Jane O’Donnell, Chief Executive of COSLA – “Privileged to work across local government”


To start us off, tell us a bit about you, your background, and how you ended up here today!

I’m very fortunate to have enjoyed a long career in Scottish local government. After university, my first post was in Aberdeen City Council working as what we think of now as a benefit/rights officer. From there, I moved to West Lothian where I worked in Environmental Services, then the Improvement Service and COSLA. I have worked right across all the different teams at COSLA and then in 2021 I got the opportunity to spend 18 months on secondment with the Scottish Government, which was a fascinating opportunity to view local government through a different lens. Ultimately, it is a huge privilege  to return to COSLA as Chief Executive in 2023, having had such rich opportunities working across local government.

What are the top outcomes you hope to achieve as COSLA Chief Executive?

When I applied for the role and talked to the presidential team, I was really clear about the priorities I wanted to achieve on behalf of our member councils. My first priority is fundamental: The recognition and value we place on councils and their democratic mandates. In the wider world, there’s a misunderstanding that we’re local administrations of national governments, and that’s simply not the case. Local government is a unit of government in our own right, and the time people take to vote in local elections holds the same weight and importance as the process for an MSP or MP. As Chief Executive of COSLA I am keen to promote and recognise the value of people who are elected by their community, who still remain in their community and know their community really well.

More than that, local democracy is the best form of decision-making. We have seen the trends in centralisation in the last ten years, and we are at a point where the glaring deficit in local knowledge and community involvement is a driver for reforms. Therefore, COSLA is driven to ensure the importance of local government is understood and acknowledged across the public sector.

A second priority is the opportunity we have for public service reform. I want to see COSLA and the Scottish Government proactively pushing agendas for change rather than being seen as reacting to developments from the Scottish or the UK Government. As I just mentioned, it’s really important that we lead reform from local elected members, local officers, and communities. We have all seen the very real ambition and appetite for innovation and transformation in Scottish local government, and there’s never been a better time for us to push local government empowerment from the front foot.

A final priority is working with colleagues on the way COSLA communicates to our members, partners and ultimately the communities who elect their councils. Similar to public service reform, I want to see COSLA in the driving seat with campaigns around local democratic empowerment.  We can be the compelling voice for change in local government and to do that we want to work with more partners to construct messages placing the voice of councillors at the forefront ensuring they cannot be ignored.

The 2022-23 local government financial settlement scarred Council budgets. In light of the Verity House Agreement (VHA), what would you like to aspire to see for local government financial sustainability?

Verity House has a really key role, and it is a sound idea for governance in Scotland. Local and central government needs a partnership approach, and recent bumps on the road demonstrate the issues with the efficacy of the integration. For me, the focus with our Scottish Government colleagues going forward is to deliver some really important changes for our communities. If we can get our relationship back to the right footing, deliver a fiscal framework, and address ring-fencing, that would unlock a monumental amount of flexibility for councillors and officers to deliver what they need to with their resources.

Of course, the other side of that is that we need to have a proportionate scrutiny and accountability regime. People have to see value for money, so we have to be sure that councillors and officers can show how they are using public money and showing our impact. The VHA also offers us an opportunity to actually try place-based budgeting. So rather than the council talking about their budget and the health sector talking about their budget, instead, we sit in one place and collate our money to see how we can improve public services for the people and places who need us.

Finally, if we can deliver the European Charter for local self-government, we can embed the principles of local democracy into the heart of Scotland. The principles of the European Charter are visible all the way through the VHA, and there’s a process we’re going through with Mark Ruskell MSP and Scottish Parliament to ensure the Charter is in the right place.

Finally, as councils seek to shape the values basis for their recruitment and retention, what advice would you give to those considering a career in the local government sector?

Go for it. It’s just been a fantastic career for me and the privilege of my life to have been able to serve my community and help others do so for their local communities. There’s something inherently valuable at working in local government and linking to the democratically elected councillors. No other part of the public sector is as close to delivering services and impacting people, and as a sector on the verge of transformation, there are exciting opportunities in the digital space for ambitious and skilled young people. I joined as a welfare rights officer in my early 20s, and the ability to work across different areas in local government and develop your career and skills is something young people should be aware of when considering local government. Local government is the sector to be in if you want to deliver change day in and day out, and I would encourage people to seriously consider the benefits of it.


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