Chief executive of North Ayrshire council, Elma Murray, is the new chair of the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives (SOLACE) Scotland
After 30 years in local government, Murray is looking forward to taking on this new role, “I am feeling pretty excited about it because I love change, that is at my core,” she tells Holyrood. Murray, who has been SOLACE Scotland vice-chair for the past year, is certainly no stranger to changes within local government. With a professional background in IT, she has worked in many different departments at North Ayrshire Council, Glasgow City and Strathclyde Police before taking over as chief executive of North Ayrshire in 2009.
She said: “Looking back over the 30 years, it has been one of the most fantastic work experiences anybody could have. From that point of view I have been hugely fortunate in getting that experience. If I think about how I have developed in local government over the past years, the most important thing for me is that you actually get to make a difference to people’s lives in a very meaningful way and I expect that most of my staff would say that that is what they enjoy about their job as well.
“That is why I think local government is so important and so vital. I also believe, and I think we’ve demonstrated this in the past five to ten years, that we are increasingly capable of taking on change and moving things around to reflect what is happening locally but also trying to reflect some of the national priorities the Government might have as well. If I think about the efficiency programmes which councils have had and how they’ve tried to address some of the big challenges across Scotland, it is quite phenomenal how well we’ve managed to do that and how staff have changed and embraced that.
“People feel very strongly about their services, whether it is their local library, their bins being emptied, the quality of the repairs in their house or the range of support people get.” In terms of leading SOLACE Scotland for the next 12 months, Murray said she feels “quite humbled” by it.
She added: “I am one of 32 chief executives in Scotland and I have the utmost respect for my colleagues and the job they do. They are, collectively, such an outstanding group of leaders. To be part of that group and to have the privilege for one year to chair our monthly branch meeting, to take a lead on the issues which are important to us over the course of that year is probably one of the highest honours I’ve had in my career to date. I am really relishing the opportunity and looking forward to putting my wee mark on how SOLACE is perceived across Scotland over the next year. SOLACE is, first and foremost, a society for chief executives and senior managers, it is a place for us to get together and share what we’re doing.” Murray is taking over at a tough time.
Local authorities continue to see their budgets squeezed, while demand for services is steadily rising. As part of these challenges, Murray believes finances and welfare reform are two big issues facing all local authorities.
She continued: “In North Ayrshire we see [welfare reform] as having a very significant financial impact on the local economy and it is something we will be asking members to have a look at as part of their budget decisions this year. I think all councils will be looking at that to some degree or other. Leading on from that, when you start looking at the economy, we’ve had four years of working through a recession and going through a double dip in the recession and it has felt really quite painful for areas like this. Where that pain is really starting to show now is in the levels of youth unemployment. What I see when I look across all councils in Scotland is they’re doing a huge amount of work around youth employment.
“The other big opportunity is Christie and what the commission reported on last year, particularly around prevention, early intervention, the power of community planning partnerships and also the power of starting to develop and utilise our communities much more strongly. That is something I’d hope to be doing some more specific work on during my term as SOLACE chair. I’d like us to look at how we can build on the Christie work and how we present a much clearer picture of what that should look like for local government. There is a lot of work going in to developing what the commission talked about in terms of communities and building on our assets. We’ll have all been looking at this in slightly different ways but in talking to colleagues in local government, we are doing a huge amount of work on making communities more resilient and looking at how we can build skills within communities to make them more self-reliant. Part of that is examining what that means for our staff as well, asking what kind of skills they need to help and facilitate that to take place.”
With Murray taking the top role with SOLACE Scotland, North Ayrshire Council is gaining more recognition on the national stage. David O’Neill, a veteran North Ayrshire Labour councillor and former council leader, took over as president of the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities (COSLA) in the summer. Murray believes this will inevitably boost the profile of North Ayrshire but also allow a real opportunity for them to work together to strengthen some of the views people have about what local government is all about.
Since taking over at North Ayrshire Council, Murray has seen many alterations. In May’s council elections, the local authority changed from a minority Labour administration to minority SNP. Murray said: “It was a big change because Labour has run the council for over 30 years in North Ayrshire and then previously Cunninghame district. Moving to an SNP administration has been a real shift in this very short time period. However, it has been really exciting and challenging as well, to understand what the new administration is looking for from the officers in terms of setting their policy and direction, and how we work with them as a broader leadership team. We are right in the middle of that change.
“We also recently conducted our first council-wide staff survey. One of the things I’ve talked to staff about in my time as chief executive has been the importance of team work and the staff survey has been incredible. We had a 95 per cent response on the value of teamwork, which is fantastic; we’ve got 85 per cent of staff who understand their role in the council and 83 per cent of them think they have interesting jobs to do.
“The other big change I’ve seen is a focus on some core objectives in the council. When I took over we had a lot of things we were working on, all of which were really relevant but in terms of prioritising and being clear about the things we absolutely needed to make progress on, there was a lot there. We have honed that now and have a much smaller number of core objectives. I would say we have much more clarity around what people are doing and trying to achieve. The big thing for me was getting everyone to align behind the economy and economic development.
“We managed earlier this year to get enterprise areas started in Irvine, which is a huge boost to the area and gives us a fantastic opportunity to promote North Ayrshire but also to build a real credible contribution towards the Scottish economy in a way we’ve not been able to in the past. That is so important because our employment levels have been so low for so long.”