Having dedicated over four decades of her life to public service, Fiona Lees, who held the position of Chief Executive of East Ayrshire Council since April 2004, bid farewell to the authority in January 2021. APSE Direct spoke to Fiona about her exceptional career in local government.?
Fiona, having joined the local government family 42 years ago, you have spent the last 17 as Chief Executive of East Ayrshire Council. As Chief Executive, what has been your greatest achievement?
When you work in public service, it is never about personal achievements, first and foremost it is about the communities you serve and helping others to achieve what they want to see, for their families, themselves and their communities.
I am so proud of our Council and the difference we have made: new schools, new homes, care and support for our residents, investment in the economy and protection and enhancement of our environment. But when I reflect on my time at East Ayrshire, my abiding memory will be the way we have worked together with and for our communities. We have never been closer to our communities than we are now and this has been as vital to our COVID-19 response, as it will be to our recovery and renewal.
Over 40 years ago, I started working with communities and on my last day of work, I was pleased to be able to attend my final meeting of the Social Renewal Advisory Board, with the Cabinet Secretaries for Communities and Local Government and Social Security and Older People. The Board was set up the Scottish Government to make proposals that can help to renew Scotland, once we start to emerge from the Pandemic.
The Board’s report was published on the 21 January 2021 and sets out twenty Calls to Action, which reflect the urgent need for change and which if implemented have the power to transform our society, focusing on structural inequalities and helping those who have experienced the worst impacts of COVID-19. The Board’s work has lived experience at its heart and shines a light on the kind of society that we could be.
Of course, our standing, how we are viewed and our reputation help us to do an even better job and that is why best value audits, external inspection, accreditation and awards are also important. I am really pleased that over the years our teams have had their efforts recognised, by bodies such as APSE and in 2017, we were awarded Council of the Year by IESE.
In your 16 years at the helm of the Council, what change has been most dramatic (e.g. changes in service delivery, demands/expectations of your role)?
The things that people wanted when I started working in communities over 40 years ago, are the same things people want now: they want a good job that they enjoy; they want to give their family a good life; and they want their children to do well. What has changed most is the way we work with our communities and partners, to help turn hopes and dreams into reality.
Our transformation journey began over ten years ago and new ways of working have been shaped and informed by the needs and aspirations of the communities and people of East Ayrshire. Many of the reforms we have witnessed over the last decades have had unintended consequences: they have created a culture of dependency, a culture of doing things to people, or for people, rather than with people. We recognised that to deliver the change we needed to see, we had to take decisive and comprehensive action, but we also had to transform our relationships with our communities.
We talked to our communities about the challenges we faced and we asked what they thought we should be doing and what role they wanted to have. They told us they wanted to be recognised, have their contribution valued and they wanted us to be open and honest about the challenges we are facing, so that they could be part of the solution.
In East Ayrshire, we know what is important to people and what they expect of their Council. Because of the level of trust and confidence we have in those relationships, we have changed the way we do things, cut through bureaucracy and respond faster that we did in the past.
What has been your biggest challenge as Chief Executive?
There have been many challenges throughout my working life, but they are all dwarfed by COVID-19 and I wish the people I served were not facing the hardship and heartbreak that the virus has brought with it. Whilst we have all been affected by the pandemic, the social, economic and health harms are far greater for some than they are for others and it will be essential that our recovery and response takes account of this disproportionate impact. Councils will need to rise to their community leadership role and ensure that those who have been most affected, get the empathy, understanding and support they need moving forward.
I believe that the tone you set as a leader is really important. I always try to be reflective, rather than regretful, with the intention of improving and doing better. People need to feel empowered and our teams need to feel safe to take decisions and to take risks. My message has always been clear, do what you think is the right thing to do and I’ve got your back. This has been so important throughout the pandemic and I have been humbled and inspired by the way our teams and communities have worked together and learned together, in joint endeavour.
What will you miss most about the role?
I will miss the people. I already do. It is always a joy to spend time in communities and over the years I have met so many incredible people. Every face is a story and every place is a memory and it has been the privilege of my life to serve as Chief Executive of East Ayrshire Council.
My job has felt like my family and while you don’t leave family, I know that in Eddie Fraser, the Council’s new Chief Executive, I am leaving mine in very safe hands.
What advice would you give to your successor?
I have had the pleasure of working with Eddie Fraser for over 20 years and I know he will be a great Chief Executive. This is Eddie’s time. So my only words of advice are to enjoy every minute of it … it truly is the best job in the world!
What are your plans for retirement?
For the first time in my life, I don’t have a plan. My family say they need to see more of me … but that may change once it becomes a reality!
I also enjoy walking and like so many others, I have come to appreciate the outdoors so much more during this past year. I try to get out for a walk every day and no matter what’s on my mind, I always return refreshed and reset for whatever lies ahead. Ayrshire has spectacular scenery, with a huge variety of different landscapes and many excellent paths and trails; you never know where a path will take you, which could not be more apt for me, right now.
• Fiona delivered a presentation on how frontline services are responding to the new normal at the APSE Performance Networks Seminar 2020. You can watch a recording of the presentation here.