Leadership is critical to the sustainability of local government

Cultural and behavioural change has been on the local government agenda for at least as long as my time spent working in the sector, which is now over twenty years.

Something has changed in the last year. Rather than being a 'nice to have' or just empty rhetoric, for many chief executives and other senior leaders it has become essential to the sustainability of their organisation.

A number of authorities, such as Surrey County Council, have developed in house development programmes to support their people in delivering the necessary cultural change.

Studies from across all sectors show that the majority of major strategic change initiatives fail, and when the root causes are identified it is often because the associated behavioural changes have not been successfully embedded within an organisation, either prior to or alongside the change initiative.

Cultural change will only happen if an organisation has the right leadership. In the public sector, with its traditional command and control structure, cultural change is unlikely to be bottom up.

Politicians and officers leading a local authority must set out a clear vision and strategy for the future. This is not new to local government, but perhaps what has not traditionally been undertaken is to then agree the necessary culture to deliver the organisation's vision and strategy.

Any gaps with the current organisational culture can then be mapped, and the council's workforce strategy be updated to set out what is required for and by the organisation's people.

Grant Thornton is currently running a capacity building programme for London boroughs that has been developed with the directors of finance of participating councils.

The programme, which draws on our leadership and culture team's wider experiences of working across the public and private sector, has been designed to support the development of finance officers so that they have key skills and tools to support their authorities in managing the significant medium-term challenges.

The programme is designed to support participants so they can:

• change the culture and focus of the finance team

• challenge  the culture and influence front line services to enable change

• develop effective financial, analytical and influencing skills 

• develop strong commercial skills and awareness

• present financial issues to elected members to facilitate their engagement.

Being able to support cultural change is a key area identified for the finance community participating in this programme, but would be equally important for other service areas.

As the sector responds to on-going challenges, local government will need to better collaborate and innovate, and be more entrepreneurial.

The rise in the use of Alternative Delivery Models (ADMs) to deliver local government services means that commercial skills are becoming increasingly important, including the ability to undertake appropriate due diligence on potential partners, business case development, market management, contract management and  - for some ADMs - being able to sell services and compete to win new business.

Whatever the result of the general election, local government will continue to face significant challenges. Our recent research on the future scenarios for local government "2020 Vision" , undertaken in collaboration with the Institute of Local Government Studies (INLOGOV) of the University of Birmingham, suggests that being able to adapt and innovate will be critical to the medium-to-long term sustainability of local authorities.

Successful authorities will need to be able to take managed risks and have a leadership and culture that can work in an environment of volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity (often known as VUCA) . Being able to manage VUCA will allow organisations to forward plan, manage risks, and enable change.

Local authorities will need to have the right leadership and culture to effectively scan the horizon, anticipate, interpret and identify different scenarios and then prepare for them by incorporating them in the council's medium-term corporate strategy and medium-term financial strategy.

Elected members will not be immune from a changing culture. For example, when  scrutinising future strategies and plans, spending and savings proposals, they will need to have a good understanding of different approaches and the associated risks being taken.

More generally, governance arrangements for a more collaborative environment and the disparate delivery of services needs to be fit for purpose. For example, we are seeing a number of authorities establish group reporting and governance arrangements for oversight of their ADMs.

Now is the time for local authorities to take charge of their destiny. We are seeing examples of this in the formation of combined authorities with newly devolved powers, or authorities having a strategy for financial self-sufficiency. 

Strong and committed leadership is crucial for those authorities seeking to realise such ambitions, as is having the right organisational culture with the necessary skills to manage future challenges.

Key to success will be:

• Innovation: councils will need to adapt to ensure they continue to provide or enable service provision to their communities; a failure to innovate could put this at risk.

• Nourishing: councils will need to enable conditions for growth, health and wellbeing in their localities. 

• Commerciality: councils will need to create new sources of revenue and manage a changing delivery landscape, which requires new skills.

• Ambition: councils need to have an ambition to manage their own destiny; failure to do so could see them facing an uncertain future.

Many local authorities are already demonstrating these attributes. A key feature of these councils is the ability of those in leadership roles to empower their people so that, for example, ideas can be shared across the whole organisation, by people working at all levels.

Chelmsford City Council have a staff "tuck shop" where ideas are shared, explored and identified for possible implementation. Other councils have adopted a similar approach. For this to work it requires a shift in mindset from all those working for a local authority. This will only happen with the right leadership and culture in place.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The Information Daily, its parent company or any associated businesses.



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