2020 Reflections: highs, lows and thought-provoking moments

Cheryl Davenport, EELGA's Managing Director, reflects on 2020

Extraordinary to think it was January 30-31st when I attended the assessment centre and interview for the Managing Director role at the East of England Local Government Association, and at the time of writing this article I’ve been in post for over 6 months.

It was so energising, heartening, and, looking back, more than a bit terrifying, to see two such large panels of Leaders and Chief Executives involved in the selection process. It clearly demonstrated that the local government sector in the East of England was committed to partnership working and that everyone had a stake in achieving a smooth transition between EELGA Managing Directors.

This has been a year like no other, for the obvious reasons, but also because it has been such a major year of change and transition for EELGA. I was acutely aware I had enormous shoes to fill in taking on the role after Cecilia Tredget, who had a legendary “little black book” of contacts and was so experienced, respected and established in the sector. My thanks must go to Cecilia, for meeting with me just before the first lockdown, sharing all her insights so generously, and helping me with my orientation to this role.

Taking the helm at EELGA virtually was a daunting challenge, but by the time I arrived in mid-May, EELGA was already two months into remote working, along with the rest of the country. My main concern was to build rapport with our staff, our members and all partners across the region as quickly as possible and give our member councils maximum support and added value. Everyone was dealing with a massive volume of work and having to make so many complex decisions every day, in an ever-changing environment.

The EELGA team had organised a fantastic induction programme for me. In usual times I would have been crisscrossing the Eastern region, seeing people and places in person, but this was not to be. My second thank you goes to all our staff, members and partners for doing so many of those virtual induction meetings with me in those early weeks and helping me not to get too “zoomed” out!

So, what have the highlights been for EELGA so far this year?

In June, ably led by Roy Elmer and the EELGA policy team, we designed and implemented a series of Recovery Workshops covering three themes: economic recovery, people and communities and new ways of working. These were multiagency workshops focused on key lines of enquiry examining how local government and its communities and partners across the region should tackle recovery post covid, and what asks of government, and of each other, this would involve. The sessions generated a considerable level of engagement and my third thank you is to all the participants of these workshops for their willingness to collaborate, share learning and ideas, and for juggling these sessions alongside the ongoing covid response.

In June we also held our first virtual AGM, with a very thought-provoking keynote address from Matthew Taylor of the RSA. We reflected on the seismic changes to society the pandemic was creating, what these might mean for leaders of organisations and businesses in the medium term, how to embrace and take on board the new while dispensing with old ideas and working practices that might not serve us so well in the future.

Another EELGA transition took place at the AGM, from Cllr Finch to Cllr Haysey as Chair of EELGA, along with the appointment of Cllr Matthew Hicks as our new Vice-Chair. We also presented the EELGA annual report for 2019/20 which can be found here.

Our Chief Executive Forum and Heads of HR Forum have been operating at full stretch during the pandemic supporting local government officers with digesting and implementing all the guidance, policy and practical matters arising from the different phases of the pandemic. The CEX forum has met anything up to three times weekly, and there’s been a very regular Covid & Brexit round-up bulletin and a very active HR chatter group.

The EELGA policy team, and our team of HR specialists (expertly led by Michelle Kirk and Lucy Ashwell), have been providing lots of regional analysis, answering queries, providing guidance and moral support, sharing intel and good practice – essentially helping everyone stay on top of all the requirements and learning.

The EELGA policy team have also been working very closely with the LEPs, central government departments, the NHS, ADASS, the national LGA and the two regional transport bodies, to name but a few of our strategic partners. They have responded to key national policy and funding developments such as the Planning White Paper, made detailed submissions for the Budget/CSR, regularly presented at the now virtual meetings of the East of England APPG, and brought together a set of regional recovery priorities jointly with the NHS.

In August, we appointed Joe Winter to our vacant senior management post. Joe leads EELGA’s business development, communications and marketing functions.

Joe and I have been working hand in hand since he joined us to redevelop the EELGA Talent Bank. We have introduced monthly briefings with EELGA’s Talent Bank Associates, to keep them fully updated on our work and the several of them have given their time to work with us on developing new Talent Bank products and offers.

My fourth thank you goes to one of our EELGA associates, Gilli Galloway, a commercial specialist who provided interim cover before Joe’s arrival. I must also thank all the Talent Bank Associates for delivering a fantastic set of assignments to our member councils this year and for engaging with Joe and me so productively in redeveloping the Talent Bank.

So far, we have refreshed the Talent Bank Offer under four key themes, linked to our recovery programme, with other offers also in the pipeline. We have also onboarded several new associates with additional skills and subject matter expertise. You can find about the first 4 themes here: New Offers – EELGA

The Strategic Migration Partnership (SMP) led by Gosia Strona, has gone from strength to strength this year and been awarded a new three-year grant for the AMIF programme, more information can be found here. SMP has been very busy setting up this new programme, while continuing to support asylum seekers and refugees routinely during the pandemic, including those councils and communities working with unaccompanied minors.

In response to the pandemic, SMP has redeveloped their support packages for skills, work and language training with virtual options and tailored packages, offering new routes to employment given previous routes into sectors such as retail and hospitality were so badly hit by the pandemic.

In November we said farewell to Richard Carr, CEX of Central Bedfordshire and the lead CEX for the East of England Region. His leadership in both these roles has been exemplary. We are indebted to Richard for his guidance, support, advice and direction to the CEX group, the EELGA team and EELGA Management Committee, all of which has proved invaluable. We will miss him greatly. This marked another transition for EELGA in 2020, as we welcomed Owen Mapley to the lead CEX role in November.

Having worked closely with our regional CEXs for 6 months, I know there are many people in this outstanding group of public servants who could have taken on this challenge, and we are very fortunate that Owen was willing to step into this role during such a time of pressure and complexity for local government and the leadership teams of every council.

In closing this article, I must pay tribute to all the EELGA staff. We have a truly resilient, hardworking, and talented team who have tackled everything that has been thrown at them this year with total professionalism and good grace, all while maintaining a great sense of humour.

By demonstrating excellent teamwork and commitment, we have revamped our finances, put in place new governance and operational systems, developed new methods of communication and introduced new tools and technology in support of remote working.

In response to the impact of virtual teaming and communications, we have also worked together to design an OD programme for embedding new ways of working at EELGA for the medium term. For a team that thrived on its culture of togetherness at West Suffolk House, it has been especially tough not to be able to see each other regularly or be together for so many of the important events and occasions this year.

Very sadly, in October, we lost Marcus Boon, our EELGA finance administrator, who died unexpectedly. This was a devasting blow to the whole organisation, in what had already been a challenging year for everyone. Once again, the EELGA staff have shown their inner resolve and resilience in coping with this dreadful situation. They have been a tremendous support to each other, and to me. As a mark of respect, and in support of staff wellbeing, we held a “Rest, Recuperate and Remember Day” on the first of December. Every member of staff was able to use the day as a personal opportunity to reflect and recharge themselves, away from the pressures of work.

In my next article, I will look ahead to our priorities and work plans for 2021, but for now, my thanks again to everyone for their support to EELGA in this exceptional year, and all our member councils for stepping up every single day to the enormous challenges we have faced together as a region, for the benefit of our communities.

Stay safe and enjoy some family time over what will be a very different festive season.

Cheryl Davenport, Managing Director, EELGA