Sue Bruce

13th July 2012 at 01:00
The chief executive of the City of Edinburgh Council talks about turning around failing departments, the most important elements of strong leadership and the wider impact of young people leaving school without a positive destination Interview by Julia Belgutay Photography by Drew Farrell

What has been your biggest challenge in the first 18 months at Edinburgh?

Settling down the tram project. That was a major piece of work for me personally, because it took nine-and-a-half months to get that re-scoped and signed off. It is a major construction project and, within the revised scope, it is completely on programme.

You were director of education, housing, social work and cultural services in East Dunbartonshire after the authority received quite a poor HMI report. How did you turn it around?

We adopted a good project-management approach, established a team who would lead the transformation, and had a clear, inclusive programme, with roles, responsibilities and accountabilities laid out. It involved all services in the council and a series of working groups. Between us, we co- produced a direction for the service that was signed off within two years.

On your next job you faced the mammoth task of turning around the finances at Aberdeen City Council. Did you have time to set it on the right track?

Yes, definitely. Although there were fairly tough decisions about how we would do things in future, it was a co-produced outcome. From a standing start of a pound;73 million hole in the budget, we turned around an operating surplus of pound;9 million at the end of the 2009-10 financial year. We dug deep, we made changes that were substantial, sustainable and convincing, and they have proved to be the foundations for the council right through to today.

What is the most important element of strong leadership?

It is always about rooting things in your own values. For me, it is respect, integrity, humility and valuing others. Then there are business values you transplant on to that. And as a chief officer, you draw on your own personal resilience, your own experience, and you have to have clarity and determination, and be robust.

What is the Edinburgh Guarantee?

It is a scheme that has been developed in partnership with elements of the public sector, private sector, colleges, the voluntary sector and businesses. The council leads and supports it, and is also a direct deliverer of it. It is directed at 16- to 19-year-olds to give them a guarantee of an opportunity post-school. When we started at the beginning of 2011, we were 32nd out of 32 for school-leaver destinations. We set about working out collectively what we could do to help, and found we needed about 550 opportunities for young people. We ended up identifying 621, and about 460 of those have been translated into opportunities - college places, job opportunities, apprenticeships or training places. When the government published its statistics for 2011, we were Scotland's most improved council area.

How much does it cost to run?

About pound;3 million. We have had great partnerships with sectors such as the banks, the hospitality trade, the retail trade - all of them are contributing. Standard Life has seconded us an officer to help run the scheme.

What's the incentive for businesses, colleges and other organisations to get involved?

We have found businesses falling over themselves to participate, which speaks volumes for the ethos of the business community. I think people recognise that in a major recession they can do more than what would overtly seem to be their main role. We have been blown away by the willingness of businesses, colleges and the voluntary sector to take part.

Do you think it is sustainable in the financial climate?

The further we go into the scheme, the more difficult it will be to maintain. When our first 50 apprentices move into year two, we will be kicking off another 50, so by the time you end up in year three or four, you could end up with 200 apprentices. In an organisation like this, that is perhaps sustainable, but it requires real determination. That is why we are saying, if someone can take only one per annum, that is 100 per cent for that young person, and every little helps in circumstances such as this. The alternative is to have youngsters piling up unemployed.

What is the wider impact of young people leaving school without a good destination?

In the past few years, in the region of 500 youngsters every single year have ended up with no post-school opportunity at all, and it does not take too many years before you start building up into the thousands. What we aim to do is arrest that number, but also to try to get ahead of the school-leaver curve. The kind of cooperation we have had from business community over the course of the last year suggests to us that if we sustain that pace, we could get to a point where we are matching youngsters with opportunities before they leave school.

In October, the three Edinburgh colleges will merge. Do you think this will improve provision or do you have concerns?

I have no concerns about it. As a council, we work closely with all three, and they all work closely together. The merger seems like a natural progression. You have got three inspirational principals there, and what I think we will see is them taking the opportunity to develop specialism and avoid duplication. So the offering will get even better than it is already.


Born: England, 1955

Education: Nursery and five primaries in England; three secondaries in Scotland; youth work and community service diploma, Jordanhill College of Education; politics and law degree, University of Strathclyde; certificate in strategic public sector negotiation, JFK School of Government, Harvard, US

Career: Director of education, housing, social work and cultural services, East Dunbartonshire, 2000; then chief executive of East Dunbartonshire, 2004, Aberdeen, 2008, Edinburgh, 2011-present.

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