Scotland Democracy, devolution and governance

A week in the life of a Council Leader


Image via Stirling Council

Johanna Boyd, the first woman to lead Stirling Council and the youngest Council Leader in Scotland, blogs for us on what a week in the life of a Leader looks like.

There is no such thing as a typical week for either a councillor or a Council Leader and that is one of the unique attractions of the role.

My professional background is in the law. I practised public law as a barrister in London for 10 years specialising in local government, planning and human rights law before returning home to Scotland. I thought the law would equip me well for a foray into locally elected public life and it did to a certain extent. I had over 60 different Local Authority clients across London and the south east however there are some key differences between the two roles.

A Council Leader must first and foremost think strategically. What is the collective vision for your communities? What is it you want to achieve? Are these goals consistent with your political values? How good are you at building positive, productive partnerships? Are your fellow political colleagues behind you?  Do you need to build alliances across the political spectrum? How good are your working relations with your officers? What sort of culture do you want to create? Are you still getting out into your communities? Do people know what you’re trying to achieve? Do they care?

These are just some of the questions you might ask yourself during any one day.

So what would a ‘typical’ week entail for me?

I get up at 6am and chant for half an hour before the children wake up. I am a practising Buddhist and my practice is absolutely core to me being able step out of the front door with the right attitude, energy and behaviour. I am a single parent to 3 children aged 11, 6 and 5 so the first job is to get them to school on time. I arrange my diary so that I do not take any business before 9.30am so I can do the school run. One of the benefits of being a councillor is that to a certain extent you can control your own diary.

My first appointment is with the Labour Group. This is the week of the budget and we need to talk tactics for the full council meeting.  I lead on the budget overall opening with a prepared speech but each portfolio holder is expected to take the lead on an aspect of their remit, be it education, social care or roads.

My next meeting is with the lead officer on the Syrian Refugee Crisis to discuss how and when Stirling will welcome it’s next family. This is a sensitive process that requires well-thought through, appropriate handling.

I have half an hour for lunch which is spent in the members’ lounge discussing the papers with fellow councillors.

I then meet the Chief Executive for an hour to discuss the budget, progression of our £600M City Deal negotiations with the U.K. and Scottish Governments and a large scale regeneration scheme recently granted planning permission.

Following on from this, I meet a Council Director (Communities, Education and Enterprise) to discuss the recently announced partnership between Codebase, the largest tech incubator in Europe and the Council. We also discuss the launch of our Third Sector Innovation Hub with the Robertson Trust.

In my experience, it is vital to develop good positive working relations with your Senior Management Team if you want to achieve your political goals. Our team has undergone significant restructuring and is now gender-balanced as is our Labour group. Diversity within any business or structure is not just a worthy point of principle, it makes for better decisions.

I tend to finish the day by 5pm. Sometimes I’m home in time to have dinner with the kids but more often I help with homework, bath my two younger boys, read them a story and put everyone to bed by 7.30pm.

The following day I’m in Perth for the Scottish Cities Alliance, Leadership Group. I drive up from Dunblane to spend two hours with the 7 city leaders discussing social inclusion and how we achieve it through the city deals as well as the enterprise and skills review being undertaken by the Scottish Government. I return to the council for a tripartite meeting with our trade unions.

Wednesday I have the day relatively free and I use it to visit a community organisation helping women build their confidence to find their way back into study or work. It can be all too easy to fall into the more ‘managerial’ side of being a Council Leader so it is crucial to get back out into your communities to reconnect and remind yourself that the reason you got into this (at times) torrid business was to try to make a difference, especially in our poorest communities.

Thursday is budget day which means another group meeting and then spending the day writing a revenue and capital budget speech. There are always nerves and butterflies in the lead up to this yearly event but if you were too relaxed about it, it might mean you don’t care. We finish at 10pm. I go home and release my wonderful mother from child duties. I cannot emphasise enough how utterly fantastic my Mum is or how important it is, particularly as a woman with responsibilities outside of work, to have an understanding support network. It can be difficult for people to comprehend why you would ‘put yourself out there’ for such scrutiny, criticism and modest recompense (my salary dropped to one-fifth of what it was). The only answer I have to this is that dedicating your life to contributing to making communities better places and helping people, is the most satisfying, gratifying way to live. It has been a huge privilege to lead Stirling and as I move on to fresh challenges outside of local government, I take away many special moments and hard-earned lessons for whatever the future may hold.

Finally it’s Friday and I have a Leaders’ meeting at COSLA (Convention of Scottish Local Authorities) in Edinburgh which means an early start and a relatively early finish. By this stage, I’m pretty exhausted. I go home for school pick up, take my cherished babies home and cuddle them on the couch in front of a DVD with a large bucket of popcorn. Bliss.