England & Wales Personal and organisational development

Leading through uncertainty: Shaping Shropshire’s future with Chief Executive Andy Begley

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Credit: Shropshire Council

In this interview, Andy Begley, Chief Executive of Shropshire Council, shares his journey from care assistant to local government leadership. He discusses pivotal career moments, the importance of embracing uncertainty, and the unique challenges facing Shropshire, including service delivery over a large, rural area, an ageing population, and economic development, highlighting Shropshire’s attractiveness for living and business.

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

I started as a care assistant in the early 90s. I moved into local government, working in nearly every position across social care. I then moved into a more corporate role as an assistant director in various areas before becoming a director and national policy lead and then four years ago, I became the Chief Executive of Shropshire Council.

Importantly, I did step out of the public sector for three years working in the private sector in  consultancy before working exclusively back in the public sector, which was a fantastic  period of professional development. It’s served me very well since moving back into working  in councils.

Can you share with us some pivotal moments or experiences in your career journey that have shaped your leadership approach as the Chief Executive of Shropshire Council?

A continuing driver for me has been around frustration, either at the quality of stuff not being good enough for our residents or at the inefficiencies that we’ve seen in the public sector – like the frustration about the lack of sustainable funding for local government. It’s interesting when you have the opportunity to look back and see those pivotal moments. You always think you’re doing your best at the time, but then you step up, and suddenly, you’re in a different landscape.

Being comfortable with uncertainty was another pivotal realisation for me, and that has served me very well recently, where the uncertainty and volatility for councils have ramped up beyond all recognition. I took over as interim Chief Executive during the worst flooding in decades in Shropshire, and the next week we went straight into the pandemic and lockdowns. Nobody mentioned that in the interview, and you think, how can it get worse?

Then, of course, you’ve got those seismic global events that have such an impact on the global, never mind the local economy–things that nobody could foresee, like spiralling inflation and interest rates, supply chain issues, the energy crisis. It just compounds our issues and continues to do so. So not knowing everything and not knowing for certain if it’s the right thing to do is okay because we live in an uncertain world. That way, you don’t get stymied, you don’t get stifled in that paralysis-by-analysis kind of thinking, you’re still able to make decisions, and that’s really important and to be that leader.

What do you consider to be the most significant challenges Shropshire is facing?

Shropshire, like many other councils, is in the process of redefinition. We share lots of the same challenges as the rest of the sector, but we’ve also got very individual challenges.  We’ve got 1,200 square miles of some of the most sparsely populated countryside in the UK,  and delivering services across that geography is really difficult and expensive. We’ve got an ageing population with many more people aged over 65 than average. To compound this,  like many beautiful areas to live in, we’re a net importer of economically inactive older adults while economically active adults leave. That’s a real conundrum for us, as a healthy economy needs a healthy population and vice versa.

We are lucky to have a very vibrant economic partnership board that’s chaired by the private sector. Part of our overarching Shropshire Plan is around having a very healthy economy and, within the economic development piece, it’s about balancing a keen eye on trends in higher education such as apprenticeship programmes. To do that, we have to work with employers and support them in very different ways, as the majority of employers in  Shropshire are SMEs. We don’t have huge swathes of industry in Shropshire.

But we’re a perfect place to live because of our beautiful rural landscape. You can have an amazing lifestyle here with beautiful countryside and many people want to live here. That’s why we attract retirees, but through digital connectivity now anybody can work from anywhere. We’re building on the exodus from cities that began during the pandemic, and now we’re seeing very different organisations relocating here. Shropshire is a very inviting and attractive place for entrepreneurs.

We’ve got a good baseline of agritech and biotech, we’ve got some really advanced stuff  combined with a more traditional farming, rurality-based economy. Then right in the middle,  you’ve got a booming tourism sector, underlined by Shropshire being named as the only UK  location in ABTA’s list of top 10 global destinations to watch for 2024. It’s a real coup for the  county.

If you piece all that together, that speaks to the role and function of the council and says, how are you the facilitator? How are you the enabler? How are you, the steward of that market,  going to bring that together most effectively? And that’s a really interesting space because you’ve got to see those impacts, draw those people in, pull those levers, and start to create a virtuous impetus that benefits our residents, our business and our environment. And that’s what we’re in it for, isn’t it?

I think Shropshire is different in many ways because of all those issues. We’ve had to be more agile than ever and think about our assets far more constructively. We’re either the second or third greatest producer of green energy in the UK, we’ve got a huge tourist

market, we’ve got the largest single border with Wales, we’ve just entered a really exciting cross border partnership between Powys, Monmouthshire and Herefordshire. This is exploring opportunities of cross border working and opening up a different dialogue and conversations with Welsh and English governments. We’re at the forefront of leading the  River Severn Partnership with all the different authorities that the river touches.

How can we trade on our assets much more effectively? How can we attract that kind of investment for funding private or public? Looking at things that traditionally may have been liabilities, how do we convert those into assets? How do we address those “wicked issues” around social care and ever-rising demand on health and social care? What can we do around looked-after children? And, not just a Shropshire issue, but up and down the UK, how can we do something to get upstream of that?

We are very different from the major conurbations, a funding formula that would suit a city is highly unlikely to suit a very rural council and vice versa, and I don’t think our funding formula is nuanced enough to accommodate that. We’re constantly having to do more with less, which does force service redesign in a really positive way, but I will always say we don’t have enough money. We definitely need to be funded more appropriately.

How have you brought your council along under the Shropshire Plan and what impacts have you seen so far?

When I took over as Chief Executive, I thought it was really important that we have a very clear vision and then beneath that a plan, the ever-talked-about golden thread that everything needs to connect to. So what you’re doing needs to make sure it’s delivering some part of the Shropshire plan, and it was purposefully not a corporate plan or a  Shropshire Council plan. It’s a Shropshire plan. And that was a very conscious decision about understanding our role and engaging everybody. It was set out very clearly, we’re in year three of that delivery now, and it’s been absolutely core to how we’ve started to morph,  shift and change the council as a whole.

It’s given it clarity of vision, and clarity of direction, everything hooks back to it. So it’s been  such a valuable thing to have done. We constantly revisit it and make sure that we’re still  holding dear to those values we set out. And the organisation’s responding really well, so I’m  very pleased. It was the right thing to do, and I think it continues to be an important roadmap  for us.

As the West Midlands Leadership Awards testify to your leadership skills, what qualities have guided your career in local government? And, in your opinion, what are the key skills and qualities necessary for success in a leadership position in the sector?

Curiosity. I’m always curious and interested in what’s going on in my own organisation, with my own people, and also in other sectors. I’m a firm believer that you can learn from everywhere, so I often look at completely unrelated sectors, industries, and workplaces. I  love to visit them and speak to their chief executives and management teams; you always learn something.

The private sector and the public sector aren’t that different, there’s far more similarity than there ever used to be. And there’s far more interest and appetite to work together. Very quickly after the pandemic, I started to talk to people in a way that said, we’ll never trade out of this as individual organisations, we have to work collaboratively. I’m an absolutely firm  believer in collaboration, different mindsets looking at a single issue provide very different

solutions, that’s where I think opportunity and innovation lie, you can learn from every single person you talk to.

When we think about the leaders of the future, I don’t think we should be just trying to mould  them in the same way we’ve been moulded. I think we need to develop very different skill  sets for a new post-pandemic economy, a new post-Ukraine war economy, or however, you  want to describe our changing world.

How do we get people to think about and really challenge the role and function of councils &  local government? I think it’s going to change beyond all recognition within the next five to 10  years. And it should do; that’s a really exciting agenda, there is so much opportunity within that. But we mustn’t fall into the trap of just designing leaders in our own mould, the challenge is how do we expose them to different thinking and encourage others from different sectors to come in? So look over the fence all the time, learn from everybody you speak to, and don’t be frightened to make mistakes. You don’t know everything, and if that was ever true, it’s true now in terms of the volatile environment in which we live.

Lastly, you mentioned that local government needs to change over the next five years. If you had a magic wand, what would be the three main changes you would want to make happen?

Firstly, getting the funding formulas right. It’s understanding that different regions require different mechanisms to deliver services. At least be more nuanced and try to give us a sporting chance because I think we really get stuck on that. This year, more acutely than ever, we’ve felt the pressures.

The second one is just to give us more flexibility and freedom. So what does devolution really mean? Genuinely devolve decision-making, accountability, and responsibility appropriately. And within that, the freedom and flexibility for us to generate our own income in a different way. Some people talk about local taxation in a different way, and there are lots of different models globally about what that might look like. I think there are some fascinating models within Europe.

Also, we’ve got to get the relationship right with the NHS. We’ve been told it’ll all be perfect for the past 45 years, but I’m still not certain we’re there yet. We all still work very hard, I’ve got very good relationships with NHS colleagues, but nonetheless, the wiring and the drivers from those different organisational perspectives aren’t harmonised, and it makes those relationships sometimes quite fractious.

In terms of a magic wand, I’d love to speak to the government directly about far more innovative ways that we can work on a much bigger scale with private sector investment.  Let’s think really differently about what the private sector needs and what we have got to trade. How can we work to the benefit of the residents that we’re supporting? In other words,  how can we make the right services cost far less, improve the value, improve outcomes and improve quality? There are lots of examples all over the world where improving outcomes and quality will de facto reduce cost.

There’s a real melting pot of collaboration and innovation for me, but I think we’ve got to break the mould of traditional funding mechanisms, traditional response and the relationship between local government and national government. I probably mean it in a disruptive way,  but I think there’s a lot to play for, and there are lots more opportunities than I think anybody is currently seeing.



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