Taking stock: interview with Eileen Howat
Almost 30 years after she first started working in local government, Eileen Howat was appointed to the top job at South Ayrshire Council in May 2013. The past year has been a challenging one for the council, as all local authorities work to keep up with the demands of an ageing population and falling budgets. However, speaking to Holyrood, Howat said the issues facing local government can help councils work innovatively to deliver more for their local areas.
She said: “In the past 12 months there have been many challenges in terms of things which needed to be moved forward but we’re really focusing on what we want to do as a council and getting what I would describe as some of the building blocks in place to take us forward. This includes really bringing the corporate management team together to work in a more cohesive way. It’s also been about trying to involve elected members in developing the council plan, which sets out our stall for the next three years. There are a few big achievements for the council in the past year, including working with the Scottish Government around acquiring Prestwick Airport. That has been very important for this area. Other achievements include opening new customer service centres and we’ve also continued house building and also improving our school estate with a number of new schools. There are some exciting projects going on.”
Howat graduated from Strathclyde University with a BSc in Mathematics before joining Strathclyde Regional Council as a trainee accountant in 1984. She held various finance positions before joining South Ayrshire Council at local government reorganisation in 1996. Within South Ayrshire, Howat, who is married with two children, has filled various posts and latterly, she was executive director with responsibilities including finance, benefits, IT, employee and customer services, legal services, policy and performance, communications and community planning.
In February, Scotland’s public sector spending watchdog, the Accounts Commission, said it was “seriously concerned” about South Ayrshire Council’s lack of progress in addressing “long-term weaknesses”. The commission’s findings were in response to a report from the Controller of Audit which found significant failings in strategic direction, leadership, performance management and scrutiny at the council.
It said the council has not fulfilled agreed recommendations from previous reports in 2009 and 2010 and it was seriously concerned about its inability over a number of years to fulfil and sustain its statutory Best Value responsibilities for continuous improvement in these areas. The council had also lacked a corporate plan for the past 18 months, though one has since been agreed.
The audit report also said overall scrutiny at South Ayrshire was ineffective. Scrutiny panel meetings were often cancelled due to lack of business and while a performance management system had been introduced, it lacked consistent implementation across the council. Senior managers frequently did not attend meetings of the corporate management team or did not engage effectively with its procedures. The commission recognised that there were currently no significant concerns about the performance of council services, but Accounts Commission chairman Douglas Sinclair said: “We require progress to be made as a matter of urgency. Otherwise, the weaknesses identified by the targeted audit of Best Value will increasingly have a negative impact on the services that the council provides for people and communities in South Ayrshire and on the public’s confidence in the council. The challenges the council faces in establishing and sustaining effective leadership and improvement are substantial and deep rooted and we urge the council to seek external assistance in this through, for example, peer support.”
The commission has ordered a follow-up report by December to measure progress against its recommendations.
Howat told Holyrood the lack of a council plan was raised on her appointment in May last year. She added: “I thought it was very important that the [elected] members were involved in the process of creating a plan and we took some time on this. Now we’ve got the council plan approved, we’re working on the service and improvement plans which are the next steps and we are looking at how we use performance information to take the council forward. There is a lot of information out there – benchmarking data from across all the councils – but we need to look at how we use that to improve services. There was also some criticism of our scrutiny arrangements so we’ve also agreed to do a review of scrutiny.
“We’ll get the building blocks in place, though I fully accept that they should have been there some time ago. We now feel like we’ve taken the time to get them right at this stage. One of the issues raised was about capacity to deliver and there was criticism around roles and responsibilities of chief officers and members. We’re going to do some work with the Improvement Service to address that.
“It’s not the type of report you want to get but it is a question of recognising the issues that are raised within it and getting member and officer commitment to take things forward. By the time Audit Scotland come back in for their follow up, the evidence will be there showing the steps we are taking to address these issues.
“We need to deliver on it and we need to ensure the mechanisms are there so everyone knows we have delivered. Regular reporting to elected members is vital so they know we’re taking it seriously and we’re moving forward. There’s also a lot of good practice in other councils and I’m not afraid to approach them and ask them for assistance.”
Welfare reforms have created issues for South Ayrshire in line with other councils across the country.
Howat added: “Welfare reform has meant we’ve had to examine how we deliver. It’s been about looking at how it affects the whole population and I’ve been keen to take a lead on that. There’s still a lot more to come, especially when we move to universal credit and we’re already seeing demand for help increasing.
“The council set a three-year budget in December which dealt with 2014/15 and we’ve already approved some savings for 2015/16 and 2016/17. While money has been tight, the council has managed to direct some resources into what we are calling our ‘ambition programme’ which is to deliver jobs and economic growth. We see that as one of the key strategic objectives of the council. It’s about training for young people, setting up incubator space for new businesses – we’ve already got two open and another still to come – and that’s been really good. We’re probably creating a couple of hundred jobs as a result of that. It has been one of the council’s priorities. Welfare reform brings a lot of challenges but if we can get people back into work then it takes them out of welfare in general and it also improves the economy.
“We’re looking at the demographics, this area has an increasingly ageing population and that brings demand for care. We only know what our indicative figures are for three years but it allows you to plan and you are not waiting until December every year to make budget decisions for the following year, you can start to plan to deliver services differently or make changes.
“One of the key achievements for us is the shared road services with East Ayrshire which was launched recently. Hopefully that’s the start of things to come and there are other opportunities to work with East Ayrshire and other neighbouring councils.”