Meena Kishinani, former Transformation Director at London Borough of Barking and Dagenham and Henry Kippin, Director at North of Tyne Combined Authority joined Dominic Campbell for our panel at Transitions, to share their insights on transformational leadership and what this looks like as we move to recovery.
Dominic Campbell (DC): We’re delighted to be able to bring this panel together today, with inspiring speakers with years of experience managing transformations.
We have Meena, who is the Former Transformation Director at the London Borough of Barking and Dagenham and also joining us and is Henry Kippin, Director at North of Tyne Combined Authority.
Thanks for joining us everybody, we’re going to go straight to you Meena, we’d love to hear your thoughts to start us off.
Meena Kishinani (MK): Good morning everybody and thanks for that Dom. Up until about six weeks ago, I was the Transformation Director for the London Borough of Barking and Dagenham.
For those of you who don’t know, Barking and Dagenham is an authority that’s located East of London, it’s got one of the fastest-growing populations in the country. 32% of the population are children under the age of 18 and the demographic has moved from fifteen per cent ethnic minorities in 2005 to 69% in 2020. It’s also the second most deprived borough in the capital, so a borough with huge challenges and what I’m about to tell you will provide context.
I spent an amazing 16 years in Barking and Dagenham mainly in social care, and the last five years as Director for Transformation. For anybody out there wanting a career move, trust me, the skills are absolutely transferable, that experience is valuable for this kind of corporate world. Trust, building relationships and having influence to change the culture and behaviours of an organisation are really good skills if you come from a social care background.
This conference is about transitions so I don’t want to forget about where Barking and Dagenham has come from. This is the borough that left itself so lean it was about to topple over. And absolutely no corporate centre to speak of. There was no strategy, no vision and definitely no plan for the future.
Barking and Dagenham embarked on a massive transformation programme, one of the biggest seen in London and one that completely transformed the way they operated. The message from staff was clear, ‘stop the salami slicing, stop tinkering around the edges and really transform what we do’.
That’s exactly what happened, it started with something called the growth commission. Some external people came in and told us a few things, they agreed with us that we were London’s great opportunity, so actually, the place agenda was so important to us. They also told us that we definitely didn’t have the capacity or capability to deliver it. They told us we needed to build trust and reconnect with our residents and probably most importantly, they told us that we had to pay real attention to the condition of our residents. We were truly at the bottom of so many of those life chances indicators, and particularly too far away from the labour market. If we really wanted that growth to be inclusive then we really had to focus on changing the outcomes for our residents.
That led to the major transformation I spoke about and that was about building an organisation that could work at two speeds. One to deliver really high-quality services today but also focusing on the long-term of supporting people to change their lives.
The bit I want to focus on is that the council that we’ve got now is completely unrecognisable from the one that existed five years ago. It’s a complete root and branch change, we’ve completely invested in our strategy, we’ve invested in the centre in terms of the participation team, with real insight with data scientists and a really first-class comms service. I think it’s really important that communications have been a fundamental part of any change programmes. We set up six new companies all focused on generating income, a real investment strategy to make sure that we were financially sustainable in the long term.
The transformation touched every part of Barking and Dagenham, every person, every member of every team, it was a complete revamp of where we were. Interestingly, we created a narrative, a story and we didn’t deviate from that. We won lots of awards and I make absolutely no apologies for that. Winning awards is really important for the borough’s reputation, and we had to change our reputation. It has really helped with recruitment and some of the people that we’ve recruited now are definitely people we wouldn’t have been able to recruit before. So don’t underestimate the value of some of those things.
Then COVID happened but interestingly we carried on, an organisation that we built, the infrastructure that we put into place was immediately able to flex and adapt to deal with that crisis. And our IT structure, we were already working from home, it worked. We built a service called community solutions to deal with supporting our residents, and that immediately flexed and adapted to what they needed to do, to really make sure that the most vulnerable in our society were able to get through this crisis.
I remember a conversation with our leader and our deputy who said
‘Don’t stop what you’re doing Meena, carry on and let’s build on what we’ve already developed and we’ve already built as part of the transformation’.
I’m very proud of what we did, I’ve watched Barking and Dagenham over the last six weeks, and it’s great that things are carrying on. An amazing five-year truly transformational journey and one that I’m very proud to have been a part of. And one that’s definitely weathered the storm.
DC: Fantastic, thanks so much Meena for that. Next up we’ve got Henry.
Henry Kippin (HK): I’m really happy to be here, thanks for the invite. I quite agree transitions is what we’re all in at the moment. My part in this is as an Executive Director in North of Tyne, so we have a combined authority up here which covers Northumberland, North Tyneside and Newcastle. It’s relatively small in terms of the numbers of local authorities involved, but I think obviously entirely perfectly formed. Before being lured back to the true heart of the North, I spent some time in the West Midlands as a Director there, covering inclusive of public services, digital and the climate agenda.
Some of what I’m going to say is a quick reflection really on the role of combined authorities in the next stages and emerging from COVID. And we kind of deal with public services in moments of discontinuity, I remember ten or so years ago being part of the commission on 2020 public services, which is you know it’s now, it felt like a long time ago we did that work. We talked about a moment of discontinuity after the financial crisis, what would follow and I think we’re in a similar space now. Probably with more chance to emerge on the other end with the different set of practices that have been in lots of ways pushed by COVID.
You may be thinking of the post WW2 mobilisation of a vision of what public services and places are for. The classic William Beverage report, a great example of consensus, a liberal commission by a Conservative government and a Labour government that rolled out those plans. If you were to think about in those terms what are the risks that we’re facing? What are the social norms that you might want to build the way public services workaround? What are the possibilities, what’s the recent past told us? I think you’d come to a settlement that looked quite different, I think you’d be shifting to something in which devolution was really fundamental.
And that’s why I think combined authorities have got such a role to play. These are cross-sector issues, what we’re doing has to reflect that and convene around that. I think in my area if we consider, what are young people going to need to get back into work after the crisis? Perhaps that is less about traditional back to work services and more about having a smartphone, a digital connection or a group of mates that are already in work. If we think about what our city centres need now, it’s going to be quite different, isn’t it? It’s as much about being connected to our cities as it is about lots of people in big shiny buildings.
So actually you need that kind of innovative thinking. I really do believe that there’s a role for doing that together, that’s often done best at the local authority level, as many of you know, but there’s real value in collaboration.
The picture I’ve made, where I think we’re coming from in the North of Tyne is to see devolution, and our role in this transition not just as a transaction. It is about more powers, more money, especially in the North. We have a clear case to make on both the infrastructure and public service side, but it’s also about imagination, it’s about writing the story and asking what is it that comes next and saying ‘well maybe we should do a bit more of that ourselves, maybe we should be thinking about what the vehicles for innovation are that we can set up in order to help shape our future a bit more’. I’m happy to go into more detail on how we’re doing that in the North of Tyne but I think that’s precisely where we should be, and I’m really looking forward to hearing comments on how that may feel in other parts of the country.
DC: Fantastic thanks, Henry. I wanted to pick your brains around how you view leadership through these times and things like storytelling, data and other things. What is it for you that are the go-to techniques that you have in terms of this thing that I was talking about earlier when things are uncertain when you’re not sure what tomorrow brings let alone next week or next year. What are those key leadership techniques that you tend to draw on to help you get through it and take organisations and teams forward? Meena, just to start with you?
MK: In Barking and Dagenham that kind of narrative and that story was I think what was critical for credibility. I think you know sticking to the vision that we had, the narrative, the story, people had really associated with the history of where Barking and Dagenham had come from and where we were trying to get to. I think in terms of residents, it was really important that we had a story about the borough, what it was trying to achieve and why. Then for us, it all linked back to something that we developed, called the borough manifesto, and it was all about partners coming together and agreeing with residents on the real things they wanted to focus on and wanted to change in Barking and Dagenham’s place.
I think through COVID and everything else, sticking to that narrative and that story, for the staff it’s really important because they know absolutely what to expect and that there’s no there’s no deviation from. They’re absolutely clear and I think as a leader and in an organisation like that it really helps to inspire people, but also to be able to influence the changes that need to happen. I think narrative storytelling is really really important for credibility during a period of change.
DC: Henry, obviously your background in collaboration and more recently Westminster than now North of Tyne, what experience and lessons can you share around that sort of systems leadership?
HK: I think there’s lots of lessons to share about collaboration and systems leadership, often lessons about what’s failed as much as what’s succeeded. Actually doing things and transitioning it away from what is quite a traditional way of mobilising around the crisis, is often not the way that the recovery, which is so much more multifaceted and so much more about the future of what next, needs to happen.
As Meena said, there’s a coming together of lots of versions of what leadership means at the moment. So if we think about what’s needed in the teeth of a COVID crisis actually to be able to have really structured conversations about who knows what, who’s doing what, in order to pick up a night drop of PPE at a fire station and distribute it to the right clinical facilities the next day. The form of leadership required to do that, there has to be a degree of control and emergency planning. How do you really understand everybody’s role within the system? We have to answer that I think in order to recover well, a degree of collaboration and system working that picks up the best of what’s happened through the crisis, which is a really rapid mobilisation of different ways of doing things, people rolling in and make sure that we’re carrying on taking the best of that into recovery. The kind of collaboration you need to change the system doesn’t happen overnight, it needs to be practised. It’s actually about the kind of feedback, communication and trust-building within the system are always the first-order issues.
I think, I hope, what we can do here in the North of Tyne, I think what we’re starting to do, is to take that really intense collaboration around a particular set of short-term outcomes into a kind of type of leadership, shared leadership, that can endure. We have that communication, we have that kind of rapid way of understanding where each other are oriented and just practising.
A lot of leadership is about feedback, whether you’re on the wrong side of an Ofsted inspection or you’re thinking how to project what your organisation needs to look like in the future. It’s about practising using feedback, making them as quick as possible and using the right technologies to do that. There’s lots of lessons from the last six months or so on how we might do that better in the next stages.
MK: People can underestimate what communication looks like and they under-invest in it. What I’m saying about the kind of feedback loop is making sure that you need to be listening and then responding to what they’re saying to you and whether that’s a partner, whether that’s residents or staff, all of that will drive your change. If you’re not doing that, it’s really important that you make that investment in communication, and keep testing through surveys.
DC: We talk a lot about how one of the big lessons from this pandemic has been how communities work in hours and days, local authorities probably in days and weeks, possibly weeks and months and central government definitely in months and years. That isn’t necessarily a good or a bad thing but I think it’s shown more than ever the sort of different nature of these levels of government of community, what they’re good at and how we can plan deliberately for different layers of government to do the thing that they’re good at and try and possibly keep them away from the things that they’re not entirely well-served to do.
Without giving away too many confidences or anything hopefully, I’m just interested in an insight into life during this pandemic in a sort of regional, everywhere you are, that sort of local advocate. But also link up to national level government whether there’s that level of recognition, that planning, that modesty to stick to what you’re good at and enable others where feasible.
HK: I would say maybe I have to give a slightly careful answer to this as you hinted at. But you can read from the pages of the newspaper over the last few months, what has gone wrong in terms of the relationship at times between parts of central government in its political and administrative functions between local areas. And there has been a degree of work between local authorities, communities and then regional and combined authorities that sometimes you can see has created as many tensions as it has created some positive opportunities for interaction. The part of the lesson from me anyway, and it’s in the word that frames your session today, really is this transitions.
There is a value in public institutions, institutions that can hold a degree of trust and I think the answer in a situation like this, is not to turn around and blame as soon as things don’t appear to go quite right. I think too much of the discouraging and if you like the negotiations and being on the basis of people not really doing what Meena said, which is listening. After all, listening is in the ear of the beholder, isn’t it? You can’t tell somebody to listen to what you just said, too much of the communication at times has been communication that is almost projection rather than listening and understanding and absorbing.
I think I speak for many people within local areas that would say, at times we have absolutely needed to sit back and listen and make sure we’re doing what is needed on a national level. At times we feel we’ve had means and ways of doing things across our places in our regions that we feel could have been better, could have been better connected to our communities. To think about some of the debates about test and trace that probably in that space you cannot have a real discussion of real communication if both sides aren’t listening, and I think there’s lots of lessons about what goes right and wrong and in that sense of the last few months.
DC: It’s interesting, so my friend and colleague Jonathan Flowers talked about this concept of force multiplier and the way that we tended to apply it at FutureGov is thinking about how corporate services within a council are very much this sort of military notion of how you use money, how you use power, how you use data to essentially put your troops at the front line in the most effective place possible. Or not put them in the front line, but essentially how you use the central brain of any organisation to make sure that the front line is as effective as it possibly can be. Which is a sort of counter-intuitive narrative to a lot of the way that we’ve treated corporate services as an overhead, as a burden, as a cost centre over the years rather than something that enables people to do their job better.
One of the reflections I have coming out of this is that the different levels of government, you could be seeing central government as a force multiplier for local authorities to do their job better. Equally, you can see local public services as force multipliers for enabling communities to act first and foremost to do what they need to do what they want to do.
I feel like you might have some experience from that in Barking and Dagenham, Meena in terms of how do you really design for being that force for good as an organisation. Stepping back and allowing the space for community, wherever possible?
MK: We put data insight, right at the centre of everything we did for transformation and that was critical for us because in a climate of limited, scarce resources, using your data to its best effect to target your resources where it’s really needed in the community is really critical. An authority like Barking and Dagenham with huge challenges meant that the demand on services has grown exponentially, and actually what we needed to do is to use our data and insight to really understand where that demand is coming from and to target some resource directly to those areas to make sure that we’re ensuring that we’re getting to those most vulnerable before they reach crisis point.
Taking that data and understanding the community and the demographic and what it means. Dominic, you know some of the stuff that we’ve been doing around the setting up of Every One Every Day, and working with participatory city on all of that to make sure that another fundamental plank of Barking and Dagenham’s transformation was early intervention.
By looking at the data and insights we had, we really targeted the most affected. Through COVID, the ability to use that data in that way, people think that data is to tell them how their organisation is performing, that is critically really really important. It’s really important to know how you’re functioning and to use your performance data to do that, but it’s also really important to use your data, your insight to tell you what’s going on in your communities and to target your resources to those that most need it in the most effective way.
DC: Henry, I know that in your areas looking to be leaders on climate change, the question has come in from today’s audience around the fact that climate change obviously isn’t something that government can just solve, can just do to people. What are the sort of things ahead of us in terms of levers for change, bringing people in, working together on climate change to actually make the difference we need to?
HK: That is a good question. Neither do I have all the answers to that question, so I just wanted to get that nice little excuse in there early. I think what we can do is show a degree of leadership and create spaces for leadership. An example might be up here in the North of Tyne, we’re setting up a climate assembly. We’re in the final stages of mobilising to do that, we all have plans for net-zero in terms of three really good incredible local authority transitions, we’ve got a number of classic investments in areas where we know that carbon production and therefore the transition will be needed most, the public sectors are on a journey there.
Without the scale of resources to be able to fundamentally shift, which requires legislation, time, integrity and behaviour change as you talked about I think it’s really important to open up those spaces where we kind of understand and generate insight in what good looks like. The climate assembly is one, we’ve also set up on our currently out to market looking at how we might innovate around the green new deal now pretty much everybody from AOC and Joe Biden to Boris Johnson has talked about a green new deal and a green industrial revolution, and how you create those incentives to support job creation and produce carbon at the same time.
We felt here that actually what we needed was to just put some cards on the table to create a fund. We have a relatively small amount of money in the teeth of the transition which is £10 million that our cabinet has I think really ambitiously put on the table and said ‘right let’s create a mechanism through which we will support business-led innovation to create lower-carbon jobs in these areas that we know are going to make the biggest difference.’
It’s in that space where local areas can show some leadership. I know that the same is true around some of the agendas around rewilding if we look at what’s happening in Northumberland. We’ve certainly more trees than humans in that part of the world and so we’ve got the ability to really think creatively as a whole region about what that model of transition might look like. It might be more difficult for North of Tyne to transition to net zero in the way that it works, but working together with Northumberland and Newcastle, there are things you can do using a regional scale collaboration that can get you there faster.
Public sector does not, will not and cannot have all the answers here. There’s a big role for central government in terms of legislation, some of which should be put in place and creating those market incentives. You can see parts of what was announced over the last week being in that space particularly and thinking about removing diesel vehicles from the roads and in local areas. Those practical areas where you can show some leadership, open up space for citizen engagement and start that real quality dialogue about what that might mean for the taxi driver, the corner shop owner and the person working in social care. Those are the people that are going to have to go through a transition.
DC: I wanted to ask you both to share one piece of advice for the people listening in today. Obviously, you’ve been at different places in organisations, some lowly, some right at the top, you’ve been in different places in the system of government. I want one piece of advice you’d share to help people when they’re thinking about being leaders and change agents of whichever place in the system that they see to be able to help make the change happen.
MK: I was thinking about this job and I think for me the thing I’d say to you is that during this COVID crisis you’ve got to deal with what you’re doing but make it part of what you want for the future, use COVID as a real opportunity for change. Don’t look at it as a short-term measure. The theory of today is kind of elastic and not going back, Barking and Dagenham used austerity as a platform change. Don’t look at it as a short-term thing, think of it as a long-term thing.
Think about how you can change the way you operate, how you can work with communities in a different way and stick to your narrative and your vision so people know what to expect. I suppose the last thing is always put your staff and residents first, listen to them, invest in your talent and bring in the capacity you need to do what you need. Don’t be scared to do that and don’t be scared to hold people to account. If you’ve got cynics in the organisation that don’t believe in what you’re really trying to do, move them on. My big message today is to use COVID as a platform of change, don’t just deal with the crisis and go back to where you were. Think about how you can move on and think about the long term.
HK: That was good, I agree with every word.
Maybe I’ll do something a little bit more personal. I think my great friend and really a true leader in this space, Victor Adebowale who always says ‘leadership’s about having an emotional connection to the outcomes that you want to achieve’. That I think is absolutely right, at the worst times at the best of times and more right than ever now. My view is that we have to take people with us to do it. Unless you can take people with you, you’ve got next to no chance of change.
That’s important at the personal level in terms of how you look after the people around you. How you recognise what we were talking about a few weeks ago Dom which is that you’ve said, let’s really respect the fact that people are having a difficult time, a life well balanced is tricky. We’re all in the kind of bubble ourselves, so I think just stepping back and thinking about that is really really vital, but leading through collaboration and leading with some emotion I think is really critical.
DC: Fantastic thank you both so much for your time, as always really wonderful to hear what you’re up to. Inspiring as always and look forward to seeing you soon, thanks again.