The walk from Southend Victoria to the Civic centre building gives me an initial flavour of the spirit of Southend; in just a couple of metres I passed by a planetarium, two art galleries, and a start-up space called the Hive.
Ali Griffin joined Southend-on-Sea council nine months ago. In fact, later during the day I ask Ali why she chose Southend given that she spent most of her career in London. ‘It’s all about Southend, the place’, Alison tells me. Later on, I realise that the role of the Chief Executive is not just about running an organisation, it’s about shaping a place and articulating a vision current and future residents can buy into.
Day One of the shadowing experience starts with a meeting of the Corporate Management Team (CMT). As an outsider working in the sector, you always want to be a fly in the wall during those meetings.
The idea in my head about these meetings is that senior officer focus on solving problems, with the Chief Executive signing off a couple of reports or giving the go-ahead of certain projects. However, Ali’s approach is different – all operational decisions are seen in the context of the Council’s long-term strategic direction. How do we tackle sickness absences – do we introduce a training course or do we change the culture and behaviours that enable an easier return to work?
In that sense, CMT has another – more long-term – role, which is about bringing to life Ali’s vision by engaging with officers and role modelling the new behaviours that would realise Southend 2050. On the way to the train station, Ali tells me that she is keen to change the way her team view leadership. ‘I don’t have all the answers’ – a refreshing and bold statement. It’s about empowering people to question and have the confidence to find their own solutions.
Health & Wellbeing Board
In the afternoon, I accompanied Alison to a Health & Wellbeing board meeting.
During the informal meeting I experienced first-hand how local councillors and Clinical Commissioning Group (CCG) Accountable officers scrutinise the work of the Sustainability and Transformation Partnership (STP) Programme Board. It was also interesting to observe the differences in culture, even language, used by STP managers with mostly medical background and local councillors. On multiple occasions, the Chair had to ‘translate’ a complex answer from a medical practitioner given to a Councillor question.
Overall, I noticed that the discussion was more on the ‘health’ side rather than the ‘wellbeing’ side, with the focus mostly on acute services. Ali’s focus has been on shifting the discussion towards a greater focus on prevention and wellbeing. She found that it was not the actual meeting that added value but the relationship you build in the process.
The strength of local relationships has enabled the development of a concept of localities used to implement the STP-wide objectives (such as local care coordination, multi-disciplinary teams and community asset mapping) across the SE Essex footprint. I personally found this a refreshing way to cut through the complexity in the health system and focus on what really matters – the health outcomes of local communities.
Pepper – the robot in the ‘People’ department
The second day started with an interesting encounter. I met Pepper – the robot with its own Twitter page, a significant following, a busy calendar, and its own opinion on whether he is a boy or a girl (Ironically, Pepper is part of the People Directorate - because his aim is not to replace people but to engage differently with people.
For instance, it can be programmed to play games with children with Asperger’s’ syndrome, help those with dementia play memory games, and make coding accessible to young people.
I initially thought that meeting Pepper would be uncomfortable but you are instantly drawn to engaging with it. It has also helped Southend lead the conversation on the use of technology and digital innovation in the provision of services.
The meeting with one of the most innovative and largest local employers – Olympus – provided a fascinating insight into the role councils play in promoting economic growth but also the role businesses play in the community. Olympus is committed to investing in Southend – both in terms of talent and facilities - because it is embedded in the community.
Olympus is keen to speak with the council on how to develop a locally sustainable supply chain and a local supply base. Olympus’ push to attract and retain local talent also links into the Council’s Skills Strategy. What I found quite interesting was that Southend and Olympus both feel that the apprenticeship levy has yet to bear fruit; both see the need to work with local providers to develop the right skills for the local labour market.
One of Ali’s objectives is to make the Council ‘easy to work with’, making sure that every contact business have with officers is meaningful and leads to results.
On the creative industries, income generation and commercialism
During a tour of Southend later that day, Ali spoke passionately about Southend as a cultural and learning hub, attracting creative industries and creating jobs. The Council has invested for social return by building an art gallery, co-locating the public library with the local college & university and supporting modern art.
When I ask Ali what her view is on commercialism and income generation, she says that it’s part of councils’ DNA to be entrepreneurial and generate income through commercial activity but that it needs to have a dual purpose: developing the place, while putting the Council’s finances on a sustainable footing. Ali also accepts that Councils need to strike a careful balance between accepting commercial risk and making sure there are safeguards in place.
Conversation with the County Council
During a call with Essex County Council, I could see the investment Ali has made into relationship with the County Council and other partners. She has also sought to build peer networks with leaders from South Essex as they share a common functional economic area based on the clustering around the Thames Estuary, with a shared ambition to drive infrastructure-led growth. Ali’s assessment is that the relationship with central government is very much based on deal-making and making a successful pitch for your place. Partners in a place need to ‘go to government together’ and ensure they have a consistent narrative.
Would I recommend job shadowing? Absolutely. There is no substitute for experiencing first-hand the complexity of public sector leadership, the wide range of stakeholders that Ali manages on a daily basis, the creative energy it takes to take everyone on a change journey, and the amazing feeling of reward when, at the end of the day, you realise that you’ve worked to improve the lives of local residents.