Skip to navigation Skip to main content

Reflections on my year as a Deputy Director of Children’s Services: Models of Distributed Leadership

Leo Jones

This blogpost is part three 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

In my final blogpost, I want to set out the case for the need for local authorities to consider new models of leadership.

As a consultant, every council I have worked with has battled the same Gordian knot on senior management and leadership. There is a need for strong directorate management. But to tackle demand for services and demonstrate improved productivity with the resources at their disposal, there is also a need to break down silos and end competition between directorates. However, this is often easier said than done.

My experience is that councils tend to create a key set of priorities, then task individual directorates to go away on their own to deliver them, rather than really thinking through their collective ability to influence and deliver them as a council – leveraging the skills and expertise held in all council areas to meet them. Of course, this is a challenge faced by all kinds of organisations across the public and private sectors, and we have also wrestled with it at IMPOWER too. Giving lead directors targets for one market area can stifle collaboration and create primacy of the individual over the company.

The squeezes on the public purse are beginning to make people think differently about how we understand, engage and influence communities to improve their resilience and reduce their reliance on council services. The continued impact of austerity also leads to the question of future public sector reform – what do we want from our broader public services, and what is the role of the local authority in local communities? Local councils have often been system leaders, making efforts to get other local public sector partners (including health, police and education) to work more closely together to improve outcomes and reduce spend on higher cost specialist provision. Making this a success requires leaders to consider a broader set of priorities than just those relevant to an individual directorate.

‘Integration’ is the current buzz word in the sector – focused on better maximising the collective resources of the broader public service offer at a local level. Many authorities are seeking to deliver services in smaller localities, but again, doing so will require a different kind of structure and leadership. We need to consider how we empower leaders to take on responsibility for a ‘patch’ and how they are able to influence and mold relationships in those areas to create shared value and impact. Rather than seeing council priorities delivered by different directorates, there is a need to consider how leaders are tasked to take ownership of (or coordination for) all of these at a local level.

Achieving this is not easy and requires moving away from traditional models of leadership and top-down decision making. There is a need to find ways for other leaders in the council to be empowered to ‘flex’ and make instant decisions on the ground to react to changing environments. This may mean moving away from traditional service departments and thinking about broader accountabilities for leaders that cover the full set of priorities in a council plan.

Most council priorities are broadly similar – improving health and wellbeing, providing good schools and educational opportunities, leveraging growth and regeneration, protecting the most vulnerable from harm. But achieving objectives in these areas is no longer purely within the scope of the council – nor in the scope of one single Director or Directorate.

For example, analysis I have done with IMPOWER has consistently shown that many of the services needed to support reductions in the numbers of children in care sit outside the direct oversight of the Director of Children’s Services. Similarly, improving the independence of adults and those with learning difficulties is reliant not just on ensuring clear strengths-based practice in adults services, but on the transition arrangements from children’s services, the accommodation options available from the council and on the non-statutory leisure and skills services that can support this goal.

As described in the second part of this series, in my role as a Deputy Director I wrestled with the challenge of meeting the significant growth in school places needed due to a significant expansion in housing. Doing so in the new educational landscape – where the local authority no longer had direct oversight over a significant number of schools – was complex, as was leveraging a broader range of support across the council. I needed to understand 15-year housing trajectories, consider Sn 106 contributions, obtain support from finance colleagues to model complex financial scenarios in how this would be paid for and fully understand the assets we had at our disposal – as well as communicate this to schools, the public and our own members. Whilst we were seeking to develop a more strategic education plan for the whole council footprint, many of these issues were intrinsically linked to other changes happening in local areas – not least the regeneration and housing infrastructure plans which were underway.

We had begun to consider future council delivery in four smaller local areas (or quadrants) and were at the early stages of considering how these would and could lead to the need to flex leadership and improve the pace of decision making. This continues to be a journey, but if local authorities are to survive it is leadership approaches like this that need to be considered across the sector. Only by innovating and adapting can deeper public sector integration be achieved at a local level.

What do you think about future models of leadership? I’d love to hear from you. 

Written by

Leo Jones



Sign up for the latest thinking on delivering sustainable change and better public services

No spam; unsubscribe easily at any time. Learn more in our Privacy Policy.