As Chief Executive of both Oxfordshire County Council and Cherwell District Council, Yvonne Rees is constantly performing a high-stakes balancing act. Responsible for large teams of people and departments across the entire gamut of council activities – from road repairs to household waste collection and libraries to adult social care – her job is to find ways of ensuring the budgets at her disposal are allocated as effectively and efficiently as possible, and that the communities she serves receive value from their hard-earned council tax.
Of course, one of the areas of council activity Rees is responsible for is trading standards. And, having started her career as a trading standards officer and climbed her way to the top of the tree, she has a unique perspective on how trading standards fits into the bigger picture of council activities – and how trading standards managers can best make their voices heard when it comes to winning the ears of their bosses when budgets are being allocated.
“I started as a trainee trading standards officer in Tonbridge in Kent,” she explains. “I didn’t even know the job existed and when I left university I was trying to decide what to do. My mum went for a receptionist job in the local trading standards department and came back with a leaflet. I thought it sounded interesting; I get bored really easily, so I wanted to do something with a bit of variety. I contacted them and they happened to have some trainee posts.
“I genuinely believe my trading standards background has set me up for the rest of my career. It gives you a customer focus, in combination with being driven by legislation, and having the ability to look at evidence and cut through to the heart of the issue,” she says. Since being able to deal with people – often in quite difficult circumstances – is also a prerequisite of the job, Rees believes, “it means you need to have something about you. I think it’s a really strong background.”
So how do Rees’s trading standards origins affect her outlook and priorities as a Chief Executive? “I started off doing a lot of community safety,” she says. “It was really frontline and helped me to understand the impact trading standards can have. I absolutely am driven to improve the lives of our residents, and I believe that’s because I spent a lot of time on hearing about their problems.
“One of my very first line managers in trading standards, Derek Dolbear – who was just God as far as I was concerned – always used to say to me, when you read a piece of legislation, the most important words are the joining words, the ‘ands’ and the ‘ifs’. Once you learn to read a piece of legislation, whether it’s on product safety, food, or animal health, the content is pretty much the same, the subject just changes.
“That’s really important to me, because I have the ability to look across lots of subject areas; that’s what trading standards brings you. One minute you’re talking to someone about a washing machine, the next minute you’re looking at counterfeit goods. It gives you the ability to look across different agendas really quickly. I think that makes me really appreciate different people’s roles and the absolute need to always remember why we’re here. The reason we do what we do, whether it’s adult social care, or fixing a pothole, is because those guys out there pay their council tax.”
Speaking of the money side of things, I ask Rees about a speech she gave at CTSI Symposium in September. During a plenary session addressing the need to make trading standards fit for the future, she spoke about how when it comes to competing for budgets, trading standards professionals need to demonstrate the value they bring to their organisations. What did she mean by that?
“I’ve watched regulatory services move down the management pile,” she says. “If you go back 10 or 15 years, a Head of Trading Standards or Environmental Health was probably second or third tier in their council. Now they get pushed further and further down, and the further down in an organisation you go, you get lost. So there’s a need to demonstrate added value rather than just sitting in your small silo.
“I would say to trading standards officers that COVID-19 is a really good example of this; you have come back up the priority list because of all the work that you had to do. If you don’t capitalise on this now, you’ll become a forgotten profession. And when you are forgotten, it’s really easy to salami-slice your budgets every year.”
Influencing the agenda
So as someone who controls the purse strings, how does Rees think trading standards managers need to approach funding? “You need to recognise that your regulatory background gives you the ability to influence the wider agenda, which at the moment is where the pound signs are,” she says. “And it stops me, as a Chief Executive, just disregarding you and taking more and more money out.
“You need to demonstrate to me what you can do to support and assist my adult social care; what can you do to link in with my housing services? What value do you add to my whole organisation rather than just looking down, blinkered, in your silo? That’s what I expect to have.”
Asked why she thinks trading standards has been somewhat sidelined in recent years, Rees says she sees the problem as something of a self-perpetuating cycle. “I suspect it is because everybody’s shrunk their service areas,” she says. “So the smaller you get, the less influential you can be.
“For me, it’s a real sadness. But also, I don’t think the profession has helped itself, to be brutally honest. We need to think beyond our own boundaries. We need to be braver. When you look at redesigning your services, make sure you can lift and shift and bolt other bits in or join other bits up. Some people want to stick to their little empires but for me the solution is around collaboration and partnership. We won’t survive, or be as effective as we could be, in small pockets in single authorities.
“COVID-19 has opened a very small window of opportunity for trading standards to genuinely retain the respect it earned by demonstrating the added value it gave, on both a local and national level. It would be really easy to slip back. It’s a one-off opportunity to stay relevant. And you’ve got to influence the likes of me. My Head of Service is really lucky, in that he knows my passion, and I understand the service. But I still make him work hard to try and demonstrate the added value it brings. There’s no point influencing your middle managers; you’ve got to make sure that your senior teams and your senior politicians see you.”
Properly funded, effective trading standards services can save councils money in the long term; for example, supporting vulnerable residents who have been targeted by rogue traders could ease the burden on adult social care down the line. Do council bosses appreciate that?
“With prevention, the decision-makers have to recognise that it’s going to save them money tomorrow,” Rees agrees. “Trading standards needs to be recognised as a key part of the prevention agenda. My advice is to think less around enforcement specifics, and more about how you can link into some of the bigger agendas, and potentially you need to change some of the language that you use.
“So for instance, at the moment in Oxfordshire, one of the big public health priorities is to go smoke-free. Now, part of that work will be dealing with counterfeit tobacco. It’s about joining those dots. It’s not about saying, ‘I’m just going out to do some anti-counterfeiting work’, it’s about how you can join this with the bigger agendas. Ask yourself, ‘How do I change my language to make sure that my Director of Public Health thinks what I’m doing at the corner shop is really important?’
“Whatever level you are at within an organisation, look around at what your colleagues are doing, and have conversations about how trading standards can complement that.”
The real deal
Ensuring that trading standards is fit for the future is not just about funding – it’s also about keeping the profession vibrant and relevant to new and existing members. So how can trading standards capture the imaginations of more young people so they see it as a viable career choice, and how can it retain its existing pool of talent?
“We have to make sure that staying in the profession is attractive,” says Rees. “Trading standards isn’t the
only area where it’s a problem. We have massive problems with retaining planners in building control, for example; there are lots of professions where, once you’ve trained, there are more pound signs elsewhere. But if you’re ambitious, if you want to be the next Chief Executive or Corporate Director of your local authority, then a career in trading standards will stand you in really good stead. But you’ve got to have an enquiring mind, and you’ve got to look across the organisation and join the dots.
“I was probably really hard to line-manage, but my bosses gave me loads of opportunities to look all over the organisation and step into other areas. So I always encourage people to go and try different things. I think the core of a regulatory background gives you the ability to do that – you can have a really senior career with that background.”
As a self-described ‘straight talker’, does Rees ever get frustrated with the somewhat slow pace and byzantine bureaucracy of national and local politics?
“I love the politics!” she exclaims. “I’m passionate about it. [In Oxfordshire] we’ve just had a change of administration, so we’ve gone from Conservative to a Liberal Democrat, Green and Labour alliance. I work hard to gain credibility, trust and respect, as you should in any profession. Do I get frustrated? Yes. Does that make me a better Chief Executive? Yes. Because I want to improve all the time and I want our services to improve all the time.
“Another of my former managers, Peter Dennard, always used to say to me, ‘Sometimes it’s easier to seek forgiveness than permission.’ I kind of operate like that. Don’t get me wrong – there are some times when I do what I’m told, but for me, it’s about finding creative solutions. We have financial constraints and we need to be creative on how we drive out of them.
“I’ve had some really inspirational managers who let me be me, and let me grow my enquiring mind. It’s why I’ve stayed in local government, because they really inspired me to want to make the difference. Critically they also gave me permission to do things my way – or I took it and then said sorry later.
“You have to be true to yourself because if you don’t, it will find you out. Be the best you can be. When I interviewed for the Chief Executive role, with my pink, purple and blue hair, my husband said to me, ‘Are you going to dye your hair so it looks normal?’ ‘First of all,’ I said, ‘how long have you been married to me? Is this not normal?’ And then I said, ‘No. Because this is me, and if they don’t want me, I don’t want them.’ You have to be brave enough to accept yourself and be comfortable in your own skin.”
That sense of humanity – there being a real person behind the job title – is perhaps lacking in many popular attitudes towards local and national politics. To what extent does Rees think that a certain cynicism has developed as a result of people not feeling engaged in the process of decision-making
where they live?
“We’ve just done some customer surveys and there is definitely a drop in feeling [of being engaged],” she says. “I think it’s due to a combination of things. We used to send out quarterly newsletters that helped keep people informed and engaged. But since austerity came, nobody does that any more, so we’ll do it online, and some people do read it, but only those that are really interested.
“Do we do enough to celebrate what we’re good at? No. My inbox is filled with complaints, but very rarely do I get someone thanking me. When I do, I really celebrate it. I don’t think we’re visible and vocal enough, and I don’t think people really understand what we do. They probably think we just fill potholes and aren’t very good at it.
“I think central government are much more aware of the value that we add than they were because they’ve had to lean on us so much throughout COVID-19.
“But most people think that if you ‘work for the council’, you’re probably a fundamentally useless bureaucrat. They’re not right. I view it as an honour and a privilege to do what I do for a
living. But I’m not the one that does the work. I just join the dots in front of politicians. Actually, it’s all the
back-end teams that do it, and it’s breathtaking. Some of the work that our people do is just amazing.”