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Challenging times ahead as new Norfolk County Council chief takes the helm

PUBLISHED: 10:02 30 August 2014 | UPDATED: 10:02 30 August 2014

Dr Wendy Thomson, the new chief executive of Norfolk County Council.
Picture by SIMON FINLAY.

Dr Wendy Thomson, the new chief executive of Norfolk County Council. Picture by SIMON FINLAY.

Archant Norfolk.

The new top officer at Norfolk County Council has acknowledged the scale of the challenge she faces at an authority she admits has been through a “rough patch”.

The road ahead

One of Dr Wendy Thomson’s priorities will be to help to turnaround Norfolk County Council’s criticised children’s services department.

Last year, the council’s children’s services department received three damning reports from Ofsted inspectors.

In a six-month period, Ofsted branded the council’s arrangements for protecting children and its services for looked-after children as “inadequate”, and said the council’s support for school improvement was “ineffective”.

Inspectors recently returned and the support for school improvement is now rated as “effective”, but Dr Thomson accepted there is some way to go.

She said: “I think Sheila Lock [interim director of children’s services] has done a good job, but it is not time to rest. From what I have seen of the figures and the service issues, what had been happening was not acceptable.

“Huge progress has been made, but we have still got way too many children in care and we are still not strong enough. What has been achieved is remarkable, but it is not fixed yet.”

Dr Thomson holds a masters in social work from McGill University, where she returned in 2005 to lead the School of Social Work.

But she said her interest in children’s services went beyond that. She said: “I was adopted and I have an adopted daughter, so for me it is personal. These are life changing services, for better or for worse, and we have to get it right. These children only get one chance.”

And Dr Wendy Thomson, who was headhunted for managing director post at County Hall, said the financial challenges the county council is facing means it cannot be “business as usual”.

Dr Thomson swapped a directorship at McGill University in her home country of Canada, to take over as the council’s managing director earlier this month.

The Montreal-born 60-year-old, who, as founding director of the Office of Public Service Reform, was an advisor to Tony Blair, admits she was surprised she was chosen.

And, with local government experience from posts at the London boroughs of Newham and Islington and spells at the Audit Commission and the charity Turning Point, she said she believes she has the skills needed to guide an authority with a budget of £1.5bn.

New chief’s CV

• Three years as chief executive of the London Borough of Newham

• Six years as assistant chief executive in the London Borough of Islington

• Director of best value inspection at the Audit Commission

Founding director of the Office of Public Service Reform - a post which saw her advise prime minister Tony Blair

• Chief executive of the national UK charity Turning Point

• Led the School of Social Work at McGill, taking up a wide range of advisory roles specialising in social policy, health and social services

• In 2005, she was was made a CBE for her work on public service

She said: “The county council did a very ambitious search for the managing director role and the headhunter had the courage to reach across the Atlantic and suggest it might be something I would consider.

“After that it was a case of the persuasion of people that this was a job that needed doing and that they wanted someone with a different kind of background.
“The more I thought about it, the more it appealed. I came over for an interview in March and it seemed like a long shot as I hadn’t been a chief executive in some time.

“I didn’t think I would get it, so I was very surprised the council decided to take someone who was not the most obvious profile.”

But Dr Thomson, whose post has a band of between £165,000 and £180,000, is confident the council has made the right decision.

She said: “It sounds like Norfolk has been through a bit of a rough patch and I am good at dealing with those. I have been through the local government wars.

“I was in Islington with Margaret Hodge when the rate-capping rebellion was going on and when I joined Newham, the council was a basket case.

“I was not the most obvious candidate there and there were those who would have gone on with ‘business as usual’. But we needed to kick it hard and turn it around. We did that and it won council of the year, while we had the performance indicators that backed it up.”

Dr Thomson, a step-mother of two grown up children and mother to a 12-year-old adopted daughter, said it was vital that she forged good relationships with the councillors at County Hall, which is currently run by Labour in an alliance with the Liberal Democrats and the UK Independence Party.

She said: “It is a big job, but it is not one I will do alone. The first thing is forming good relationships with elected members and I’ve got a good record of working with politicians.

“We have got a challenging position with no party in overall control, but the alliance is working well now and my job is to work with them to make sure that’s effective.”

One of Dr Thomson’s first task will be to form a new chief officer team at County Hall. With a number of posts occupied by interim officers.

She said: “We have got some good temporary people doing fabulous work, but they won’t be here forever. I have got to get a structure approved and recruit for that. I am confident I will be able to attract top calbre people to those posts.”

The council has repeatedly had to make cuts - £71m this year alone - and Dr Thomson, who gained a PhD in social administration at the University of Bristol, acknowledged difficult decisions are ahead.

She said: “There are major, major challenges. It cannot be business as usual. We have got to think about what business we are in and where, as a council, we can make the biggest difference.

“I will be reaching out to the city and district councils, as well as to Suffolk County Council to engage with them. I don’t think there’s any need for us to run everything ourselves.

“We need to know what services are needed and then to be an advocate for getting the best services for the people who need it.”

What issues do you think need to be tackled at Norfolk County Council? Email edpletters@archant.co.uk

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