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12th October 2016

New Solace President’s Address

Delivered by Jo Miller, Chief Executive, Doncaster Metropolitan Borough Council at the Solace Annual Summit on Wednesday 12 October 2016.

When our much awaited first child was born, my husband’s first words were: ‘Blimey Jo, it’s enormous!’ After some berating by me, we established said child was male, and in good working order. I’ll never forget Ken’s words that day, even if I wanted to throttle him, as his oratory did not quite match the occasion.

So, as I stand here now, elected by you as your President to represent and lead this great organisation, and take our profession forward, I feel as if I should say something erudite and wise – grand oratory. The first word in my head though is ‘Blimey’. Just to be sure I wasn’t going to cause major offense, I looked up Blimey google style, via the urban dictionary, which said it is an expression of surprise, excitement or in text speak OMG. So, not erudite, but apt and fits with my philosophy of ‘keeping it real’, something I’m determined to do. And this is, for me, an exciting (daunting, but being a little bit scared is good) OMG moment.

It is quite something, that you have put your faith in me to lead the society, and take our work as public service leaders forward. It is quite something to follow in the shoes of the outstanding Mark Rogers, who has been an exemplary President for 3 years, focussing on values-based leadership, and as he put it brilliantly in the MJ, “being people people for people”. Thank you, Mark, for all that you’ve done, continue to do, and all that you are – a great 21st-century public servant.

So quite something – Blimey. Quite something to think that here I stand, the granddaughter of a general labourer at ‘the Corpy’ as Liverpool Council was known to all and sundry, the daughter of a dinner lady (and yes she did get a redundancy notice via taxi in the utter mayhem that was Liverpool ruled by the militant tendency in the 80’s. And believe me, it was rule, rather than serve). I’m very grateful and lucky that albeit with a good deal of hard work and determination, social mobility has allowed that journey to happen. And it happened aided by some great teachers who
went beyond the curriculum and the Ofsted test to show mums like mine the breadth of opportunity available to their children. It happened because of great adult education programmes that helped women learn and become confident in their community activism and ambition for their communities. Because of that, I feel a responsibility, passion, and determination to make sure that others are able to experience that mobility – that talent is unlocked, and whether it’s the population we serve or the workforce we lead, people are enabled to be the best they can be.

It’s quite something too, that you have given me your mandate as Chief Executive of Doncaster Council. A council that, back in 2010, wore the poster boy for badness badge in Local Government, and here I am, from that place, chosen to represent local government of your behalf. It’s a great privilege to lead, with Mayor Ros Jones, that place and our workforce, and to see that place blossom and grow, to have gone from toxic partner to partner of choice. Leading a place on a positive journey, rather than being a brake on progress.

That I am stood here today, is down in no small part to the change Team Doncaster have made, as a workforce, as a set of partners, as good political leadership, and as, if I may say so myself, a good Mayor/Chief Executive partnership. We are still a work in progress (aren’t we all), but I’m enormously proud to lead that team from where it was, to where it is, and onwards, because our ambition is high. And it means I know how hard, collaborative, ambitious work can change a place for the better, the core aspiration of Solace members.

Quite something too, to be standing here, having started my career as a scale 1 employee at Nottingham City Council, way back when. We mustn’t lose, as we go through our delayering and reconstructing, the ability for talent to rise through the ranks of our own workforce, and for the people in the communities, we serve to be able to reach their potential, no matter where they start. As public services, as public service leaders, we can and should influence that if we are to be, as I too believe, “people people for people”.

That I’m stood here at all is down in no small part to Jerry Hutchinson, Chief Executive of North Warwickshire Borough Council, then Assistant City Secretary at Nottingham. Jerry appointed me as a trainee solicitor (even though my application was late – some rules are made for breaking) and took a chance on this ‘bloody difficult woman’ allowing me to break enough rules to be creative and find solutions, but not too many rules that I got into terminal trouble. I did get into trouble a couple of times, but I always learned. Jerry is amongst the best of men and I could not
have wished for a better example of a boss. Thank you, Jerry, you’ve inspired me and many others.

And that’s also what we face in our careers, great bosses if we’re lucky, not so great if you’re not. If your career is like mine, you’ll experience brilliant leadership from public servants like Jerry, and ……hmm not so great. Well, whatever it is, good or bad, we learn from it and the networks we create and sustain through the likes of Solace, help and develop us.

Mayor Ros and I are the only female elected Mayor and Chief Executive Combination in the UK, we like to think of ourselves as Northern Power Women, and it’s great to be in the North with so many others of you and great to be in Newcastle Gateshead as it is announced host of Great North Exposure that bid was put together by a leap of talent, including some strong Northern Power Women. We take our jobs as female role models very seriously, and deliberately and unashamedly encourage other women.

It’s great to be here today as a Female President, the first elected (for which thanks go to Trevor Holden of Luton) – both of us put ourselves out there, and it’s not easy. Let me be a returning officer, rather than a candidate, any day of the week and respect to our politicians who do it year in and year out. Putting yourself at the mercy of your peers is not easy, so let’s all acknowledge the great work they do.

As a female President, I intend to champion women. I’m as tired as everyone else with all-male panels, all male consultations, and I know men are too. You’d think the Northern Powerhouse only consisted of men if you judged it by the voices that are heard. Well not on my watch. I’m delighted to see a women’s leadership survey here at the conference, and I’d encourage all of our membership to use their talents, especially those less often heard. Because we can’t moan that we don’t get the opportunity to be heard if we don’t seize it when offered.

I intend to champion women, I intend to champion inclusion and as a resident of Bradford, where my children have the great fortune to be growing up in a young, diverse city, I intend to be a champion for diversity too. In my own organisation we don’t yet reflect the population we serve and it’s a challenge for us to change that particularly as the workforce is reducing. But it’s right for us to try and meet that challenge, and as a public service organisation, reflect the community we serve. So let’s acknowledge the value of inclusion, of enjoying and harnessing diversity, and – as
one, here’s to all the bloody difficult women. May we know them, may we raise them, may we be them.

Well, I’m halfway through, and I think you are still with me. I hope from what I’ve just said you know a little more of me and my context. You will have detected a clear theme, which is that I believe places and people thrive either aided by or held back by public services and Civic Leadership. Here are a couple of pictures to show you just what I mean:

So, where now for public service and for Solace? We stand at a crossroads. A new government, with a new and as yet to unfold agenda, after just over half of the UK voted to leave the European Union in June. And whether you voted in or out, saw it a positive opportunity or harmful act, it’s here. As my mum says ‘the best things come to those that make the best of things.’

Whilst that is going to inevitably preoccupy the government, our challenge in our places as public servants and leaders is to shape public service reform, to ensure good economic growth – inclusive growth where people aren’t left behind. Local Government should be passionate and proud about great public services, about doing the right thing for our residents, about building resilience in communities – both things that can only be done locally. Strong, vibrant communities equal strong, vibrant economies. The debate for me isn’t about who has the means of production (that whole nonsense of public good, private bad, when the truth is the good, the bad and the ugly exist in all sectors). Nor is the debate about indigenous Brits versus non-Brits+++++++++++, setting neighbours one against the other. I don’t know a Country on earth where bolstering people in their prejudices turned out for the best.

The right debate is ‘how do we live better, and live better together’, ensuring that those strong vibrant communities thrive. In a time when we as local government have some, but not all of the answers, and where we need to operate as leaders at the centre of a jigsaw puzzle ( without the box showing us how to fit it together). The Summit will give us a chance to explore this, to hear from speakers and learn from each other.

We have a chance as Solace, to lead and influence the debate, to contribute to devolution policy outside of our geography and ensure it is just that – good decision making as close to communities as possible, not decentralised administration from Whitehall.

As Solace, we can and must work with Government to influence, advise and challenge them, alongside others, because we know and understand the practical ramifications of policy – does it do good, does it work? We will work with the LGA, and many others, to harness a collective and more impactful voice. But I’m not Whitehall’s woman in Doncaster and nor are you in your places.

Our challenge is to be public servant leaders in our places, with local government the first amongst equals able to bring together resources from across places to deliver the best outcomes for the people we serve. We have some great examples of that and we need to use our membership well to demonstrate it. We need to do good leadership, give good leadership support members to do the same and get everyone skilled up for the challenges of the future.

I’m delighted that the remainder of our afternoon focusses on ‘speaking truth to power’ with a phenomenal line up of BBC’s James Landale, our own genius that is Barry Quirk, Chief Inspector of Adult Social Care, Andrea Sutcliffe whom I know wields her power for the people, and to the fabulous Dame Louise Casey, a great friend to us at Solace and someone who goes boldly wherever she wants to go, and thank goodness that she does.

Speaking truth to power is a challenge we need to rise to – not just behind closed doors – but sometimes in public. We are powerful ourselves, aren’t we, and we need to speak our own truth to power. Whether that’s to our political leaders, partner organisations or government. And how do we ensure that as leaders ourselves, our organisations, our culture, our governance, our processes – just the way we do things enables truth to be spoken to us, by employees or by the people whom we serve. When we get that right, we are authentic leaders, people people for people, enabling places and people to thrive. For me, it is captured in one phrase, “if serving is below you, leadership is beyond you”.

Finally – some thank you’s – to you all for electing me and the help I know you’ll give me – I’ll do my best to fill the big shoes I inherit. To Doncaster for giving me their trust and time to do this and to my marvellous, long-suffering family, without whom I could not do this.

Blimey! Have a great Solace Summit.

Thank you.