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Leo Jones

Reflections on my year as a Deputy Director of Children’s Services: Exploring how our own decision-making can generate demand

This blogpost is part one in a series of three. Leo spent a year as a Deputy Director of Children’s Services before returning to work for iMPOWER in June 2018

A Wednesday morning, sometime last summer: it’s my first week in the job.

I’m attending the Chief Executive’s management team meeting on behalf of the Director of Children’s Services. When it finishes, I return to my desk to find that there are suddenly about a hundred new emails waiting for me. One of our schools is on the front page of a national newspaper – and not for a good reason.

I am due to chair another meeting but postpone it. I need to ring the Headteacher, speak to the council’s communications team, brief the Chief Executive, brief the Leader and Lead Member, visit the school, and start an investigation into the allegations. After a hectic day doing all that, I return to the office – there are emails to clear before I head home, with people waiting for my views or decisions on other unrelated issues. In other words, this was a surprisingly hectic day – but one that turned out to be fairly ‘normal’.

Having just returned to iMPOWER after my year away, I have found it both cathartic and helpful to reflect on what it is like to work on the frontline of local government to support children and families.

The first thing that really jumps out to me is the dedication and resilience shown by council staff on a daily basis. As my snapshot ‘day in the life’ above shows, they are often working under huge pressure and facing significant challenges.

There are also more practical reflections which stand out, related to:

  • How decision-making within councils can itself generate avoidable activity
  • The importance of good collaboration within councils
  • What we can learn from models of distributed leadership.

In this blogpost, I wanted to focus on the first point.

Finding the time to Think, Plan, Do

As consultants providing external support in public services, we sometimes get frustrated when things don’t move as quickly as we want them to. We might ask ourselves ‘why can’t the council get 10 social workers freed up to do case reviews with us?’ – or ‘why can’t I get time with the project sponsor to check progress on our plan?’

The reality is that due to the growth in demand for services, the continued expansion in statutory duties on councils or new regulatory frameworks, the pace of work required (to adapt to these changes and continue to deliver services) is frenetic.

The continued reduction in funding has led to some incredible innovation in the sector but has also led to a reduction in the capacity to think, to plan and to do. An increasing number of middle managers and senior leaders have also had to take on responsibilities for areas they have never worked in before.

At iMPOWER we use our EDGEWORK philosophy and methodology to solve complex problems, and we use behavioural science to deliver demand-led change. Reflecting on my time at the council, I realised that a significant proportion of council activity and workload can actually be driven by our own behaviours in managing our services and in the way we made decisions.

Having been a social worker, I know there is something perversely satisfying in having to respond quickly to issues. Firefighting and instantly reacting to challenges generates a strange endorphin hit which people thrive off and want more of.

I was fortunate to have hugely dedicated and motivated people working with me. My teams were busy and often stretched – but this was partly driven by the lack of interaction between them to consider what a decision may mean for others. This meant that we didn’t routinely:

  • fully consider the impact of what we were doing on the longer term, so issues would sometimes come back 10-fold after a few weeks or months
  • put ourselves in the place of other colleagues, to understand how they could help us or what our decisions could mean for them
  • reach out to ask for help – and make active links between each other as a matter of course

I can’t say I cracked this totally – and the wider system we were operating in meant there were many interfaces with other teams and organisations, which made this more complex.

However, I found it really important for us all to step back and think about our three main priorities and how each of our individual services contributed to these, rather than being discreet activities on their own. Feeling part of a broader purpose can be very powerful, but my perception is that this sense of a shared vision is missing in many councils.

The ability to evidence impact

My teams began to concentrate on the metrics that would help us demonstrate impact against our priorities, and where services may impact on more than one. But to galvanise broader support, it was critical to have evidence to show why what we were doing was needed and a roadmap to show how we were delivering it successfully. This continues to be a real challenge for the sector and demonstrated to me how good external support (that ‘gets’ the sector, can work at pace and can innovate on the ground to solve problems) remains of real value.

And that is why I am back at iMPOWER – to help local government make the changes that can improve public services, in ways that are sustainable and which support the most vulnerable. iMPOWER is at the cutting edge of this work – and I want to be part of it.

If my reflections resonate with you, please carry on and read the next two parts of this series – and let me know your thoughts.

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