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A new Chief Executive for Sheffield

'Active citizen' Nigel Slack takes a look at the credentials of Sheffield’s newly-appointed Chief Executive – and the challenges she will face in the role.

Sheffield Town Hall Richard Rogerson geograph

Sheffield Town Hall.

Richard Rogerson (Geograph)

Kate Josephs is not a name many will know yet, but in a few months she will take over the city's administration. Appointed in August as the new Chief Executive of Sheffield City Council, starting in January she will be responsible for the way the city is run.

Aside from the Council Leader and Cabinet, Josephs will be the most powerful person in the city’s hierarchy, taking over the role vacated by John Mothersole in December 2019. Josephs originally hails from Yorkshire and has expressed her enthusiasm for returning to the North.

Josephs has experience working in government, from being Executive Director of the White House Performance Improvement Council in the US to policy development at the Department for Work & Pensions and on to handling funding and academies at the Department of Education, before taking her latest role as the Director General of the No. 10 Covid Taskforce.

Anyone who has found themselves at the mercy of the DWP might be troubled by Josephs’ pivotal role there and her involvement in the rise of academies in our education system might also give cause for concern. Of course it’s unfair to lay the blame for the Government’s Covid-19 response at her door, despite her elevated position.

Will Josephs’ appointment mark the beginning of a time of positive change, service improvement and social justice, rather than the cost-cutting and managed decline that characterised the last years of John Mothersole's reign?

Whatever skills and commitment Josephs brings to the city – significant experience, an Oxford education and a Masters at the London School of Economics – she will need all of that and more to handle the changes that Sheffield faces in the near future.

Kate Josephs will start work in a city still in the grip of a global pandemic. According to Sheffield's Director of Public Health, Greg Fell, it’s likely we will be dealing with the effects of Covid-19 for 18 months or more, and the impact on the health and wellbeing of residents will be significant.

People are railing against restrictions and the relaxation of those restrictions is already triggering a spread of the virus that is reaching into new sections of the community and affecting younger age groups, which will ultimately be challenging for the delivery of local services and for tackling the ongoing spread of the virus.

2021 will bring with it two major issues for city governance. In 2019, the It's Our City! campaign achieved its goal of forcing a referendum on the way political decisions in the city are made. In May 2021, the voters of Sheffield will get to decide whether the city continues to be run by a 'Leader and Cabinet' system or whether its decision-making will change to a 'Modern Committee' system.

Though steps have been taken on some aspects of that potential change, there will also be impacts on ways of working for staff. Whatever the outcome of the referendum, it’s clear that radical change is needed in some Council hierarchies. It’s as much about a change of culture as it is a change of processes.

The May 2021 local elections hold the potential to bring a hung council, where no overall control (NOC) is held by one party. An NOC council cannot easily govern the city and, in such an event, the various parties’ unwillingness, at least in public, to work well together could be an early flashpoint for the new Chief Exec.

The second major issue for Sheffield’s governance in 2021 is the working structures of the city's administration, which need a robust and transparent review. Too many reviews into the way Council operates in the past have been conducted behind closed doors, taking opinions only from internal sources and freezing out many key stakeholders, including an ineffective review of Codes of Conduct and decision makers ignoring policies and protocols.

The watchful gaze of the public should also be focused on a review of planning guidelines, which lies at the heart of a divergence between the desires of residents and the desires of developers who are increasingly bulldozing their way through the city. A new Sheffield Local Plan is currently in its first stage of public consultation and this may be a battleground between what the city wants and the planned relaxation of rules by central government.

Finally, but in many ways most concerning, is the financial situation that the new Chief Exec will inherit at Sheffield City Council. Senior officers in finance openly admit that if the Covid pressures continue and there is no significant financial support from central government, the city will become effectively bankrupt by 2022.

Sheffield has held back significant reserves for a rainy day but the pandemic is very quickly eating into that money. With government talk about a rise in taxes and ongoing austerity, the economic outlook for the city, whilst better than many others, is perilous.

Julie Dore, Leader of the Council, describes Kate Josephs as “inspirational, outstanding and unique”. She will need every one of those traits to tackle the challenges that Sheffield faces over the next few years.

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