For the first challenge, we were off to Swale Borough Council in Kent. The affluent South East… or so I thought. On the train down I started googling the area, and found that Swale is in fact the second most deprived local authority in Kent, and the decline of the manufacturing industry has led to more, lower skilled manual jobs than elsewhere in the region and higher unemployment. As an area, there were more similarities with Coventry than I had expected, but as a Council, with a conservative majority, significant UKIP presence and a two tier system, there was quite a different feel.
As I arrived at Sittingborne in Swale, I started to meet the other contestants. I was relieved to find that they were not at all like the contestants from ‘The Apprentice’, and were from a mixture of areas and roles. We were also met by Kieren Mansfield from Swale Borough Council, who works in the economic development team, and he pointed out various regeneration projects to us on our walk to the Council building. We all assumed that this would give us some vital clues about the first challenge, and did our best to listen to him and ask relevant questions, as well as discussing between us who was an expert on regeneration and might be best suited to lead a team.
But there wasn’t a lot of time for thinking or planning – before long we found ourselves meeting the Leader of the Council, the Chief Executive and Claire Holloway, the lead judge for the Local Government Challenge (the much more lovely equivalent of Alan Sugar), as well as the ‘eyes and ears’ from the LGA who would be following the teams (the equivalent of Karen and Claude), Andy the camera man, and other observers from the LGA and Swale Borough Council. We were quickly divided up into teams and told that the regeneration hints were a red herring – Kieren had deliberately been sent to pick us up and fool us into thinking that this would be the subject of the first challenge! Instead the first challenge was to develop employment pathways for offenders and other vulnerable groups, and we had 24 hours to come up with a proposal, submit a business case and deliver a 10 minute presentation.
We only had half an hour to decide on our team name, select a team captain, and to make some quick decisions about who would be going where in the afternoon. We settled on ‘Inspire’ for our team name, and despite being jet lagged having just got back from a holiday the day before, I thought I would volunteer to be team captain.
As an officer working in the Public Health team, helping vulnerable people get into employment may not seem like my area of expertise, but employment is protective of health, and getting vulnerable people into employment is one of Coventry’s priorities as part of its Health and Wellbeing Strategy and Marmot City plan to improve health and reduce inequalities, so I had some idea of what was important and what the evidence says about what works.
The rest of the team were happy for me to lead, and so we were off… two of us went to prison to meet prisoners and prison officers, while the rest of us met with other stakeholders at Swale Borough Council. We came back together in the late afternoon to do some brainstorming, come up with an idea, and worked out how we would use dinner time to subtly question the Chief Executive and other members of the Council to extract some key information that would help us fine-tune our proposal.
I quickly discovered that being team captain had very little to do with being a subject matter expert, and a lot to do with making sure we used the time available as effectively as possible, stayed focused on the task at hand and making final decisions so that we didn’t go round in circles deliberating. It wasn’t about coming up with all the ideas myself, but listening to the rest of the team and trying to identify the best bits and work out how we could deliver them.
After a sleepless night of business case writing, we had several meetings scheduled with key partners where we discussed our proposal, tested different aspects of our ideas and tried to gather their support. Then we had to quickly workout how we would finance our proposal and the scale of savings we thought it could achieve, before submitting our business case (right on time!), and presentation.
We started our presentation with a story. Catherine from our team had been to prison the day before and had met ‘Lucy’, a prisoner whose story resonated and was key in the development of our proposal. So, Catherine started the presentation by telling Lucy’s story from Lucy’s perspective, which clearly illustrated how our proposal would work for her. Alison then followed up with her story as one of the ‘Angels’ who would work with Lucy as part of our proposal, to support her into employment. As Team Captain, I then presented the detail of our proposal, costs and benefits, and then Mark and Katherine took the majority of the questions.
After a tense wait, our team was declared the winner! We had a group hug and celebration, before returning to our team room for some all-important debrief time and some filming. It had been a very intense 24 hours, but a fantastic start to the Local Government Challenge, both for team Inspire, and for me as the team captain.
See the video from the first challenge here.