Jo Miller has just taken up the reins as CE at Hutt City Council. She spoke with Ruth Le Pla about transforming local government in the UK, and the power of collaborative leadership and community cohesion.
For Hutt City Council, the recent appointment of Jo Miller as its chief executive appears to be a bit of a coup. Not that anyone is saying as much. Everyone is far too circumspect. But you only have to read up on some of Jo’s achievements – of which there are many – to see she is not one just to keep a seat warm.
She can be both diplomatic and, at times, wonderfully outspoken about local government. For now, she’s reserving her robust comments for the state of play in the UK, from whence she hails.
According to Rob Parson, writing in the Yorkshire Post, just a few months ago she was calling on local leaders in the UK to be more demanding of ministers amid the ongoing Brexit deadlock. She accused the UK Government of being “directionless across every tier of leadership at national level” and failing to unite the country behind a vision for its future.
And she attacked “the Government’s plans to cap exit payments for local authority officials as ‘cheap, tawdry politics’ that risked turning public sector work into a second-class profession”.
Jo has spent the past nearly eight years as chief executive of Doncaster Metropolitan Borough Council in Yorkshire. She says the council was the “poster boy for badness in local government” when she first arrived in 2012. Meant to be serving the local population of some 310,000 people, council had instead turned inwards, has been tainted by the earlier ‘Donnygate’ corruption scandal that saw councillors jailed, and was noted for its failing services for children.
Council had been branded as ‘toxic’ and Jo was appointed by the then secretary of state Eric Pickles to an authority under intervention. It was one of the most high-profile local government jobs in the UK.
Doncaster Metropolitan Borough Council was the poster boy for badness in local government.
Fast forward almost eight years and Jo is now recognised as having brought exceptional growth and optimism to the previously economically depressed town. Landmark projects with a total investment of £2 billion (about NZ$3.74 billion) have boosted the city’s economic performance, putting Doncaster in the UK’s top 10 for growth. The UK’s Local Government Chronicle said Doncaster had been “dragged up from the depths of despair to something to be proud of”.
In an exit interview with UK-based publication The MJ (Municipal Journal), Jo said that when she’d arrived in Doncaster, the place felt “overwhelmed by what it couldn’t do”. Her greatest achievement was to turn that on its head. “Now it knows it can be the very best of itself, and it knows it isn’t there yet.” (For more on how Doncaster’s fortunes were reversed see the box story Turnaround Donny.)
On the national scale, Jo was president in 2017 and 2018 of the UK’s Society of Local Authority Chief Executives (Solace – a James Bond name if ever there was one). She then took on the leadership portfolio on behalf of the profession.
Back in 2017 the Local Government Chronicle had named her the third most influential person in local government: a statement that raises the intriguing idea of who we’d name as our top three in this country.
Anyway, no offence intended to Hutt City Council, but this does beg the obvious question: why has Jo shifted there? Jo says most people have been asking her the far broader question: why New Zealand?
It’s no secret that Solace and its New Zealand equivalent SOLGM have been working together for some time now, comparing notes and learning from each other. SOLGM’s CE Karen Thomas has been tracking UK councils’ responses to that country’s stringent austerity measures for years, picking the eyes out of smart ways for councils to act differently.
Jo, meanwhile, had last year visited our country with her family on what she calls a working holiday. Amongst other things, that involved “a bit of work in the Beehive with government and civil servants looking at some of the change we’d been through”, she says.
She also spoke at the 2018 SOLGM Summit in Queenstown. She was part of an international panel alongside speakers from Australia’s LG Government Professionals and the US-based International City/County Management Association (ICMA) on ways to manage communities into the future.
I’m not normally given to reworking local government in my mind. But I remember seeing Jo in one of the session breaks talking with Local Government Minister the Hon Nanaia Mahuta and straight-shooting former UK public servant Dame Louise Casey (who gave an impassioned speech on homelessness). And I distinctly remember wondering how different local government would be if left in the hands of such impressive women.
Before she had left her home country, Jo had told media there that New Zealand is “around 15 years behind the UK when it comes to inequality”. And that, she said, means there’s a chance to do things differently here.
“They are having a conversation about the state of the state, and I want to use my skills to be part of that,” she says. “I have a chance to be part of public service reform.”
Now here, she tells me she has a profound sense of the context of the change this country will inevitably be going through – “there’s change the world over” – and she hopes her skillset and experiences could be of benefit to the country.
She’s also confident that her family could make a great life “in this wonderful, progressive, diverse, young country”.
“So that’s why New Zealand,” she says.
“We arrived back in the UK on the 16th of September last year – I had a look at my diary,” she says. “I went home and I had a two-year plan to think about coming out here and how that would work. So, I was expecting to be emigrating a year from now.”
Then the CE’s role at Hutt came up. Jo says she was attracted by Hutt’s proximity to Wellington. “It’s a city that’s growing. It’s also a city that’s next to the big city. And I’ve had that experience in a number of places where we’ve been the number two place next to the giant number one place.”
Jo is also attracted by the opportunity to work with central government. Asked if she plans to play an active role in SOLGM once she’s got her feet under the table at Hutt City Council she says she has already joined the organisation.
“I know the benefit of those professional relationships and of collaboration and learning from colleagues. Whilst I have a set of experiences and skills that will be of value from my years working in the public sector, I also have a lot to learn and I’m benefiting from that from colleagues already.
“So, yes, I want to play my full part but I’m really clear that means being a good foot soldier and listening, learning and helping.”
Jo says much of the transformation at Doncaster stems from what she calls collaborative leadership and community cohesion. (She’ll be talking about these topics at this year’s SOLGM Summit in Napier: see the box story 2019 SOLGM Annual Summit.)
Earlier this year, acting Lower Hutt mayor David Bassett had “bigged up” Jo’s appointment in a press release, saying she has the “vision and the drive to step into this critical leadership role and take our city forward”.
She immediately pops my balloon when I ask her to outline her plan for the council. It was a disingenuous question, anyway. Mayors have plans: chief executives get to execute them.
“Anybody who has just stepped off a plane into a new culture, new country and a new city and has a blueprint would be crazy”, she says. “What I painted to the council who appointed me was really how to lead. I talked about collaborative leadership, council as a servant to the people – not as master.
“I talked about the council placing itself as the convener in the wider system here and that the leadership is a shared endeavour and a shared purpose between council, business, communities, healthcare, schools and all of the different facets of society that enable a place and its people to thrive. That’s what I set out, if you like, as a compelling way forward to the mayor and councillors.
“You align behind a common purpose, you have a common plan, you know what success looks like and you all drive that forward: in partnership, of course, with central government who have a key role to play and many of the levers that we need to pull to ensure our communities thrive.”
Jo contends that the best organisations in the world are “diverse, high-challenge, high-support and operate as part of a wider system rather than as just an organisation in isolation”.
That was part of the success at Doncaster, she says. It’s all about community cohesion. “Hutt is poised to receive growth. We need to make sure that growth is good growth. What I mean by that is growth that can benefit all its people.
“The key challenge for New Zealand – and I see it here [in the Hutt] – is the issue around housing and its affordability. I know that, traditionally, some people have said that’s central – not local – government’s job. But they’re our people.”
In the UK, central government austerity measures over the past decade have shaved away half of some councils’ revenue. Smart councils have adopted a collaborative leadership role to broker deals in their regions across everything from housing, to healthcare, education, economic regeneration and capital investment schemes.
The council-as-convener role represents an important mindshift.
Jo Miller, former CE for Doncaster Metropolitan Borough Council, says that rather than focus on what it couldn’t do, her council and other local services and organisations pooled their thinking. “We said, ‘actually, between us all we’ve got money and we’ve got a population to serve so how can we best do that?’ We weren’t precious about who did what. Our mantra was ‘what matters is what works’.”
A case in point: statistics showed that every year about 1000 elderly people would fall in their homes.
“Most of them were taken to Accident and Emergency (A&E),” says Jo. “They would be transferred to hospital beds and sometimes it would be quite hard to get them back home. The ambulance service used to do all of that.
“But, now the first thing that happened was that the fire service, which was installing digital fire alarms in people’s houses, also did checks on old people to look at things like trip hazards and how well connected those elderly people were in the community. That work reduced the number of falls by some distance.
“Then of the people who were left, rather than take everyone to A&E in an ambulance, care came to those people at home and we wrapped the care around them so they never got to hospital.
“Of the 1000 people who used to go to A&E, we ended up with just 100-or so people going to A&E.
“The hospital saved a lot of money – some of which was invested back into other areas that were picking up the work instead. But all together we saved money.
“Importantly, those elderly people were better served by staying in their own homes with wrap around care rather than being in hospital and wondering when they were coming out.”
Similarly, central budget cuts had left Doncaster council struggling to provide much-needed youth services. Many UK local authorities simply eliminated these services completely, seeing them as a discretionary add-on for its community.
While Jo stopped council providing the service, she used a year’s operating money to provide a ‘dowry’ for a social enterprise to bring in a new youth partnership.
“That organisation then tripled the dowry and has now more than doubled the number of contacts with young people and it’s still growing,” she says.
More to the point, it’s able to attract funding and do things in a way that the authority would have found more difficult.
Jo says collaborative leadership is about everybody owning their region’s challenges and aspirations.
“In Doncaster, our hospital board sponsors one of our secondary schools because it is focusing on where it can grow its future workforce. It has an ambition that it doesn’t matter where you start in health – whether as a carer, a porter or a nurse. There’s a skills pathway that can take you through all the jobs to get you to where you want to be.”
Such actions and many more besides have enabled Doncaster to not only survive but thrive through austerity. Importantly, that growth gave Doncaster the track record and confidence to pitch for larger projects and initiatives to be centred in its area.
It is now home to a campus for the National College for High Speed Rail (pictured) which offers apprenticeships, college courses and programmes for everything from track systems and project management, to rail engineering and rolling stock. (It’s a nice circular twist as the famous Flying Scotsman train was originally built in Doncaster for the
London and North Eastern Railway (LNER), emerging from the works in February 1923.)
Doncaster has hosted national sporting events and has a real focus on skills – for which Jo was the regional lead – having brought business, enterprise and schools together.
“We halved youth unemployment, we halved the number of young people in the criminal justice system and we significantly increased educational attainment – particularly from primary through to secondary school because that’s where you can see the most benefit,” says Jo.
“Some of it is yet to come through at secondary school level but I would say that one of the things I’m really proud of there is that we found some amazing, just amazing, education leaders locally and used them as system innovators.
“We unlocked a whole heap of talent”.
2019 SOLGM ANNUAL SUMMIT
Jo Miller will be one of the keynote speakers at SOLGM’S upcoming summit in Napier from September 26 to 27. Jo is the former CE for Doncaster Metropolitan Borough Council in the UK and has recently been appointed as CE at Hutt City Council. She will discuss the role of collaborative leadership and the importance of community cohesion – a key issue for local authorities in the UK.For more details and to register for the summit go to: solgm.org.nz/summit19
This article was first published in the September 2019 issue of NZ Local Government Magazine.