View the top tips from portfolio holders for children's services.
1. Understand your statutory duty, and ensure it is well understood by colleagues
Ensure that you understand your statutory responsibilities as a portfolio holder for children’s services from the outset. Given the uniqueness of this role within the Cabinet, you will need to be able to explain your statutory duties and responsibilities to colleagues to ensure that the role is well understood and accounted for within the council’s strategic planning. You also have an important role in ensuring that all councillors and council employees understand their unique responsibility as ‘corporate parents’ to children in the care of the council, and care leavers, and setting the tone for the local authority to perform this role well.
2. Understand your role as a strategic leader
Understand your role as a strategic leader, distinct from the operational role of your director of children’s services. Avoid repeating the work that your officers are already doing, recognising that you may not have the same level of knowledge and experience of the service area that they do. You can add value to children’s services by providing support and challenge to the director of children’s services (DCS) and other strategic leaders. You are also an advocate for the service to the wider council and can help to secure political support by helping other members to understand the scale and complexity of children’s services and developing relationships to engage the wider council.
3. Get to know your children’s services context
Find out what service areas are covered by your portfolio, for example, education, special educational needs and disability (SEND), youth justice – as this can vary between councils and responsibility for children’s services may be split between two portfolio holders. Read as much as you can and work with your finance team and data professionals to understand key budget and performance data. This is a portfolio that depends on having good access to information – keep an eye on your data throughout your time as portfolio holder.
4. Build strong relationships over time
Good communication is very important. Set expectations with key people (such as your DCS, assistant directors, leader and chief executive) about how you will communicate about your portfolio and how you plan to work together, and document this. It may be useful to join up meetings with key people into a portfolio meeting. Relationships with statutory partners are also very important, so you should understand how your children’s services interacts with them. It takes time to build effective relationships, and your network will grow and strengthen over time.
5. Work for the best interests of your local children and young people
Be curious about the different perspectives of children and young people and think about how best to hear from them and to represent their points of view.
6. Be credible and build trust
Credibility is important to success in the role and you have to build trust to be able to bring people to the table. Children’s services is an area of local government where there is generally the potential for a good deal of cross-party agreement and an opportunity to develop a constructive relationship with the opposition.
7. Access our support
Use LGA support – attend a children’s services Leadership Essentials course early on in your tenure, make use of our e-learning modules and digital guides. Your regional children’s improvement adviser will be able to advise on access to further support such as how to engage a peer mentor or details of your region’s portfolio holder network – both great opportunities to share challenges and ideas with peers.
Finally, do not expect to know everything right at the beginning – it takes time to build the right knowledge and relationships!