Chesterfield Council: Bringing private sector experience to public sector housing transformation

Leadership Through the Pandemic 

In this edition of our Spotlight on Housing series, we spoke to Emma Nicklin, Housing Transformation Programme Manager at Chesterfield Borough Council. 

With a commercial mind and a social heart, following a blue-chip private sector career, Nicklin made the leap to becoming a civil servant last year. Here, she describes making the switch to working in the public sector and explains the unique insight she brings to housing transformation at the Council.

From the private sector to 
Chesterfield Borough Council 

Emma has extensive experience working at a global level in the private sector, working with the likes of GlaxoSmithKline, Unilever and Amazon. We asked Emma, why she chose to leave her career in the private sector, and work for Chesterfield  Borough Council: 

“In recent years, I took up a role as a non-executive director (NED) at a housing association, alongside my primary job working in private sector outsourcing. I was blown away by the value I could add in terms of enriching the community. 

“I’d got to the point in my career where I was in a global level, private sector role, working on change and transformation across sizeable blue-chip companies such as GlaxoSmithKline, Unilever and Amazon, but I kept getting this pull back to that real sense of worth and that whole profit for a purpose type piece from my NED work.  

“Chesterfield owns and manages a stock of 9,000 homes and is just beginning a complete reshape of their housing services, with lots of pressure around budgets and the level of service they are delivering to tenants.  

“As part of this, they were looking for someone to work with the Housing Director and lead on service reshaping. So when I was approached – although I never imagined I’d work for a council – it actually seemed like the perfect opportunity. After a fully digital recruitment process, I began my journey with Chesterfield!

The differences between councils
and the private sector 

Emma compares her experiences of working in the public sector and the private sector. According to Emma, ambition in the private sector  is closely aligned to profit and growth. But in the public sector, what drives her new colleagues is social purpose, with the welfare of residents at the heart of everything they do.   

“The most noticeable difference I’ve witnessed so far working in the public sector relates to the political and cultural perspective of people. 

“In the private sector, there is such a massive focus on profit and growth, and everyone has a very clear understanding that that’s our focus; the money needs to come in for the company to carry on.  

“At the Council there is a different perspective, and rightly so, the focus is around the residents, and the welfare of those residents. But with that comes a different perspective around finances and strategic thought processes – it can be less clear. 

“One thing that is so charming about working at the Council is, everyone has a reason and a story for why they care and why that’s led them to be a local government officer—this creates a lovely atmosphere to be part of. 

Emma explains that one of the challenges with transformation in the public sector is that colleagues don’t always feel empowered to lead change. Emma shares goals to make colleagues feel included in the council’s transformation journey. 

“Sometimes it seems as though my council colleagues feel limited on what we can achieve – that appears to be a historical, cultural shadow of things being done to them rather than colleagues being enabled to command and control the type of approach we take to transformation. 

“Within this context, our change and restructure is all about communication and taking our colleagues on the journey with us. This translates to peer-to-peer engagement and briefing colleagues about the journey we’re on together.” 

Priorities in the post-pandemic new normal 

As the pandemic forced social landlords to reduce face-to-face contact to reduce transmission of the virus, many organisations were forced to make rapid changes to the way they deliver housing services—implementing digital channel shift at a far greater rate than ever before. As a result, we’ve seen organisations become much more agile, flexible and open to change. We asked Emma what her strategic priorities are for the post pandemic normal. According to Emma, digital tools will play a key role in Chesterfield Borough Councils efforts to build back to a new normal: 

“We want to build on our new agile, hybrid approach to working – we probably won’t be returning to the office full time. Levels of time off work with sickness are lower than ever which is just one key indicator of the benefits of this new working model. So, we should hang on to this.  

 “Meanwhile, across the UK, there has been an 80% increase in web traffic – digital has become the new normal. So, we will be aiming to capitalise on that, and my expectation is that we will now build on the digital tools that we already have with an emphasis on quality.  

“As for the wider sector, I think there will be a lot of focus on streamlining back-office processes and investment in the front-line. I am a blue skies thinker, so I foresee employee assistant phone lines for financial and counselling help. I also think the sector will take on smart devices and the IoT, for example, smart boilers that can generate usable data and insight into their usage. I also envisage increasing options for residents to self-serve as well as better care lines, for example, set up within Alexas, ultimately with the ambition of keeping up independent living.” 

Learn more about digital innovation in the housing sector

Many organisations in the housing sector have gone through radical digital transformation over the past year. We spoke to Paul Taylor, Innovation Coach at Bromford Lab to learn how they are fostering digital innovation in the housing sector. To hear more, watch the full vodcast now!

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Discover other insights from some of the UK’s leading organisations in the public sector by following the Spotlight Series of the Futr blog. If you are interested in using government technology to drive digital transformation, contact the Futr team to see how live chat and chatbots for housing providers can help you. 
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