Zina Etheridge, Chief Executive, London Borough of Haringey: Exclusive Interview

By on 22/03/2018
Zina Etheridge, Chief Executive, London Borough of Haringey (Image courtesy: Niklas Halle’n).

Local authority officials often take jobs in central government, but few senior civil servants make the shift to council roles. The UK’s Zina Etheridge has travelled in both directions: she explains what she’s learned about working cultures, direct accountability – and the interconnectedness of everything

“Most people become public servants in order to make people’s lives better. And you can do that in the civil service – but in local government there’s a much shorter line between what you do and the impact on people,” says Zina Etheridge. “You can really see the difference that you make on the streets, in people’s lives; and that’s an amazing privilege.”

Etheridge, the chief executive of the London Borough of Haringey in North London, is explaining why – after a high-flying career in the civil service – she left central government in 2012 to join the local authority. And it wasn’t just to enjoy the “enormous benefits” of serving the community directly; Etheridge also prefers the more collegiate atmosphere in local government.

In both Haringey and her previous local authority role, in nearby Barnet, “there’s no competition between people. People aren’t looking around and sizing up their position relative to others people’s; and there’s a bit more of that in the civil service,” she says. “This is a more collaborative place, where people work with their colleagues and get on with the job that needs doing. That, culturally, is really different.”

Local loyalties

In part, this working culture is rooted in the fierce loyalty that staff feel towards the council: “There’s much less cynicism than in Whitehall,” she argues. “People are incredibly passionate about working for Haringey.” Many employees live in the borough, building their lives within the community they serve, “and that does create quite a different feel to the place.”

Finally, Etheridge’s local authority job leaves more room for the rest of her life. “I’m a single parent with three children, and what makes it easier here than an equivalent job in central government is that I’m much more in control of my own diary,” she says, noting that councillors “respect and understand” her need to save evenings for her children – whilst ministers often expect their officials to be available at all hours.

But whilst Etheridge prefers working at the local authority level, she doesn’t hide the fact that it’s intensely demanding – particularly after nine years of austerity, during which councils’ incomes have fallen dramatically. Working in central government policy roles is “like being in a pressure cooker: it’s 24/7 and people want answers really fast,” she recalls. But council work brings “a different set of pressures, because you’re dealing with the complexity and messiness of people’s difficult, chaotic lives. And you’re much more locally accountable for what you do.”

 

Troubles made elsewhere

What’s more, the council must deal with the consequences of policies set by those distant central government ministers and officials – addressing the impact of agendas such as Brexit and austerity at the front line of delivery. For example, says Etheridge, most of London’s social care workers are foreign-born – and Brexit may make it harder to recruit EU staff: “People don’t hold us accountable for Brexit – but they will hold us accountable for whether we’re able to provide a home carer,” she points out. Homelessness is another growing problem linked to national policies – including the squeeze on social housing and benefits – and the rising number of rough sleepers presents another major challenge for the council.

If these complex, intractable problems make life difficult for local authorities, though, council executives’ experience of addressing them can prove really valuable in government. “In a local authority, you see the interconnectedness of everything,” says Etheridge. “You see the impact of Universal Credit [benefits reforms]; austerity; Brexit; the industrial strategy; the way that health provision is changing. You see all that impacting on individuals and families, and that gives you an understanding of how to make policy better when you go back into Whitehall.”

Learning in both directions

Etheridge speaks from direct experience, having moved in both directions between local and central government: after leaving the civil service in 2010 for a two-year stint as assistant chief executive of Barnet council, she returned for a job as director of strategy and transformation at the Home Office’s UK Border Force.

There, she made use of the delivery skills she’d learned at Barnet: “Civil servants should be able to do delivery as well as policy,” she comments. “How do you make a children’s service work? How do you do the day-in, day-out, gritty improvement work? And I don’t think that’s necessarily a skill that everyone in Whitehall has.”

And what skills can people bring from central government to the local level? “Strategy and policy-making are really helpful, and networking and partnership skills,” she replies. Civil servants may also know useful techniques: Etheridge imported the concept of a ‘delivery unit’ from Whitehall, and has found it valuable in gathering ideas, scrutinising service delivery issues and pushing through reforms.

 

Improving value for money

Local authorities may have less to learn from central government on addressing austerity – for councils were pushed into efficiency programmes decades before Whitehall funding started falling in 2009. And the challenges presented by declining budgets vary between the central and local levels: “The impact of reducing the number of policy making civil servants is different from the impact of reducing the number of social workers,” comments Etheridge.

She has seen both sides of the public sector reform picture; for before joining local government, Etheridge had several civil service change management jobs – including the Cabinet Office post of executive director for civil service reform. The civil service is often accused of being uniquely resistant to change: what’s her view? “All organisations are really resistant,” she replies, highlighting the finance sector’s reluctance to accept regulatory changes after the 2008 credit crunch.

And whilst she believes that money is tighter in local government, she’s clear that reforms should be introduced sympathetically at the national level: “I think there’s some value in institutional resistance to change,” she comments. “The civil service is an old organisation with a really strong set of values; and you need some places which try to change the culture in a way that accords with their values, rather than just absorbing initiative after initiative.”

Intervene early

Bringing her experience of civil service reform into streamlining Haringey’s frontline services, Etheridge has guided the introduction of staff “self-service” systems to facilitate back office cuts, begun sharing its IT services with neighbouring boroughs, and moved many public interactions online. “Looking forward, our strategy has to be about strengthening families and communities, and ensuring that people can access early help so they don’t pitch up the ‘need pyramid’,” she says. “We need to get into a much more positive conversation about supporting people’s independence rather than meeting deficiencies.”

This, of course, is a long-term strategy – but one that the council must deliver under immediate financial pressures. “One of the great risks for local government is that those short-term pressures mean that it’s really hard to invest in early help and prevention,” she acknowledges. “And some councils are absolutely finding that.”

Indeed, some parts of local government are experiencing unprecedented financial problems – with Northamptonshire County Council recently issuing a Section 114 Notice, described by Etheridge as a “kind of bankruptcy notice, saying they don’t have enough money to set a proper budget.”

 

Don’t tie councils’ hands

For Etheridge, the danger is that “central government looks at Northamptonshire and says: ‘We need to make sure that everybody else doesn’t get to that point’.” She fears heavy-handed interventions or extensions of central control that will constrict councils’ ability to meet the challenges of austerity in their own way. After all, Whitehall doesn’t have all the answers: “If you look at what’s happening in some of these centrally-managed functions, the NHS is dealing with huge pressures and it’s not like central government has sorted that out,” she comments. “So I think there’s a balance of risk and benefits, and I would argue for more letting go.”

In recent years, she adds, local government “has proved itself to be endlessly innovative and enterprising – and adult social care hasn’t fallen over; children’s social care hasn’t fallen over. We’re still building housing, providing libraries, despite the really significant amounts of money that have been taken out.” Indeed, over the last decade, Haringey’s political leader Claire Kober and her staff have produced dramatic improvements in many services – including its children’s services, whose past failings contributed to the deaths of eight-year-old Victoria Climbié in 2000 and 17-month-old Peter Connelly in 2007.

Nonetheless, the changes required to fit services into declining revenues do bring new threats – including, she says, the risk that councils lose touch with communities. “The real danger of local government having reduced in size is that we’ve almost come off the streets. We’re trying to channel people online rather than to face-to-face channels or call centres. How do you understand your community and retain its trust if you’re not present?”

From public debates to personal battles

The problem of retaining strong links with the community is exacerbated, Etheridge believes, by changes in the public debate. “One of the challenges for communicators and leaders in central and local government is the way that political discourse is being played out over social media,” she says, noting that policy discussions “become a personal fight between individuals where all kinds of things get thrown into it, and it becomes a very toxic debate.”

In this changed national conversation, Etheridge believes, government is often at a disadvantage – for it is required to stick to the sober truth, whilst its opponents face no such constraints. “It’s difficult for any bit of the public service to get its message across when there are people who are absolutely determined to drown out that message,” she says. “Your message is a bit dull, and you have to put it across in a responsible way. Whereas your opposition doesn’t have the same responsibilities: to be truthful, to be factually accurate. That’s a tough challenge for government communicators, whether they’re working in central or local government.”

Etheridge may be thinking of the Brexit referendum, with its deceitful promise to return £350m a week to the NHS. Or she may be reflecting on events closer to home – for Haringey has been caught up in a poisonous political battle between the pragmatic and radical wings of the Labour Party.

Vehicle forced off the road

This struggle has centred on plans for the Haringey Development Vehicle (HDV): a joint venture between the council and developer Lendlease intended to redevelop large swathes of the council’s properties – building 6500 new homes. The council had promised every council tenant a legal right to a new home in their neighbourhood, whilst addressing overcrowding. But similar schemes in other boroughs have led to tenants being dispersed; and at the national level, Labour’s leader Jeremy Corbyn is deeply suspicious of public-private partnerships.

Local activists attached to the Momentum pressure group – Corbyn’s grassroots champions within the party – began agitating against the HDV and Haringey’s centrist Labour leader, Claire Kober. And as the local Labour Party selected its candidates for May’s local elections late last year, Momentum targeted sitting councillors who backed the HDV – unseating many in favour of its own candidates. With most of the electorate reliably voting Labour, the composition of its councillors is now set to change radically in May; and following a controversial intervention by Labour’s National Executive Committee, Kober has announced that she’ll be stepping down in May.

Asked whether the council had got the best possible deal out of Lendlease, Etheridge points out that that a judicial review launched by the HDV’s opponents was defeated on all counts. That “gives credence to the fact that we had a really robust procurement process,” she says. “I’m confident that the deal that is ready to be signed does what it was intended to do in the best possible way.” But she recognises that the political ground has shifted: “A new administration will take its view on [the HDV], and we’ll go from there,” she concludes.

What next?

In reality, it is very easy to predict the new administration’s view: Momentum is set to dominate the council from May, and the HDV looks doomed. It is not clear whether or how, without the cash and skills of a private sector partner – and following huge cuts in central government funding for social housing – Haringey will be able to improve its crumbling, overcrowded council estates. But asked whether she can envisage herself staying on after Kober leaves, Etheridge is clear that she’d like to go on serving the local community that she so clearly loves.

“Haringey is an amazing place. You go out on the streets and you can feel the energy and vibrancy of the population,” she says. “Here my job is to support the political administration, and I’ll continue to do that.”

Zina Etheridge has worked at the heart of government, managing major change programmes for ministers. But she prefers the messy, collegiate, hardscrabble, underfunded world of local government: the sharp end challenges of managing and improving public services in a diverse, energetic London community.

“My colleagues do extraordinary things with ever fewer resources,” she says. “Working in a complex place with loads of different partnerships, we’re trying to do everything from housing people to improving adult skills, safeguarding children and developing adult social care. Here, I can see the difference I make – and the rewards of that are enormous.”

 

Global Government Forum: Five Thoughts for Better Government

Zina Etheridge on learning from overseas

To help our readers get the best out of Global Government Forum, we ask interviewees five standard questions – four seeking practical advice and opinions, and one to reveal something a little more personal. This is an edited version of Zina Etheridge’s answers – click below to watch her full answers in a Global Government Forum video.

 

https://youtu.be/A2T4Q5-1JuM

Can you name one lesson or idea from abroad that’s helped you or your colleagues?

“We’ve looked at how other countries do sustainable regeneration. In Denmark, they use district energy networks and incorporate things like sustainable urban drainage systems. It’s about how you make schemes that really work for people as they age and how you create a really strong sense of community. I think people like the Danes have done that really well.”

Are there any projects of innovations in this country that would be useful to your peers overseas?

“One of the things that I’m proudest of is our school improvement story, and that’s part of the wider improvement journey across London. London has a fantastic story to tell about how you improve education outcomes in a complex city landscape with hugely diverse languages spoken, diverse backgrounds of pupils. The progress that London schools have made is extraordinary, and Haringey has gone from having 65% of its schools as Ofsted-rated good or outstanding in 2010 to 99% now, and that’s a fantastic success story.”
 

How can we improve the ways in which public officials work with and learn from their peers overseas?

“There’s something which is really unhelpful, which we can remove as a barrier: this constant obsession with people not spending any money on going anywhere or visiting anyone. There’s a notion that we’re somehow an island and we can create all of the improvement we need without ever going and visiting our peers overseas and seeing what they’re doing; or that if you do, you can’t spend any money on a train or a plane or a hotel. I think that’s really damaging to that sense of being able to learn from peers.”

What are the biggest global challenges in your field over the next couple of years?

“The biggest challenge that we in London are facing – and it’s the same for many cities around the world – is housing. How do you house a growing population when family sizes are changing; the way that people live is changing; and where the asset base is owned by older people? People are living longer, so there’s less transfer of those assets from older people to younger people. And how do you do regeneration and housing development in a way which is sustainable – environmentally- and community-wise – over the long term?”

What’s your favourite book?

“I’ve got a favourite author rather than a favourite book – so almost anything by Haruki Murakami.”

About Matt Ross

Matt is a journalist and editor specialising in public services, policymaking, government and management. He was the editor of trade title Civil Service World from 2008 to 2014, serving an audience of senior UK officials; and the features editor of weekly news magazine Regeneration & Renewal between 2002 and 2008, covering urban regeneration, economic growth and community development. He has also been a motoring and travel journalist, and now combines his role as editorial director of Global Government Forum with writing for other publications including The Guardian and Planning magazine.

One Comment

  1. Suzanne

    02/08/2018 at

    Great interview and interviewee. It is not so often that we are provided with such a balanced, experienced, solution-based, caring and intelligent viewpoint.

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