Interview: Deborah Cadman is steering the county through tough times

Deborah Cadman CEO of Suffolk County Council
Deborah Cadman CEO of Suffolk County Council
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With austerity entrenched and local Government funding dwindling, Suffolk County Council’s chief executive Deborah Cadman faces a massive challenge – how do you shave £156 million from the authority’s budget over four years?

Service delivery will change and job losses are inevitable but, she insists, it won’t be a ‘slash and burn’ approach.

Collaboration is key – talking to district and borough councils about joining up services such as back office work as well as liaising with other public sector organisations.

Then there’s transformation – managing demand for ‘high cost services’ like adult and social care. One example Ms Cadman gives is supporting the elderly to stay in their homes for longer by working with a range of community organisations.

Finally, it’s about being ‘more innovative’ – asking the Government to lift legal constraints and enabling the council to introduce or raise ‘appropriate charges’ for some services such as concessionary travel journeys.

Ms Cadman explains: “What we’ve found is a lot of residents are prepared to make a nominal payment for a service if it means the service is preserved.”

But job losses cannot be ruled out.

“I would be disingenuous if I said there would be no reductions in posts but what I don’t want to do is to create some sense of hysteria in the organisation. I need staff really focused.

“The organisation will need to be smaller - because we will change the way in which we do things there will be a reduction of posts. It will be done in a well-managed, strategic way where staff are treated well.”

Straight talking and reasonable, tough and approachable – Ms Cadman’s down-to-earth style was moulded through 28 years’ experience in the public sector.

It was a testing start working in a male dominated engineering department in Newham fresh from university. She remembers: “It was a case of developing confidence otherwise you would kind of get lost really, with all these men who were a bit challenging. It was tough at the time but a really good experience.”

Another eye-opener saw her working in a voluntary organisation in Handsworth trying to get young black people into work.

“I was really disappointed – I was trying to get them to do a training scheme for £24 a week and they were saying ‘we can clear almost £500 on the streets dealing drugs’. I then realised it was all about giving people hope and opportunities. It was about jobs.”

After completing a masters degree in economics, she joined Birmingham City Council’s economic department before moving to the North East to take on more senior roles – head of corporate policy and assistant chief executive at Redcar and Cleveland borough.

“I worked with massive deprivation in the North East,” Ms Cadman reveals. “That kind of poverty was nothing I had ever experienced.

There she rubbed shoulders with Redcar’s Labour MP Mo Mowlam, who had a great impact on her leadership style. “She taught me you don’t have to be horrible to be successful. It’s about being real and authentic.”

Ms Cadman then joined central Government and helped set up the best value inspectorate at the Audit Commission.

Hungry to get back into local Government, the mother of two became chief executive of St Edmundsbury Borough Council and the effects can still be felt today from the building of the arc shopping centre to the transfer of housing stock. In the ‘most amazing journey’, she led the authority from a fair to excellent government rating.

After six years she was ready for a new challenge and took the top job at the now defunct East of England Development Agency (EEDA) while her husband, Geoff Rivers, succeeded her at St Edmundsbury. In 2010/11, EEDA supported the creation of 8,800 jobs and 2,800 new businesses.

As EEDA was being wound up, Suffolk County Council’s chief executive Andrea Hill made a dramatic exit.

The controversial figure caused a furore with her £218,000 salary while spearheading the outsourcing of services.

When Ms Cadman took over, she had to help boost the authority’s flagging trajectory.

She explains: “The county council wasn’t broken, it was just derailed because despite all the troubles the county was still able to deliver some really good services. The organisation just needed a bit of stability and to refocus. It was about spending time with staff allowing them to talk about what happened. It was very clear that actually they had to be part of the solution. The feeling was staff had not been engaged and taken along with it so they felt it was being done to them rather than with them. They didn’t like the way the public were being treated.”

In terms of services, ‘it wasn’t just about cutting and running’ but working with an organisation, being clear about what the council wanted to commission and supporting it during its start up until they become sustainable.

Ms Cadman took the reins at a reduced £155,000 salary. What does she say to those who think it is still too much in such austere times?

“The fact I was prepared to accept a salary £63,000 less than my predecessor demonstrates I’ve got a sense of reality. I still accept for many it’s a king’s ransom. I’m also clear that I need to be held accountable for delivery and I’m comfortable with that.”

What does the future hold?

She says: “This is absolutely my dream job. This isn’t a job for the faint-hearted. I’m in it for the long haul. Certainly we’re not going to see much light at the end of the tunnel before, I would say, 2018/19. I’ve been in the public sector for 28 years and it’s the most challenging period. When you’re faced with really big challenges it does cause people to be really innovative and creative. That’s been really exciting for me to be able to do things in a different and creative and exciting way.”