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23rd October 2018

Solace President’s welcome speech 2018

Solace President Jo Miller’s welcome address to the Solace Summit on 17th October 2018

We’ve come a long long way together
Through the hard times and the good
I have to celebrate you baby
I have to praise you like I should

For anyone who doesn’t recognise that song, it’s “Praise You” by Fatboy Slim. And I’m playing it for you, not for me, as a way of saying thank you. To quote Henry Giles: “A song will outlive all sermons in the memory.”

This is my last Solace Summit as your President, though not my last Solace Summit, I assure you. I’ve got another couple of months, so I’m not going to say too much about that, but I hope you’ll indulge me for a moment.

Thank you for choosing me to represent you. I’ve served you to the best of my ability. I’ve never underestimated the preciousness of using my voice as your voice and thanks to all of you who have given me the content and confidence to speak for you, for public service and for the people and places we serve.

When I first shared that I was interested in going for the role, I had some advice from Jonathan Flowers, who asked me “what are you going to do with the role?” It was great advice, just like some of the best leadership advice I’ve ever had, which was ‘Never underestimate the power of what you pay attention to. If you pay attention to it, it matters.

So, Solace – what I wanted to pay attention to was making us stronger by making us more representative and I was resolutely determined to focus on diversity and inclusion. Because inequality is one of the greatest scourges of our time and our fractured society will only become more united if it is to become more equal. Strong vibrant communities make for strong vibrant economies. Decisions are best made by a diverse group of people representing the communities they serve, that take into account the lived experience of those people whom decisions will be visited upon.

When you don’t do that…when you have policy implementation designed in a Whitehall Ivory Tower overflowing with hubris and an all-pervasive centre knows best mentality, you end up with the unholy mess that is the design and implement of Universal Credit that in my own borough has seen food bank use and debt soar!

Let’s hope a pause isn’t just a “throw money at it” approach, but a real opportunity to get the very many things that are wrong with the administration of this laudable policy intent right. I make an open offer to DWP colleagues once again. Let us help you. Let us inform your actions. The people whom we serve deserve nothing short of that.

Whilst globally more than a billion people fewer live in extreme poverty since 1990, the inequality gap is growing. Since austerity, we have had wages stagnate in this country and the very banking practices that led to a decade of austerity still persist as we have failed to separate retail from casino banking. That inequality issue is a global issue. The growing gap between those who have and those who don’t have given rise to the operating conditions of our times. Populism, fear, nationalism, protectionism. We can rail against these – though I don’t think it will get you very far – or we can understand these conditions and adapt our leadership accordingly. As Maya Angelou said, “If you don’t like something, change it, if you can’t change it, change your attitude”.

With that in mind – the theme of our Summit ‘Future Horizons’. These are challenging times the world over. Where do we begin when we can’t see ahead? Which path will we choose? How will we know? What do we need to make our journey a success?

I was privileged to spend time with Australian and New Zealand colleagues this summer and welcome to them here today – Tony and Elena DeFazio, Karen Thomas and Phil Wilson, and welcome to Karen Pinkos, ICMA President.

What struck me on those visits is that, whilst they weren’t grappling with years of austerity, the issues, and challenges we face have resonance across the globe. And the answer to all of the issues we face lies in our purpose. Our purpose as public servants is to make sure that all of our places and all of our people thrive.

Sometimes thriving will be in spite of what’s going on nationally. I had hoped on my antipodean adventure to escape Brexit – no such luck, and unlike here, over there Brexit is a great unifier.

The other ‘in spite of’ is the lack of a coherent plan for how public services – the stuff that people rely on – roads, parks, care, libraries, lollypop ladies, public spaces, youth clubs, children’s services, sports pitches, or as we put it euphemistically ‘The Local Government Funding Settlement’. No plan from 2020 is terrifying, inept, grossly unfair and is no way to run a business or country.

We have published today our ‘Call to Action’ for sustainable local services, it highlights just how many of us are struggling to deliver even the most basic of core services in future. This despite a plethora of special purpose funding steams – 106 from 16 different departments amounting to £5.5 billion, the majority with multiple competitive bidding processes (all of which cost money) mostly with six weeks or less bidding time.

Here’s a free suggestion to those in power: if you want to get the most value out of public spending. spend less time on the doling out of minute pots of cash tied to specific terms and conditions and spend it more wisely. That same £5.5 billion could have reversed cuts to local public health grant and early intervention grant alone.

Let’s talk about children. It’s our poorest children who feel the severe impact of welfare reform. It’s all of our children who need to enjoy a wide and stimulating education. As the mum of a 16-year-old and a 9-year-old, it’s not lost on me that it’s our children who will be facing the impacts of Brexit most, whatever they will be.

As cliché as it sounds, our children are our future and, if we remain in our reactive spending cycle on acute services, we aren’t giving them or us much of a chance. We know that child protection enquires are increasing (as they are in NZ & Australia as well) and that here we face a £2 billion funding gap for children’s social care. All this in an England that spends half of its entire children’s services budgets on 73K children in the care system leaving the other half for the remaining 11.7 million kids.

It’s my area of greatest financial concern but for all that, we cannot lose sight that ‘It takes a village to raise a child’. We locally, despite the national operating conditions, must do all that we can to enable and use our agency to build environments in which children can thrive.

So I’m delighted that we are also launching this week, in partnership with PWC, our “It takes a village” report which describes the nature of the challenge we face and showcases some of the brilliant work you are doing locally with your partners to strengthen the village in which our families are able to thrive.

I must confess that, when I returned back to the UK from Australia and New Zealand, I felt low as I was planning for the future. I am profoundly motivated by my personal belief that we as individuals have the power to change the world, action by action, one step at a time. But it’s hard right now. I know it. You know it. We feel it.

I don’t remember it being this difficult to be a public service leader, and I also know that we need brave, bold public service leaders more than ever. Is it any harder for us though, than it is for those of our workers at the front line working with struggling families? And its definitely not as hard as it is for the mum I met at the food bank who couldn’t feed her children, nor the man my staff helped last Christmas who had just buried his wife but could not heat and light his home because he was awaiting a benefits payments.

So, yes, it’s a struggle working in complex and demanding roles when the national operating environment lacks vision or a long term plan. It’s hard not to be able to say to our staff and residents where we will be in three years time. It feels like it has never been harder to be a public service leader.

We have to hold our own anxiety. We must hold on to our people and our places as our North Star, our hero and our purpose. Governments, economic cycles, and policy fads – they come and go. But people and place prevail and as public service leaders, we can day in day out make a difference by using our agency and our efforts to inspire others to make a daily difference, whatever the prevailing weather.

Leadership isn’t about titles, positions or flow charts. It’s about one life influencing another. If you believe this, you can achieve great things and inspire others to do the same. As Margaret Mead said “Never doubt that a small group of concerned citizens can change the world. Indeed it’s the only thing that ever has”.

Find solace in Solace this week colleagues, and enjoy each other’s company, find solutions to problems and enjoy the fellowship of us all as brave, bold leaders doing our part to change the work one place, one step at a time.

Finally, I’m going to finish as I started, with a song. Five years ago today, Doncaster kids welcomed the Kiwi Rugby Team to our borough. They performed the Haka. At the New Zealand conference, local children performed the haka and welcome. My youngest son is ‘doing’ the haka in P.E. We’ve learned what it means. We must never underestimate the power of connection, the power to connect individuals, for connection to inspire and grow fellowship and learning.

At the risk of being shot down: here goes – my bit of the Haka with a Yorkshire moto that is my closing song of the moment:

Ka mate, Ka mate
Ka Ora, Ka Ora
Nana nei tiki mai
Whaka whitite ra
A upa ne ka up ane
Upane Kaupane
Whiti te ra

In English that’s roughly:

It is death
It is life
Who fetched the sun
And caused it to shine again
One upward step, another upward step
Another upward step
And the sun shines.
Kia kaha (be strong) and crack on!