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Solace blog

20th March 2015

Vaulting the worthwhile bar: Solace Leadership Forum

I arise at stupid o’clock to travel to London for the Solace annual leadership seminar, the first under the new Policy Board arrangements.

I have never yet made such a journey untinged by guilt at the inevitable burden placed on colleagues by what feels like the sheer indulgence of a day away, reflecting, chewing the cud, leaving them to face, in this case, the rigours of scrutiny. This effect of all this is to set the ‘worthwhile’ bar quite high as I clear my first meeting and head to Evershed’s offices to join the throng.

First up, Sir Bob Kerslake, the room has a gentle, amiable buzz about it, generated by the fact that he is always interesting, always entertaining, but mostly, of course, he is our man; as ex-Chief Executive of Sheffield, now installed in the top local gov job in Whitehall, we always anticipate the sharing of ‘intimacies’, maybe the (slightly naughty) feeding of sector prejudices with revealing facts, perhaps even some satisfying stories of conflicts where our brave knight ‘takes down’ the misunderstanding mandarins of Whitehall. For those who have this agenda, it starts well: today we learn is his last official engagement as Perm Sec, he will be, he imparts, heading to the Lords” (but that’s not public yet) “after a visit to Southwold”. This is great. “What was in your handover note for Melanie Dawes,” someone asks. “Five things,” he says right away. The room is hushed, we edge forward in our seats. “Local government finance – especially pensions; why have all these separate funds? Care and is future. Devolution – the toughest agenda to advance in Whitehall” (murmurs) “Intervention – we need to go beyond the peer model, but to what? How to work together to truly take advantage of the power of digital.” We remain edged forward in our seats but looking slightly quizzically from side to side, we’ve had a taste but no substantial meal, or have we? I peer at the evaluation form that my colleague is filling out as he goes along. “What should we do next time” is the question on the form and I notice that he has written; “invite the Permanent Secretary of DCLG the day after retirement. But then, of course, s/he wouldn’t come.

The day progresses and your correspondent has to nip out to conduct an interview at lunchtime (I am through my guilt by now, so this is a monumental pain). I hurry back and catch the tail end of Dame Helen Ghosh, as a former Perm Sec at DEFRA and the Home Office, imparting some very useful advice on how to survive the withering attention of select committees and being clear about the necessity to always talk on behalf of politicians, not in place of them.

Final session and we are all scratching our heads at the appearance of John Timpson. Yes that’s right, he is the head of the family business that now cuts our keys, repairs our shoes and dry cleans our clothes. The need for his presence quickly becomes apparent as he describes a refreshingly straightforward approach to what he calls “upside down management”. Its upside down he explains because it has the customer at the top and the Chief Exec at the bottom. We receive gob-smacking advice on recruitment: “we hire on the basis of personality, we assume we can train people to cut a key”. On organisational rules – “we have two, 1) be yourself and 2) put the money in the till”. On performance management “we have a way off getting rid of drongo’s”. It also turns out that Timpson’s have an extraordinary record of employing prisoners and have through very progressive practices achieved a re-offending rate of barely 3%. It’s all very rejuvenating stuff and the audience is smiling, relaxed, impressed and praying someone won’t say “but we can’t do that in local government”. No one does, though some Solace Members propose him as the next speaker at the next PPMA Conference.

I head for the Solace dinner – the worthwhile bar comfortably cleared.

Max Wide, Strategic Director of Business Change, Bristol City Council