Profile - Andy Sawford - At the sharp end

7 Feb 08
Not only can the Local Government Information Unit's new executive director juggle family and work but he's handy with the knives, too, writes Joseph McHugh

08 February 2008

Not only can the Local Government Information Unit's new executive director juggle family and work but he's handy with the knives, too, writes Joseph McHugh

Like many people with busy lives, Andy Sawford has perfected the art of juggling a number of things at once, somehow managing to keep them all in the air.

Unlike most people, the newly appointed executive director of the Local Government Information Unit also does it quite literally. Flaming torches, knives, plates —you name it, Sawford can juggle it. He has been practising since he was 14 and was a member of a community arts group.

This rather novel form of multi-tasking – new colleagues please note that Sawford likes to juggle in the office – should stand the 32-year-old in good stead.

In addition to starting a new job, which he takes up at the end of this month, he and his wife are expecting their second child any day now. But if he is feeling any trepidation at so much change coming at once, he doesn't show it when we meet.

Instead, he is looking forward to taking the helm and is full of plans for the organisation. The LGIU is a curious hybrid, part think-tank and part membership organisation, with a focus on frontline councillors, and Sawford intends to retain that as a priority.

So his own experience at the sharp end of local politics should come in handy. It's no surprise that Sawford, who grew up in Desborough, Northamptonshire, became a councillor.

'I've had a lifelong interest in public service. My dad was a councillor and my mum was a school governor. So I became aware that people were making choices that affected my life at quite a young age.'

His interest piqued, Sawford took a politics degree at Durham University and after graduation moved to the Southeast. He swapped student politics for the real thing, becoming a Labour councillor on Dartford Borough Council aged just 23.

Sawford says it was more by accident than design – 'I found myself a councillor within the space of four weeks.' But he took to it straight away, rising through the ranks, and before long was appointed to Dartford's Cabinet as the member for community involvement and citizenship.

'I really loved it. People were looking to me to help make a difference in their lives,' he says.

These foundations in the realities of local government have given Sawford a helpful insight into the role the LGIU could carve for itself. He intends to preserve its traditional strengths, while building on the reform process initiated by his predecessor, Tim Thorogood. And he is confident that the organisation has a continuing role to play, even as local government steadies itself after a period of substantial reform.

'I've done some work for the LGIU previously and I've seen the transformation that's happened in the organisation. I think if it weren't there, local government would be poorer for it. It balances a diverse council membership with the flexibility to be quite challenging, to be long-term in its thinking,' Sawford says.

'The challenge for think-tanks is always to maintain their independence while having the capacity to influence government. The LGIU not only has that independence, but also a huge resource it can draw on in terms of innovation and best practice among its members.'

It is in harnessing the best of what is happening in the sector – rather than tracking the minutiae of policy development in Whitehall – that the LGIU will come into its own, Sawford believes.

'A body like the Local Government Association represents councils to central government. We support councils and provide a huge range of services, and we want to develop a range of services to do with supporting councillors.'

It is a timely ambition, as local government is an increasingly complex business these days. The unrelenting focus on performance, the shift towards outsourcing and greater partnership working, the emphasis on place shaping – not forgetting, of course, the provision of services – means the modern councillor has a pretty full in-tray. No doubt many would appreciate some support in getting to grips with it.

The move towards Local Area Agreements and, on a grander scale, Multi-Area Agreements, will leave them with even weightier responsibilities. Councillors will be the glue holding these agreements together, providing the democratic accountability and scrutiny that will be crucial to their success. No pressure, then…

'It's a challenge for anyone to understand the complexity of local government and what that means for delivering services. That has an impact on place shaping – how you do that in a London borough is very different from in a small, rural, district council,' Sawford points out.

'I'd like to ensure that councillors are equipped to engage in key local partnerships, so they can provide the community challenge, based on that community's needs.

'It's not up to the councillor to find the solution to an issue – the chief superintendent or the hospital chief executive can do that – but it is up to them to provide the scrutiny.'

But Sawford is careful to stress he is not advocating the creation of identikit councillors; indeed, he sees diversity in the council chamber as a strength. 'I don't think there's a model set of skills for a councillor, there's a broad range that individuals can bring to the job. They need to be able to listen but, beyond that, there's room for all sorts of people.'

Speaking to Sawford, it is obvious that one quality he would like to flourish in local government is ambition. It peppers his conversation and points up his tendency to see opportunities where others might see only barriers.

This trait comes to the fore when the discussion turns to that well-worn theme – local government finance reform. Or, more accurately, the lack of it.

Sawford's take on it is measured, pragmatic and resolutely upbeat.

'Finance is a constraint, certainly, but it doesn't mean that councils can't do what they want to. They just need to be creative, ambitious and work around the barriers,' he says. 'The pressure to reform will not go away.'

His stance suggests he subscribes to the view that central government will, over time, loosen the reins as councils demonstrate that they can be trusted. He understands the conundrum facing ministers in this respect – and, typically, sees it as an opportunity.

'There is a time lag between councils being given those new powers and autonomy, and people recognising their new responsibilities,' he says. 'In the end, people blame the government if they aren't provided with the services they want, and the government itself reacts to those pressures. Ministers make promises to improve education or services for older people, but actually it's councils that have to provide them.'

If local authorities help, rather than hinder, ministers to make good on their pledges to the electorate, mutual trust will grow and further powers will follow, Sawford thinks.

He does acknowledge that the new relationship between central and local government is not perfect – 'the problem I have with some aspects of the localisation agenda is that it tends to bypass the council' – but he is sanguine about the future.

'In Hazel Blears and John Healey, we have ministers with a long-standing commitment to the sector.

'Central government knows that it alone can't meet people's expectations, so it has to reach to work with others, and local government is the key partner. But that realisation is not born of benevolence or ideology, it's born of necessity.'


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