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Chris Game

UK local authorities are among the largest in Europe, spending billions of pounds annually on hundreds of diverse services. Yet it is the fate of some to be associated in the public consciousness, almost solely and seemingly forever, with a single image.

My guess is that at this time each year, the conker season prompts recollections that it was Norwich City Council that cut down roadside horse chestnut trees because of the supposed risk of conkers falling injuriously on children and pedestrians. It never actually happened – the felling, that is; I’m not sure about the falling – and it’s now 11 years since it didn’t happen, but why let that ruin a good story.

Similarly, it’s 14 years since Winterval was cancelled, but I’d be surprised if you get much past the mid-November opening of the Frankfurt Market before you hear someone recall how Birmingham was the council that ‘abolished Christmas’.  It was a complete, and cynically propagated, myth – as even the propagators-in-chief, the Daily Mail, last year finally officially admitted – but it won’t go away.

Northamptonshire County Council’s a bit different, in that its abiding image – at least among those who give it any thought at all – is one that it, or more specifically its chief executive, positively sought. Yes, we’re talking ‘Taste the Strawberry’, and the reason for talking about it is that the former CE in question, Katherine Kerswell – aka the Strawberry Lady – has just got herself a flash new job in the Cabinet Office, as Director General for Civil Service Reform.

It’s an interesting appointment for several reasons. First, it comes at a time when the exodus of several women permanent secretaries was, and still is, threatening to leave Whitehall senior management maler and paler than it’s strugglingly become over the past few years.

Second, Kerswell will be working alongside Sir Bob Kerslake – ‘Two jobs Bob’ – who, when not being Permanent Secretary of the DCLG, moonlights as part-time Head of the Civil Service. Macho man though he is, he could use the extra pair of hands, for the Kerslake-Kerswell combo faces one of the trickier tasks around: implementing a Civil Service Reform Plan that aims to cut an already demoralised service by a quarter by 2015, while improving the policy making process and increasing accountability to Parliament. That both have made their names in local, rather than central, government might just prove advantageous – or just possibly not.

Kerswell’s senior management career kicked off in here in the West Midlands – as CE first of Redditch Borough Council, then for seven years of Solihull MBC. By the time she moved to Northamptonshire in 2007, she had already acquired a reputation as a strong advocate of customer service and transformational change, and she quickly concluded that both would need pushing in her new authority. Hence Taste the Strawberry.

In an early motivational address to the Council’s nearly 20,000 staff, she emphasised the importance of residents recognising that any and every council service they used was provided with their money and shared in common the Northamptonshire CC ‘brand’ – except that, instead using the nasty marketing jargon b-word, Kerswell coined her instantly famous metaphor:

“I want you to think about ‘Taste the Strawberry’ as a message, and that strawberry flavour will be the flavour that is Northamptonshire County Council.  Sounds a bit weird, but I hope I’ve got you interested, because we’ll develop what that flavour really is that we get across to all our customers.”

Some staff undoubtedly found it – and Kerswell herself – not only interesting, but positively inspirational, and certainly in some sections of the council it proved a useful prompt for thinking about and challenging the way in which services were designed and delivered.  Councillors, however, always slightly sniffy about officers usurping their role as the public face of the council, were generally less enthused, and as for the Great British Public, well, what do you think? 

The address went on to YouTube and quickly became one of the most popular ‘news and politics’ clips – long since withdrawn, sadly, though the key bit and Kerswell’s own explanation are still available in a mocking BBC news report

In a similar vein, BBC Radio Northampton’s ‘Drivetime Bard’, Martin Heath, was inspired to compose and perform a not entirely adulatory ‘Strawberry Song’:

“Some councils are like lions, proud guardians of our land.

Some see themselves as angels, always there to lend a hand.

Some are just like soldiers – their courage we salute.

But I see mine as a strawberry and that’s a kind of fruit.”

There were further verses of equal wit and sophistication, but ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ it wasn’t.  Then along came, almost inevitably, Stephen Fry. In an edition of his Radio 4 programme, ‘Fry’s English Delight’, the ubiquitous broadcaster proceeded, contrary to the impression given by the relevant Google headline, not to bury Kerswell, but to praise her.

His theme was that banning words, even weird management-speak, is fruitless (sorry!), and he had no time for the LGA’s ever-growing list of words that councils should be barred from using. He was quite happy, therefore, to embrace not only strawberry flavouring, which I personally quite like – both in reality and metaphor – but also blue sky thinking, step change, synergies and the rest, which I mostly don’t.

Kerswell herself has never, as far as I know, expressed any regrets at all, even about the Strawberry Lady tag. It got her generally low-profile council talked about, inside and outside County Hall, and clearly did her personal career, already on a rising trajectory, no obvious harm.

Some of the criticism did get tied up with attacks on her nearly £200,000 salary, which, though lower than that of her predecessor, still made her one of the highest paid local government CEs in the country. But, to her credit, she proceeded to publish full details of both her salary and expenses on the council’s website, set out details of what she did to earn it, and argued – before Eric Pickles was in a position to require it – that her fellow senior officers should do the same.

In her new post, this won’t be necessary. Her £140,000 salary is already public knowledge.  It’s considerably less than she’s earned at any time since leaving Solihull, which might seem to imply that sorting out the civil service is a bit of a breeze, compared to transforming Northampton County Council.  I wonder.

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Chris is a Visiting Lecturer at INLOGOV interested in the politics of local government; local elections, electoral reform and other electoral behaviour; party politics; political  leadership and management; member-officer relations; central-local relations; use of consumer and opinion research in local government; the modernisation agenda and the implementation of executive local government.

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