A message from Stephen Chandler, Oxfordshire County Council's outgoing interim chief executive

As outgoing interim chief executive for Oxfordshire County Council, three words sum up my experience over the last twelve months: interesting, challenging, exciting.  

There are many lessons I have learned during this time but there are five standouts.  

Celebrate your achievements

I was asked recently by colleagues to provide some thoughts and reflections on my last year as interim chief executive and it was only when I started a list of what the council has achieved collectively over the past twelve months that I realised how rarely we take a moment to stop and celebrate. This is key and we must get better at doing this as a whole sector.

There are so many highlights I could mention – thanks to the incredible efforts of colleagues at Oxfordshire who relentlessly go above and beyond for our communities – but I will take this opportunity to practice what I preach and share a few of them here from over the last 12 months:

  • We launched a three year programme to support the implementation of 20mph speed restrictions across Oxfordshire.
  • Celebrated Britain’s first zero emissions zone beginning in Oxford.
  • Delivered our response for the government’s Homes for Ukraine scheme.
  • Launched YouMove, a countywide programme to help families get active together.
  • Organised a digital inclusion summit, which brought partners together to develop plans to address inequality in Oxfordshire.
  • Launched our Climate Action Oxfordshire website, together with the district and city councils and OxLEP, to provide a one stop shop to give people ideas for how they can have a positive impact on the environment.
  • We allocated more than £2 million of funding to tackle the cost of living crisis.
  • Provided £85 vouchers to 11,000 lower income pensionable householders across the county as part of the Household Support Fund.
  • Donated 300 refurbished laptops to help vulnerable people in the county to get online.
  • Published our award-winning study on active travel, co-produced with the University of Bristol.

Never underestimate the valuable role of local government

I’ve always firmly believed in the importance of local government, which is why I’ve dedicated over half my career to it. However, since taking on the interim chief executive role, I’ve had the opportunity to see the breadth and scale of the positive impact we have on people’s lives.

People often think we’re all about roads, schools and older people, which means so many things we do go unnoticed but if we stopped doing them, it would really affect our residents. Things like maintaining food standards in local venues and ensuring accuracy at fuel station pumps (so you’re not overcharged) and so many other valuable examples.

Our role is a powerful combination of making sure things run smoothly across the county on a daily basis, alongside being there for our residents with specialist services when they need us – whether that’s supporting children with additional needs or responding to a burst water main.

Strong relationships are essential

I’ve seen first-hand how important partnerships are to enable us to provide outstanding social care. But, as interim chief executive, I was able to gain a new perspective on not just how much we value our partners, but how much they rely on us to ensure the smooth delivery of their own services.

Whether it’s the NHS, other local authorities, Network Rail, water companies or the many businesses in Oxfordshire, taking the time to forge effective reciprocal partnerships will help us support our communities even better.

I’ve also worked more closely with our elected members this year than ever before, and I’ve significantly developed my stakeholder management skills as a result. Maintaining a productive working relationship takes work on both sides but, just like our external partners, we can learn a great deal from one another and we achieve more together.

Leadership is a collective effort

If you’d asked me twelve months ago what success would look like at the end of my time as interim chief executive, I’d have said something along the lines of having supported a smooth transition through the separation with Cherwell District Council and helping us to emerge stronger. I’ve become more aware than ever that people look to the leader of an organisation for direction and reassurance in challenging times, and we’ve had more than a few of those in the past year.

Having said that, one of the lessons I really want to share is that leadership is a collective effort. We have 900 managers who all play a vital role in supporting their teams through highs and lows on a day to day basis. Personally, I’m happy to be frank and say I couldn’t have survived this year without the support of my colleagues in the senior leadership team and I know they would say the same about the managers they work closely alongside.

Look after your wellbeing

I was expecting this year to be the most intense of my career so far and I wasn’t wrong. One important lesson I learnt was the need to take time off.

Many of us find it difficult to maintain a good work life balance and, as we work in a more agile way, it’s all too easy to check in while on leave. I’ve tried hard to set an example and delegate to my extremely competent managers to give myself time off. While we all have an important role to play, none of us should be single points of failure and our overall resilience as an organisation is dependent on teamwork and being able to cover for one another.

Every time I take leave, I come back refreshed from time with loved ones and doing the things I really enjoy. And, in turn, that makes me happier and more productive at work. Don’t fall into the trap of never being ‘off’!

I’m looking forward to my next adventure and whatever the future holds I am committed to learning from these five core lessons. Thank you to everyone who has helped this last year be a success!


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