Top tips for children’s services portfolio holders

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!

Further advice

How do you know your strategy is being delivered?

As a strategic leader, you need to be confident that the council’s strategy for children’s services is being delivered effectively.

A former portfolio holder told us that they would try to visit one service area per week and summarise observations and any questions or challenges this raised for their DCS. This dialogue with the DCS provided ongoing evidence of challenge and strategic oversight.

Never underestimate the complexity of children’s services in a local authority

A portfolio holder from the North East who had held two previous Cabinet portfolios found that being elected as the lead member for children’s services was a big step change. Their advice is not to expect to get it all at once – use your data to build up your picture of the service.

Listening matters

Ask about opportunities to speak with frontline staff, including social workers, to understand their perspectives on the service.

One portfolio holder told us that they spend one day per month at the duty desk to observe cases coming through the council’s front door to get a better understanding of key issues and the work of frontline staff.

Your brand matters

It is important to build up credibility across the council to generate the support needed to do what is best for children and young people.

You cannot know everything you need to know from day one and, if you think you do, not only will you not build trust but you’ll lose respect

Learn how to speed read! Good information is key to success in this role. Read any available documents and work closely with data managers to understand your council’s performance data and build a strong and evolving picture of your children’s services.

Useful links from the LGA – as recommended by portfolio holders

Your first ten days as a portfolio holder for children’s services – a guide to help provide some structure to your first few days in office, so you can focus on what is important straight away, and what you need to be thinking about going forward.

Leadership Essentials – our Leadership Essentials programme includes children’s services content.

‘Must knows’ for portfolio holders for children’s services – a suite of information focusing on the key issues facing portfolio holders and the current and planned reforms impacting on children’s services.

Statutory guidance on roles of the DCS and portfolio holder for children’s services

Applying corporate parenting principles to looked-after children and care leavers

LG Inform – use our free data benchmarking platform to generate data reports for your area

Action research into improvement in local children’s services – addresses the key enablers of and barriers to improvement in local children’s services, and how the system as a whole can facilitate and support improvement.