AFTER five years at the helm, Charlie Parker is nearing the end of his tenure as Chief Executive of Oldham Council.
I’d like to look back today and reflect on his impact since coming to Oldham in 2008.
Firstly, it’s important to point out that if an organisation is all about one person then we would be in trouble.
A true leader of an organisation builds capacity and depth, which means that the team that supports is just as important as the person at the top.
Charlie arrived here shortly after Labour lost control of the Council to a new Lib Dem administration. There had also recently been two consecutive – and fairly negative – Audit Commission reports into the organisation and its leadership.
Having been a member of the cross party Selection Committee to choose the new Chief Executive, I recall we were being fairly thorough in our questioning. However, Charlie began with his ‘pitch’ – and it’s one that has stuck with me.
He said that if we wanted to change Oldham and had the commitment to see that through – including the tough decisions needed – that he would deliver it.
What followed was a cross-party agreement to put aside the permanent ‘election mode’ politics in favour of a mature approach. It was one which laid some very strong foundations.
The following three years was spent generally putting Oldham Council’s ‘house in order’ and ensuring a team was in place with proper financial discipline and performance management. It all sounds all very dry, I know, but it’s vital – and we also began work to change the Council’s culture.
Having been at such a low point – including being in the horrible position of having the worst resident satisfaction rate in the country – I suppose a viewpoint might have been that ‘well, it couldn’t get much worse’.
In fact on a range of issues the Borough was already making strong progress. Frontline services such as street cleaning, parks and essentials like Adult Social Care, Education and Safeguarding come to mind but, even with all those plusses, the Council just wasn’t joined up.
You have to meet and spend time with Charlie to understand what really makes him tick.
It’s easy to form an opinion after reading local press, hearing third hand stories or even being distracted by the salary figure. I’ve had an insight I suspect only a very few people have had and I’m going to share my thoughts here…
Firstly, Charlie has done well in life. His position is evidence of that, but that isn’t to say his life was either mapped out or handed to him on a plate. Coming from a hardworking working class family he has pushed himself to create a career for himself and his family.
It is fair to say that the harsh and high standards he sets for himself are also the bar he sets for others.
It would be equally fair to say that Charlie hasn’t been universally liked: although I think if the relationship has settled that way is usually because he decided that was the best outcome(!)
Loyalty? Not much to say here. If you were loyal, Charlie was fiercely loyal back. If you’re not, or lack integrity, then the best of luck to you!
Everyone has hindsight – it’s certainly the only degree I’ve got, and some people also have foresight. In my experience though, very, very few people have genuine insight.
That’s an ability not to just look deeply into something but to understand very complex issues and relationship and join the whole picture together. If you haven’t got insight as a chief executive it will be a dull career.
Charlie’s high standards, a great work ethic and attention to detail have meant that Oldham Council has changed and will continue to change for the better.
The recent Peer Review praised the relationship between leadership, members and officers now and gave credit to what has been a ‘remarkable transformation’.
However, as a Council, we know the most important quality measure is what residents believe.
Having been at a low of just 22 per cent it was a symbolic moment when resident satisfaction increased to 65 per cent. Not only did an external team see the improvement, but residents were seeing too.
We’ve set out to transform Oldham. The town centre has received much focus and praise for game-changing schemes like the Old Town Hall cinema, new leisure centres and a new Coliseum Theatre – and rightly so.
And let’s not lose sight of our position now in Greater Manchester. We are not just an active participant, we are now one of the leading authorities and don’t shy away anymore from taking on our share of the work to move the City Region forward.
Greater Manchester’s success is Oldham’s success – and Charlie has helped the political leadership to see some very important projects come to fruition.
We’ve also brought forward some vital employment opportunities and created new housing sites at the same time as fundamental change have taken place in the Council – as well as dealing with the little matter of finding £150m in savings.
The fact that most people haven’t yet seen the impact of cuts to frontline services is testament to the financial discipline of the Council, which is now recognised as being one of the most effective in the country.
I hope that the team we’ve created and the outward leadership which, I hope, I and other members have given, has meant we’ve been able to give the support, finance and vision to what has been an impressive tenure for Charlie.
I expect, of course, that this all reads as very gushing and pleasant, but if I’ve left you with the impression that Charlie wasn’t a handful at times then that wouldn’t be right, I can assure you.
If you’ve been left believing our working relationship wasn’t tense at times then that wouldn’t be correct either; but that’s natural when two strong characters are always right…
Public service can be unforgiving, it is certainly relentless, and most people don’t see the hours, energy or the hard times people put in.
So, before too long Charlie will be on the way to London. Is Charlie ready for Westminster – and is Westminster ready for Charlie? Watch this space…
This is my final posting before the festive period.
The blog will return in January 2014 , but I’d like to take this opportunity to wish you all a merry Christmas and a happy New Year.
Thanks for listening,