Local Government Magazine

Why councils need a new type of leader

Councils of the future will provide fewer services, and use influence, alliances and collaboration to work alongside their communities. Coventry City Council CE Martin Reeves tells 
Ruth Le Pla this requires a whole new type of leadership and the change is already happening in the UK.
When Martin Reeves took over as CE of Coventry City Council six years ago, he had 18,000 staff. Now that number is closer to 10,000. It’s just one measure of the huge cuts that have ripped into the UK public sector, decimating budgets and pushing services to the brink.
Katherine Kerswell – the first ever director general for reform of the UK’s Civil Service – underscored the extremity of these austerity measures at SOLGM’s annual summit in Dunedin last year. She said communities and local government in the UK could face cuts of up to 80 percent over a 2010 baseline.

Martin Reeves - guest speaker at 2016 SOLGM Conference
Martin Reeves – guest speaker at 2015 SOLGM Summit

One year on, Martin is about to head over to speak at this year’s SOLGM Summit in Palmerston North. He tells Local Government Magazine many councils in the UK have already lost 50 to 60 percent of their revenue base. And yet more cuts are on the horizon. The earlier “doomsday scenarios” may yet become reality.
Making matters worse, a PwC report published earlier this year makes it crystal clear that both demand for, and expectations of, council services continues to rise. According to The local state we’re in report, local authorities don’t seem to be telling their story at all well when they cut or change services.
Such dire straits have many councils reeling. Martin says councils need to ditch the idea that public sector finances will ever get back up to the high level of the 1990s. “It will never happen again.” And the sector needs a radical shift in the characteristics and behaviours of its leaders.
“We will see different kinds of leaders emerge,” he says, “and those that aren’t able to adapt their style within organisations and across places will find themselves increasingly out of currency, out of relevance and out of time.”
To Martin’s mind, councils in the UK – and, he suggests, in other parts of the world too – must never forget their responsibilities to deliver services for the most vulnerable people in their communities.
“But we are small now and can’t deliver all the services [we did in the past]. So the rest of the delivery needs to be co-designed and delivered with people – not at them.
“We can inspire communities. We can get in there and give them the tools and techniques to be much more resilient for a very different kind of future.”
He admits it’s a tough call in many ways. “We’re right at the fulcrum of exactly these kinds of conversations because there is no plan B.”
So what does this mean in practice? Well, for a start, co-creating services alongside communities is very different from delivering them up on a plate. So the new breed of local government leaders will need to be comfortable with sharing pretty much most things.
“Local government CEs – and I’d argue public sector CEs and leaders too – have relied for many decades on technical skills and competence, very strong operational delivery modes, budget control, and programme direction,” says Martin.
“There’s nothing wrong with that. We in the UK, and certainly in your neck of the woods, have created strong delivery over many years on that.”
Even so, Martin says future leaders will increasingly be good at letting go of control.
“The professional currency of the future is not about all-knowing or having the solutions to problems. It’s about being able to use social media and engagement techniques. And it’s about working with what I call the ‘unusual suspects’ – people who have not stood up before to be part of the solution and many of whom have often been seen as part of the problem.”
Systems leadership, as he calls it, centres around people at the top of organisations ceding power – rather than hiding behind hierarchies – and getting the best out of the assets in their town, city or district.
“That requires a sophistication, a humility and a kind of leadership which is about distribution rather than holding on to, and accumulating, power,” he says. “So can you imagine how scary that is for some professionals?”
Coventry City Council recently teamed up with a group of partners including the Coventry Law Centre, police, healthcare providers and community members to launch Ignite. According to the law centre, the programme, which focuses on the two high-needs areas of Willenhall and Bell Green / Longford, offers expert advice and support for problems like debt, benefits and housing, and practical hands-on coaching and connecting.
Unlike traditional council services, the emphasis will be on the public sector engaging and partnering people and communities in new ways by “acting earlier, building strengths and releasing capacity”.
In council-speak, Ignite “aims to develop new ways to work with residents, using community asset-based approaches to build personal resilience and reduce reliance on council services”.
In a similar vein, a “Coventry on the move” programme has for the past 18 months been leveraging grassroots community energy to get people to do more physical activity. It’s connecting everyone from tap dancers to table tennis teams and mothers’ groups doing buggy pushes in hundreds of low-cost local initiatives.
In working in these ways, 
Martin says Coventry City Council is probably “ahead of the curve” and one of the pathfinders in the UK.

Coventry Council is a 'pathfinder' council
Coventry City Council is a ‘pathfinder’ council

“However, in terms of a continuum where it becomes the norm to lead in these ways, I’d say we’re barely 20 percent through that journey. That goes to prove how much of a shift, not just ourselves but the public service across the country, needs to make.”

Find out more:
Dr Martin Reeves is a keynote speaker at the 2015 SOLGM Summit in Palmerston North on November 9 – 11, 2015. www.cmnzl.co.nz/solgm-2015

An extended version of this article is published in Local Government Magazine‘s November 2015 issue.

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