone role-reinvention.