Profile Tim Thorogood Place shaper

14 Sep 06
The new head of the Local Government Information Unit aims to ensure that the think-tank plays a leading role in reform of the sector, he tells Joseph McHugh

15 September 2006

The new head of the Local Government Information Unit aims to ensure that the think-tank plays a leading role in reform of the sector, he tells Joseph McHugh

Tim Thorogood, the recently installed director of the Local Government Information Unit, has lost no time in joining the fray over the future of the sector.

The former chief executive of Swansea City and County Council has taken the helm of the organisation – a curious hybrid of think-tank and membership body – at an auspicious time for local government. And he is making the most of it.

With a white paper planned for the autumn and Sir Michael Lyons due to deliver his final report in December, expectations are running high that the government will at last deliver on its promises to devolve to town halls.

Thorogood admits that one of the main attractions of the job was the opportunity to be a player on the national stage – not least because of the way that successive governments have sidelined councils in recent decades.

'Working in a local authority, it's become increasingly difficult to make local choices, to be innovative – to make a difference. It's become increasingly about administration, and as I went up the managerial ladder that became more evident. I felt circumscribed by that, and frustrated,' he explains.

'The LGIU offered me the chance to play a national role rather than a local one. It is also an opportunity to help address the problem of the erosion of local innovation and autonomy, because to get round it, you need the debate to happen on a national stage.'

Thorogood shares the optimistic view that ministers are receptive to arguments for reform. But, while he thinks it's important 'to be honest and say, “the current system isn't working”,' he also wants the LGIU to work collaboratively with other players in the sector rather than stand on the sidelines carping.

Thorogood's conversation is peppered with terms such as 'collaboration' and 'adding value', indicating his determination that the LGIU should play a more high-profile role in the reform debate than it has thus far.

His comment on the organisation's hybrid status – 'Our position is somewhat curious, but it's also unique and is a selling point in what is a crowded market-place' – suggests he is comfortable with the market-based reforms of New Labour.

The unit, often seen as being unwilling to embrace change and a bit too Old Labour, is likely to undergo a transformation under Thorogood's stewardship.

But then it is clear from the amount that he has packed into his career to date that the youthful 44-year-old likes a challenge.

After a history degree at Cambridge he trained as a teacher at a school in Gosport, Hampshire and within five years was head of the history department.

At this point he jumped ship to local government, taking a job in education management with Hertfordshire Local Education Authority. A stint at Hillingdon LEA followed, after which Thorogood left the London borough to join Three Rivers District Council in Hertfordshire as director of strategic services.

He then moved to the London Borough of Haringey as director of support services, before completing his race to the top in 2003, when he moved to Swansea to take up the reins as chief executive.

Not content with the day job, Thorogood also found time to collect an MBA and a doctorate on a part-time basis along the way.

This wealth of experience at the coalface has given him a clear idea of where the LGIU should take its place in the local government reform debate. Alongside the policy formulation and blue-skies thinking role of the traditional think-tank, he plans to exploit the LGIU's links with its 140-plus member authorities to test out whether concepts dreamt up by policy wonks actually have practical applications on the front line.

For town hall managers who have been left to grapple with the implications of Compulsory Competitive Tendering, Best Value — or any number of other Next Big Things over the years — an approach grounded in realism will no doubt come as an invigorating change.

'It's all very well having strong concepts and strong ideas, like double devolution, but the experience of local government over many years has been of great ideas that don't work in practice. Look at Best Value – a great idea, but it involved a huge amount of bureaucratic effort in practice,' Thorogood explains.

'We have hooks into all sorts of local authorities, which does give us an understanding of the reality of life on the ground that perhaps some of the other, more abstract, London-based think-tanks don't have.'

He admits that in the past the LGIU hasn't always used this advantage to the full, but says this is set to change. 'We've got an opportunity now to step things up a gear as a think-tank. We perhaps haven't been as cutting edge as some of the others, and I think that's probably where we need to make some changes.'

Thorogood's take on the current reform agenda is that its parameters have been set, thanks to the Lyons Inquiry and the work that David Miliband did on the white paper before he changed portfolios. He thinks the job of the LGIU, other think-tanks and bodies such as the Local Government Association is now to explain how concepts such as double devolution can be made to work on the ground.

'The work that Lyons is doing is so thorough that it remains where the reform agenda is. So, even if the government disappoints us in terms of what's coming forward in the white paper, those are still the changes we need to be pushing for.'

He certainly has plenty to keep him busy in the months ahead. But, despite his busy schedule, Thorogood still manages to find time to indulge his passion for sailing. When we meet he has just returned from a three-week holiday sailing around the south-west coast of Ireland with his wife and family.

He is also a keen horse rider, a hobby he enjoys when he is at his home on the Gower peninsula, west of Swansea. This will remain the family home even though work now ties him to London.

Thorogood's evident energy has impressed those who have worked with him. One former colleague describes him as someone who is unafraid to drive through change in an organisation, even if that means having to overcome resistance from the old guard.

'He's dynamic and is prepared to push through reforms that are necessary, even if they're not popular. Tim is a moderniser and is not afraid to shake things up,' the colleague added.

It's a quality that will stand him in good stead in his new role. With change in the air across the local government sector, his can-do attitude will be an asset to the LGIU.

Thorogood, for his part, believes that the government is serious about reform this time. 'I think the importance of local government, and the contribution it has to make, is being recognised in a way that it wasn't a few years ago, and that's why I'm optimistic.'


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