Keeping the future in sight

Written by: Sally Wilson is senior consultant with GatenbySanderson’s interim Leadership Practice
Published on: 18 Aug 2022

The challenge to deliver today’s needs while developing tomorrow’s solutions is felt acutely in Local Government. At GatenbySanderson’s recent Innovation think-tank event, led by the RSA, we posed this question of managing priorities and tensions to a panel of Local Authority industry leaders.

Although each approached the challenge differently with their own themes and context, the common thread running through each perspective was how long-term vision and short-term delivery need to be addressed in tandem and not as separate entities.

With pressure for local authorities to balance the books each financial year and a barrage of daily challenges, it’s easy to see how quickly you can lose sight of the future. As Richard Grice, interim transformation director at Nottingham City Council said: ‘In the case of an urgent problem today and an urgent problem tomorrow, today’s problem will always win’.

As each of our panel addressed, if space isn’t freed up to address tomorrow’s problems, they will simply become today’s problems of the future. How do leaders find the time to take the long-term perspective and how do they support their teams to take this approach? After a decade of austerity and depleted leadership and management teams, how many leaders have the ‘luxury’ of making space to think? As Ian Burbidge, head of innovation and change at RSA, pointed out: ‘Will opportunities be missed if taking time out is seen as a luxury?’

I am very grateful that Richard, Ian and our other speakers all took time out of their busy schedules to explore this topic with us and our network of local authority innovation leaders and managers and here are some of their thoughts.

Financial constraints are increasing: inflation; post-Covid impact; the war in Ukraine; pay competition; an aging and an increasingly unhealthy population are daily drains of time and resources. Richard pointed out that, with a deteriorating amount of public expenditure, local government will not be at the front of the queue for additional funding.

If local authorities only focus on addressing the immediate needs and finding ways to take costs out, they will just be managing decline. Richard feels that, as a sector, they must address productivity. Much of what a local authority does is process focused – data in, make a decision, data out – the use of automated technology could drive out cost in the future and free up space to support innovation in more people focused areas such as social work.

Restructure and reform was the topic Paul Cracknell, executive director of strategy and transformation at Norfolk County Council addressed for us. Having spent a large proportion of his career working within the NHS, and more recently leading on the county deal for Norfolk, he understands the delicate balancing act of immediate need vs future vision at points of major change.

He spoke of the additional challenge of managing previous legacies and how to integrate the past, present and future. When going through monumental change, Paul feels that managing people and taking them on what can be a turbulent journey is one of the biggest challenges. How do you keep relationships going? How do you retain the best people? And how do you manage the destructive creep of people’s cynicism?

Norfolk has introduced a range of people based programmes to help underline that the future isn’t always just a continuation of the past, but an opportunity to open up new possibilities. These include a revised workforce strategy, investment in leadership development as well as focus on effective organisation design which can’t be just about financial savings.

Using a local authority’s agency scale and influence to make a difference to residents and local businesses was the topic of Stephen Biggs, corporate director of community wealth building at Islington Council. Stephen shared the size and scale of local authorities in their communities gives them levers they can pull to actively intervene on economic inequalities.

By structuring their leadership to focus on their community they are creating an organisation that looks to the future but addresses the immediate needs. By choosing to spend with local suppliers they are supporting local economic growth. By actively working with communities to develop skills of the local workforce they can employ more local people.

Listening to the presentations, I couldn’t help but draw comparisons with the practice of yoga and being centred through balancing opposing forces. When you are looking to build strength and resilience you can practice abduction and adduction, pulling apart and pushing together. In this context I’d argue that delivering immediate needs while creating a future vision is also balancing opposing forces.

As in Yoga, by doing so you will build organisational strength and resilience. The word ‘Yoga’ is derived from the Sanskrit root ‘Yuj’, meaning ‘to join’ or ‘to unite’. By joining together communities and uniting teams with a common vision you can be big and bold with your vision for the future and address
the problems faced now. The practice of Yoga is something to be done daily, built up over a long period of time. You can’t look at Yogis on Instagram and immediately replicate their gravity defying backbends. It takes time and dedication. Those Yogis will have carved out space and time to practice and build their craft.

Much like you can’t develop a vision for the authority with a narrative that its people and communities don’t understand or can’t see their place in. It’s a journey and leaders need to develop the right narrative to take them on that journey.

Carving out time for daily practice is difficult, especially when you get to the end of the day with a full to do list for tomorrow. We need to find time away from business as usual to explore the unusual and not classify this time as a luxury, but a necessity. It is only this period of reflection on what has been and is yet to be that brings the two together.

In our Interim Leadership Practice, we are seeing an increase in the ber of authorities looking for ‘consultants’ briefs to manage some of their future thinking. Wouldn’t it be great if, rather than just bringing in specialists to do the visioning, we were also being asked for managers who can take on capacity and create space for leaders to look into the distance themselves? 

Sally Wilson is senior consultant with GatenbySanderson’s interim Leadership Practice