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10th November 2017

Solace President’s Welcome Speech 2017

Solace President Jo Miller’s welcome address to the 2017 Solace Summit.

Last year I stood before you as your newly elected President – and thank you again for putting your faith in me – and gave you a taste of what you could expect from me.

I spoke about the importance of female leadership, about today’s leaders bringing on tomorrow’s leaders and how I would champion just that.

I’d like to think I’ve lived up to that on your behalf, been a ‘bloody difficult woman’, and taken a stand where I don’t think women are being given a fair crack at the whip. More than one organisation, even those I like and respect have been at the receiving end of a politely worded email from me asking why they only have 2 women in a panel of 10.

Solace as an organisation has made women’s leadership a priority work stream, and I hope many of you will attend the dedicated session tomorrow. Though I take the view that if you can begin to include 50% of the population that will be a good start, I also promised to take a stand about diversity and inclusion more generally. I’m pleased to say we have agreed to prioritise the harnessing of diverse, black minority ethnic leadership, and I look forward to working with many of you on that and having the full support of all you in the Solace community. Because it matters.

We need to hear from, engage and have amongst our decision makers a diversity of voices in order to make the best decisions possible. We need to reflect our communities to represent them effectively.

I think I really brought that to life when, after a bit of a rant on Twitter, I took a stand against the male-dominated ‘Northern Powerhouse’ conference by working with colleagues to create our own, ‘People’s Powerhouse’ unconference. It was a huge success. We heard from a range of voices not normally heard, including youth voices Charlie Lisle & Hal Meakin, Sally Bonnie & Oldham’s Inspire Women collective collaborating directly with the great thinkers and doers we have in Mayor Andy Burnham, Dame Louise Casey and Lord Victor Adebowale.

And I’m pleased to say that taking a stand, then doing something positive, really can affect real change. Next year, the original Northern Powerhouse conference have agreed to work with us to create a programme that represents the full diversity of the North – including of course women – but also all the other people that must be involved if inclusive, good growth is really going to happen. That’s a success in my book.

I also promised to speak truth to power on your behalf and I hope I’ve done that, even if sticking my head above the parapet has got me in trouble from time to time! I was clear then we have a chance as Solace, to lead and influence the debate about the future of public services, to contribute using all the tools available to us whatever our geography.

We have a duty to be good public servants, leaders of place, the best we can be, making good decisions as close to our communities as possible. We are in local government grasping the huge opportunity that exists across all sectors in our places to collaborate, share ideas, innovate and co-produce solutions to the issues that exist in our communities. People as assets, as the solution, not the problem, the answer not the conundrum. System leadership. This, at a time when the pace of change is the fastest it’s ever been and the slowest it’s ever going to be.

Modern leadership is about leading in a system, with the authority to convene and the humility to serve. Using the tools and the levers we have to best effect, Developing and making the most of relationships across our place. Doing things with people, not to people, and making the very best of dwindling resources. Spotting the flaws in systems we can’t change (*cough* Universal Credit) and doing what we can as a local authority to alleviate some of the problems, to make things a bit better for our residents. Acting as a system, thinking like entrepreneurs. Gaining power and
influence by giving power and influence away. This summit will give us the chance to explore and enhance our skills in this area and we will all go home at the end with a good few takeaways to help us in this. A word of advice to Westminster and Whitehall. #Justsaying – If you adopted a similar approach, things would work out so much better, for you, for us and for our people.

Taking the learning from leadership across places and injecting that knowledge and experience at an earlier stage into Whitehall-centred thinking could make crucial differences to some of the decisions that are made, and I venture to suggest would save time and money and deliver better outcomes for people too. Poor policy affects us all; if we collaborate a little more together we can avoid poor policy implementation in the first instance. If local partners were truly involved in policy development at an earlier stage, some of the perverse outcomes, complications, and
confusions like we see in universal credit, as we see in skills and employment practice and programmes could and would be avoided. Our society would be more civilised, less divided and I’m confident, more productive.

We have much to envy and learn from here from Solace colleagues in Scotland and Wales who enjoy a level of collaboration with the devolved administrations that is lacking in England and in UK wide policy. And from what I have witnessed on my travels this year, public service is better for that collaboration.

I also started my speech last year by saying ‘blimey!’. If we thought November last year was ‘blimey!’, we obviously didn’t know what the Prime Minister had in store for us. If we thought things were uncertain then, ‘Blimey!’ they are now.

I don’t need to tell you that the Government is preoccupied with Brexit, and none of us really know how that is going to pan out.

But whilst they’re diverted over there, we know that new legislation – including in key areas we’d been waiting for to give us just a bit of certainty, like, you know, the small matter of the entire funding of local government – appears that it is not going to happen any longer. That we have been able to make the changes we have these last few years is because we have had the ability to plan over a few years. Now we simply don’t know what happens in 2020 for the funding of our public services, and we don’t know whether it does or does not require legislation and if / when / what
may be forthcoming. And this simply will not do. It is no way to run a business.

Despite all of this, we keep calm, we carry on, we crack on, because what else can we do. You have been resourceful and resilient and managed great change. For that, you should give yourselves great credit. It’s no mean feat. But you can’t get blood out of a stone, and whilst have kept calm, carried on and cracked on, we need answers to very pressing issues so we can make plans for our communities. Anything less does them, and us, a great disservice.

I can’t let this opportunity to speak go by without mentioning the very real tragic events that have defined this last year: Manchester Arena Bomb, Grenfell Tower, London Bridge, Westminster Bridge. Lives lost lives changed beyond recognition, communities devastated by those events and their aftermath. Whilst responding to emergencies is always initially in the hands of the blue light services we in local government are the fourth emergency service, pitching in from the start and leading on recovery. It’s vital that we are resourceful, resilient and able to manage those
incredibly difficult situations and that we call on mutual aid and assistance, locally and nationally to manage those situations as best as we can for the people. Whilst I’m stood here in Greater Manchester, I want to take this opportunity to pay tribute to my Solace colleague Joanne Roney, who six weeks into her new role as Manchester City Council CEO had to lead her workforce in that recovery supported I know by a great cadre of Greater Manchester colleagues. Joanne, we salute you.

Grenfell changed everything for me, it took me back to Hillsborough because unlike terrorist atrocities, it is a story of public service failure. It. Should. Not. Have. Happened. That it did must change attitudes, policies, and practice in housing. And let’s remember, that always we are talking about people’s homes here when we talk about housing, not units of accommodation. And let’s also remember the mum test. If it’s not good enough for my mum, it’s not good enough for anyone’s mum.

Responding to emergencies, to major incidents, to tragedy is a vital part of our role. I’m pleased that we have a session about being prepared for these horrific eventualities, as well as managing the aftermath on Friday, chaired by Joanne Roney, when we’ll also hear from our esteemed colleague Barry Quirk, who has really stepped into the breach at Kensington and Chelsea. I urge you not to miss it. So colleagues, let our summit begin. The theme this year is ‘shining a light’ on our sector, and at Solace, that means our professional leadership.

Do we have the skills we need for today? But further still, do we have what we need for the future? Are we able to act as a system, think like an entrepreneur?

Do we have the skills we need to make effective partnerships, across places, when none of the people in the room have any money to put on the table? Are we keeping the real and complex lives of our residents in mind when we have those discussions?

The digital world is here and it’s no longer enough to ‘not do IT’. It’s not IT, it’s not just about gadgets and expensive tech, it’s the world our children are being born into and will be key to the future transformation and sustainability of most of our services. It’s a travesty that in 2017 most people’s social care records cannot speak to their NHS records, though many of you are doing excellent work to change that. We have some excellent sessions throughout the conference that will challenge you on this, but also hopefully build your confidence too. It’s also clear that we all need to know what we would do in a crisis. There are some really tough questions there that go to the root of what it means to be a leader.

And, as I mentioned earlier, I think it is down to all of us to ensure the organisations we run are more reflective of the kind of communities we live in. Sometimes that will mean ceding a bit of power ourselves. But if that’s what needs to happen, that’s what we need to do.

This is true of Solace too. As a membership organisation we need to continue working to drop the old club image, and grow to reflect the reality of our sector. Over the summer Solace colleagues have undertaken Solace’s widest member engagement to ensure the changes we make are what you really want.

We are starting by altering both the way Solace membership is structured and what we provide for members at each step of the way, to explicitly support people throughout their career, to develop leadership potential right the way from first graduate job to seasoned veteran Chief Executives. We have a duty not only to support and represent the leaders of today but also to develop the leaders of tomorrow.

This will be reflected across Solace’s offer to ensure everyone benefits from and is represented by their membership of Solace.

I’d like to close by thanking you all for being here. Just by being in this room, by being a member of this organisation, I’d like to think that shows you get the value in learning from each other. And that that process doesn’t ever really stop. We can always strive to be better. Particularly given some of the challenges I’ve just outlined, it’s vital we remind ourselves of this.

There’s absolutely no point in me trying to make any predictions about where we’ll be next year. Recent history has shown that trying to do that is futile. But I will say that at least for the next couple of days I know you’re going to have a great time with the programme that’s lined up for you. It’s more important than ever that we share our learning and our stories and your time here in Manchester will provide an excellent opportunity to do.