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In Our View, issue 35 (Focus)

Featuring coverage of December’s Leadership Academy Alumni event

Authors and contributors: Mark Lumley, S A Mathieson, Aidan Matthews
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Socitm In Our View, issue 35 (Focus)

2022’s final issue of Socitm’s membership magazine covers the Leadership Academy Alumni event held in London on 8 December. It includes reports on talks by Abi Gbago of Bristol City Council and Ukrainian IT recruiter Kateryna Lugar. Graduates of Socitm’s leadership courses offered advice on managing people and personal development, the latest Empowering Women cohorts discussed how to recruit women more effectively and Socitm’s Aidan Matthews ran a post-truth quiz, all featured here.

Illustration of a group of people celebrating under stage spotlights

Vice-president’s welcome

Bring your authentic self to local government leadership

The public sector is unique and amazing, the delivery arm of government. We often get a rough deal, whether that is funding or how our community views us. But cast your mind back over the last couple of years and think of all the amazing things that we’ve done. Local government has had to deal with Covid-19, post-Covid recovery, the Ukrainian crisis, the passing of Queen Elizabeth II, the hottest and driest summer on record.

It’s very strange – when I speak to my friends about the role of a senior leader in local government, they are genuinely surprised to hear about some of the things I end up getting involved in. They say to me, don’t you just tell people to turn it off and on again? Which we do, obviously, there is a time and a place for that. But I was on gold call for some of the fires we had during the summer, which you wouldn’t think about for an IT head. The amount of things we get involved in as senior leaders is huge.

There is the idea of bringing your whole self to work, but we have changed that a little bit at Hounslow. I was on a management course where we started to talk about bringing your authentic self to work. That means not just coming in and doing the five things you needed to do that day – if only it was just five things – but also to bring your values, your ethics and everything about you into what you do.

I think that is so true for digital services, where we need to make sure we’re representing our communities when we’re designing services so we have equality, diversity and inclusivity built into everything that we do.

At Socitm’s Manchester event last month we talked about having psychological safety to make mistakes, to learn, to grow, to innovate, to fail and to fail fast. It is really important that we as leaders in local government enable ourselves, our colleagues and staff to do that, creating the conditions for us to thrive.

Personal resilience is also important including thinking about our own mental health and having events like this to take the time and space out of a busy office to recharge.

Mark Lumley
Socitm vice-president

This is an edited version of Mark’s welcome to Socitm’s Leadership Academy Alumni event held in London on 8 December - view the slides from the event.

Event news

Leaders can ‘light something up in colleagues’

Local government leaders can inspire their staff by listening to them then acting with authenticity and compassion, Abi Gbago told Socitm’s Leadership Academy Alumni event in London on 8 December.

Gbago, speaking just before starting a new role as executive director children’s and education at Bristol City Council, recalled a meeting including the chief executive earlier in her career which she attended on behalf of her boss. She felt the ideas under discussion were poor, so despite misgivings about being a relatively junior employee and the only black woman in the room, she put her hand up and criticised them.

Two days later, she received an email from the chief executive which included what she described as “the most powerful sentence in my career,” reading: “Abi, I heard what you said and you were right and I have seen you.” Having previously felt invisible, this gave her the confidence to apply for jobs with greater responsibilities that let her develop her skills in strategic planning.

“That sentence lit something inside of me,” Gbago said, encouraging attendees to think of the positive impact they can have on staff who work for them. “You have the ability to light something up in your colleagues.”

With the public sector “in a really shit time” it is vital that leaders keep sight of people: “Great leaders are those who are authentic all the time, hear what people say and make compassionate decisions,” she said. It also makes sense to work on developing their own networks, something she did through taking part in a Socitm leadership programme in London five years ago with Socitm vice-president Mark Lumley.

“Great leaders are those who are authentic all the time, hear what people say and make compassionate decisions”

Abi Gbago, Bristol City Council

Innovation is another key trait of leadership, Gbago added. While working as an assistant director at Islington Council she won funding from central government to tackle domestic violence and persuaded the Metropolitan Police Service to allocate two officers to the work. “We’re in a time when things are changing so rapidly all the time,” she said. “If we do not innovate as quickly as the environment is changing and shifting, we are doing a disservice to the people that we serve.”

From Ukraine to UK: ‘You need to accept the situation’

Acceptance is essential in adapting to extreme change, a Ukrainian who fled her home to live in the UK told the event.

On 24 February, the day Russia invaded, Kateryna Lugar left her home in the city of Kharkiv in 20 minutes with her daughter and some essential documents. After two weeks in the Netherlands applying for the UK’s Homes for Ukraine scheme, they arrived in Market Harborough in Leicestershire.

Lugar, who continues to work remotely for Ukrainian technology recruiter Indigo, said that for the first two or three of months she monitored news on her phone hoping they could go home soon.

But then she realised she was stuck in a mental loop: “This way goes nowhere,” she said. “You need to accept the situation that you are here right now, so you can act. If you are just waiting you can’t change it.”

Former Socitm president Sam Smith, who is hosting two Ukrainians under the scheme, described Lugar’s acceptance as “awe-inspiring” and an example of how to adapt.

Lugar’s four-year-old daughter is attending nursery and now speaks quite good English having not known any before. Although she misses family, friends and toys, Lugar said her daughter is able to switch away from worrying about home: “She is my teacher.”

Illustration of a man and a woman talking together

Panel: have difficult conversations and learn to say no

Managing people well includes taking uncomfortable but necessary actions, according to panellists who have completed leadership training run by Socitm.

Annie Ede, senior IT and digital transformation analyst at Conwy County Borough Council, said that the Empowering Women programme she joined in Cardiff earlier in 2022 helped her change how she reacts to others. “One of the things I discovered, which I sort-of knew anyway, was that part of my communication style as a helper is being a bit of a people pleaser,” she said. “That has really helped me develop my skill of saying no.” This has increased resilience in her personal life as well as at work, she added.

Amy Jackson, GIS and gazetteer manager for Elmbridge Borough Council, was a member of a recent Top Talent cohort. She said that it is quite difficult to manage people that you have previously worked alongside: “Maintaining that professional relationship and not overstepping the mark between friendship and management is difficult, as they still see you as part of the team,” she said, but it is needed for aspects of management including discipline and setting expectations.

“[The Empowering Women programme] has really helped me develop my skill of saying no”

Annie Ede, Conwy County Borough Council

Nicholas McCarthy, head of digital services at London Borough of Hounslow and the session’s chair, said he has learnt that it is better to have difficult conversations with colleagues as early as possible, ideally face to face rather than online. He added: “A spectacular failure for me has been not having that conversation early on.” Doing so in one case could have avoided the need for disciplinary action against a member of staff, which he felt reflected badly on him as a manager.

Ellie Lee, head of business partnerships for the London boroughs of Kingston and Sutton, recalled a recent procurement process which would have gone better if she knew at the start what she knows now. However, it also shows the value of learning from experience: “I think we should all be forgiving of ourselves,” she added. Lee participated in the Empowering Women programme last year in Birmingham and is now taking part in mentoring.

All panellists were asked for advice on personal development. Annie Ede said that writing an action plan after events such as training is worthwhile. She had done this after the Empowering Women programme and has since done most of the items on the list. Amy Jackson said that she checks emails just twice a day and spends the rest of her time working through a daily list. “People get used to that as your way of working,” she said. “If there is anything that is really urgent, you’re going to hear about it anyway.”

“I may have chosen not to do something because I found it daunting or a stretch, but now I just think, give it a go”

Ellie Lee, Kingston and Sutton

Nicholas McCarthy added that it makes sense to look at the last email in a chain first, as it may be that the problem has been resolved with no further action required.

Ellie Lee said that being braver can pay dividends. “Sometimes I just take a deep breath and do something,” she said. “In the past I may have chosen not to do something because I found it daunting or a stretch, but now I just think, give it a go.”

Illustration showing a pinboard with job adverts

Overhaul job ads to recruit more women

Technology employers could increase applications from women by making job descriptions less prescriptive, according to a cohort from Socitm’s Empowering Women programme.

The Mint Green group, with participants from Anglesey, Barnet, Blackpool, Hounslow and Socitm Advisory, told the event that women are more likely than men not to apply for a job unless they match all the criteria listed, meaning that adverts with a long list of these are likely to get fewer female applicants.

Women planning to return to work from caring for children or relatives may set other barriers for themselves, such as worrying about having been out of the workplace for too long, lacking recent experience or not being able to work traditional office hours. “Women often rate their performance and abilities at work more negatively than men (often unknowingly) and allow their inner crow/critic to prevent them from taking on new challenges,” the group said.

The cohort proposed that employers use more female-friendly job descriptions that cover general skills and knowledge and avoid long lists of required criteria, while highlighting opportunities in training, mentoring and apprenticeships. Organisations can also support longer-term work such as encouraging girls to take computing courses at school.

“Women often rate their performance and abilities at work more negatively than men”

Mint Green Empowering Women cohort

Another Empowering Women cohort presented plans for a local authority recruitment campaign to encourage women to apply for senior technology roles. The group, with participants from Amazon Web Services, Hounslow, Norfolk and Socitm Advisory, said that local authorities tend to poach people from their peers, but should “consider hunting, not fishing.” This would include working together to find candidates from other sectors as well as encouraging women to use online job services including LinkedIn.

The group added that local authorities could do more to sell the benefits of working in the public sector such as strong policies on flexible working and parental leave, published salary ranges, defined benefit pensions and significant proportions of women working in top jobs.

They also said that local authorities should consider how to improve retention rates in ways that work for women, including ‘flight risk assessments’ within regular work reviews that cover motivations, frustrations and aspirations.

Socitm mentoring tackled impostor syndrome

A participant in the Socitm mentoring programme told the event that it had helped her tackle impostor syndrome, overthinking and worrying. “I’ve learnt what I can do when I push myself outside my comfort zone and had the opportunity to talk to someone outside my organisation,” said Michelle Walker, ICT business engagement officer for Coventry City Council.

She was mentored by Socitm’s chief executive Nadira Hussain, who encouraged her to consider perceived barriers such as nervousness talking to senior managers. Walker chairs the council’s women’s network, which involves all levels of staff and has included setting up menopause support events, and the mentoring encouraged her to transfer what she did in this network to her day job.

Walker said the experience has encouraged her to volunteer for interview panels that involve working with senior staff as well as telling her manager that she wants to move towards a more senior role in a few years’ time. “I perhaps wouldn’t have said that before these sessions,” she added.

Truth or myth?

Aidan Matthews, Socitm’s learning programme manager, challenged those attending with his post-truth quiz.

Can you spot which statements are true and which are myths? (Answers can be found at the bottom of this page.)

  1. Charles Darwin and Abraham Lincoln were born on the exact same day.
  2. In ancient Rome, people used urine as a mouthwash.
  3. Mozart wrote his opera Don Giovanni whilst in jail.
  4. St Isidor of Seville is the patron saint of the internet.
  5. Albert Einstein once guest-starred in an episode of 1950s TV western ‘Gunsmoke’.
  6. Princess Diana once voted in a TV phone-poll to abolish the monarchy.
  7. In Singapore it is a criminal offence not to flush a public toilet after using it.
  8. In the UK the fine for driving through a puddle and splashing a pedestrian is greater than that for speeding.
  9. Henry Ford invented the automobile.
  10. Tomato ketchup was sold as a medicine in the 1830s.
  11. The surface area of the membrane in a dog’s nose is larger than the surface area of the dog’s skin.
  12. Bulls are particularly attracted to the colour red.
  13. Thomas Edison invented the light bulb.
  14. There are more mobile phones in the UK than there are people.
  15. The film ‘Titanic’ was showing on board a Danish cruise-ship when it struck an iceberg in 2001.
  16. The inventor of the Pringles can is now buried in one.

Nations & regions news

Scotland

Dundee City Council has published an online climate emissions dashboard that details its plans and progress towards meeting its target of reaching net zero emissions by 2045.

Wales

Ceredigion County Council is asking the public for views on converting some of its office space to host public services such as healthcare outpatient services, as a result of hybrid working by staff.

Northern Ireland

Ards and North Down Borough Council and the area’s strategic community planning partnership have published Here2Help, a mobile app providing a directory of local non-profit organisations that offer support and advice.

Republic of Ireland

Dublin City Council with Water Safety Ireland and the Department for Rural and Community Development has launched Smart Ring Buoys, sensors that alert officers when ring-buoys are stolen or tampered with, as part of a group of eight councils that plan to install more than 600 of the devices.

North-east England

North Tyneside Council has commissioned a bespoke version of the DadPad mobile app to provide fathers and fathers-to-be with practical skills and information including basic baby care.

Yorkshire and the Humber

Sheffield City Council is supporting free broadband for 360 homes on the Dryden estate at Southey Green through a charity founded by the chief executive of software company WanDisco.

North-west England

Warrington Borough Council has established a digital twin model of the town’s buildings and energy infrastructure to help it become more energy efficient and move towards net zero emissions.

East Midlands

Nottingham City Council is inviting people to ‘talk’ to lamp posts, bins and park benches by using QR codes or text messages to share views on the city’s ambition to be carbon neutral by 2028.

West Midlands

Coventry City Council has established #CovConnects, a digital training initiative which includes events at libraries and church halls as well as access to free online data for those who qualify through the National Databank scheme.

East of England

Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority has opened free access to its CambWifi network in Peterborough city centre, with the aim of supporting local hospitality and retail businesses.

South-east England

Hampshire County Council with historical records company Ancestry has made nearly five centuries of the county’s wills and probate documents available, with free access through its libraries and record office.

South-west England

Connecting Devon and Somerset has used additional funding from the area’s local enterprise partnership to extend its Mobile Boost scheme, that supports improvements to indoor mobile signals, until next March.

London

Hackney Council has said that the cyber attack on its systems in October 2020 cost it £12 million in direct spending alone, but that its recovery has in some cases accelerated modernisation plans.

Answers to Truth or myth quiz: 1. True, 2. True, 3. Myth, 4. True, 5. Myth, 6. Myth, 7. True, 8. True, 9. Myth, 10. True, 11. True, 12. Myth, 13, Myth, 14. True, 15. Myth, 16. True.