Solace Blog

New Year message from the Solace Chair

By Gavin Jones, Solace Chair and Chief Executive of Essex County Council

Happy New Year colleagues!

It has been said that those who begin with certainties, will end in doubts*. Given the events of 2016, doubt seems an appropriate response as we think about what 2017 might have in store. But whilst much is unknown, there are some issues that seem certain to demand our urgent attention this year – right at the top of the list must be securing a long term solution to the care needs of our ageing population – we should make 2017 the year in which we finally identify a workable approach to what is shaping up to be the defining problem of our times. But no solution is likely to be sustainable unless we also address the country’s productivity and growth challenges as our exit from the EU begins to pick up pace. And whilst these challenges – and the many others we face - should not be underestimated, we should also begin 2017 in a spirit of optimism and with the confidence that local government has much to offer by way of solutions.


One of the many reasons why I am proud to be a part of this sector is our can-do spirit and focus on pragmatic answers to complex questions in the interests of our residents. And whilst I am sure that 2017 will show local government stepping up to the plate once again, I am also well aware that there is no room for complacency. 2017 will demand from us more of what makes local government great – more imagination, more innovation, more effort and commitment, and more compassion on behalf of, and towards, those we serve. So, if these are the challenges, how should we go about addressing them? I think there are three areas for us to think about – what they have in common is that they will require a model of leadership that is adaptive to challenges that demand something other than narrow, technical solutions – a particular focus for Solace in the coming year.

First, we must be a confident and articulate interlocutor with government on behalf of our residents. There is no response to these issues that comes solely from within local government or that can be legislated into being from afar by national government. We need a new dialogue that recognises the unique contribution that local government has to make. We should understand our role as something that is both different to, and more than, a provider of services. We are a multi-competent leader of place. Our challenges are at heart political challenges. And in our localities it is local government – grounded in the reality, difference and specificity of our neighbourhoods - that must lead our places to address these challenges. Increasingly our ability to  make a difference will depend on our qualities and capabilities as a system leader – working across institutional boundaries -  focused on the needs of our local communities – which is one of the reasons why I am so pleased that Solace launched its IGNITE programme this year to focus on precisely these issues.

Second, technology. 2017 will see local authorities beginning to grapple with some of the ethical issues that society will need to confront if we are to harness to the full, the game changing capabilities that data transformation, AI and machine learning can bring. As the launch this month in the Health Service of a trial to use AI to replace the 111 non-emergency phone service shows, these are live issues that many of us are thinking through right now – and however difficult these issues may be, we are confronting them because we recognise that data is both abundant and underutilised, capable of providing us with the insight to support genuinely transformative approaches to public service.

Finally, communities. People make places. Whether somewhere is a great place to live depends a bit on the quality of public services, but it depends a bit more on the people who live there and what they are prepared to put back in. Already nearly 50% of us volunteer on a regular basis, but I think we can expect 2017 to see the real emergence of peer to peer networks and micro-volunteering facilitated by technology – communities helping themselves – we should encourage and foster this wherever we can.

So, although we might start with doubt about what 2017 will bring, we can end with some certainty. Certainty that the challenges will be great; certainty that today’s models of practice will need rethinking; certainty that we won’t get everything right first time; and certainty that in spite of all this, local government will once more rise to the challenge.

The leadership task that confronts us is not easy. But in 2017 we should remember that at its best, leadership is a labour of love. Opportunities for these labours cross our paths every day…seizing these opportunities takes heart. **

As we start the New Year, let’s have the heart to do the work that needs to be done. Solace will be there to support you – through our programmes of leadership development, focusing on supporting the development of the capabilities we increasingly need to navigate effectively through this complex environment. I wish you all well and look forward to working with you for the benefit of the people we serve.


*Francis Bacon
**Ronald Heifetz and Marty Linsky, Leadership on the Line