Sue Bruce on how she became council chief exec
‘I SAID to them ‘if you want someone for the next ten years you’d better choose someone else’. I like change, I don’t like being in a comfort zone.” People are supposed to be careful what they wish for – after all, it can come true, even after an interview statement like that.
And it did for Sue Bruce. For if there’s one thing the chief executive of Edinburgh City Council has had since she’s arrived, it’s change and a distinct lack of comfort.
Sitting in her spacious office at the top of Waverley Court, she’s recalling how much she wanted to move from her role as chief executive of Aberdeen’s council to head up Edinburgh. “I always wanted to work in Edinburgh but I always thought it’d be someone else’s job. And at the interview I thought even if I don’t get it I’ve still got a great job, so I was prepared to lose out, but I really wanted the job.”
Of course she got it and now going into her fourth year she says she “can’t believe how quickly the time has passed”, but then there’s been little comfort for her in the job.
Yes, she’s won a heap of trophies – chief executive of the year, a Prince’s Business Ambassador Award, Scottish Public Sector Leader of the Year, an honorary degree from Heriot-Watt University, and she has most recently been made a Dame by the Queen in the New Year honours list – all of which help gild a CV. However, the day-to-day business of running Edinburgh has been fraught.
If the financial crisis at the heart of the council’s coffers and managing the £1 billion budget wasn’t enough of a challenge to meet head-on, there’s been the tram project, the Mortonhall and statutory repairs scandals, and in this past year the tragic loss of life at Liberton High school.
The 58-year-old has had her sleeves rolled up from day one. Noses have been put out of joint by her direct approach, others believe she’s been a breath of fresh air to an organisation which needed a dramatic shake-up.
However, no-one has doubted that it was mostly her influence that got the tram project back on the rails, and finally running this May. She was hired as a fire-fighter and a fixer after sorting out Aberdeen’s financial woes.
“You’re in an exposed place as chief executive, she admits. “When things are going fine it’s great, when they’re not it’s a tough place to be. The tram situation was definitely the latter when I arrived. But the saying ‘a weight off your shoulders’, I used to think was only that, a saying, until May 31. The morning the first tram ran I had to get up early for a round of interviews, so from 6am I was on the go. It was a beautiful sunny day and I did the last interview about 11am.
“It was about an hour later I felt that weight lift. I hadn’t realised it had been there, but I certainly felt it going.”
She gives the impression that for her, it’s job done. It’s up to the politicians what happens next with the tram, and of course, should there be another track, then she’ll get back on board. Until then she’ll happily not get involved with the internal rows at Lothian Buses and Transport for Edinburgh.
But the past year, despite the trams success, has, she admits, been a difficult one. “It started well, full of optimism because the tram was on track – then came Easter and things got difficult with the Mortonhall report and then the tragic death of Keane Wallis-Bennett at Liberton High.
“That was the worst day of the year – though it was nowhere near as bad for us as it was for her parents. It is always much, much tougher for those at the heart of the issue. The impact on them will be with them forever and we always have to remember that. I think that goes to the heart of why I’m in public service, we’re here to serve people, to put them first, to remember how our actions affect them.”
Her career in public service is unexpected. She wanted to be an outdoor activities instructor, and a decision to study for a diploma in youth community work at Jordanhill was, she admits, a disappointment as it had little to do with her goal. “I was tempted to leave but my parents persuaded me to stay on so I would graduate in something,” she smiles. “But then there were no jobs when I left college in the 1970s. It was a recession so I was unemployed for three months, finally getting a job with Strathclyde Regional Council through a youth job creation scheme.
“I have never forgotten that and it did inspire me to start the Edinburgh Guarantee. I always felt a debt of gratitude to the people who created that scheme for young unemployed people then and I’m sure the many young people who have got into work through the Edinburgh Guarantee won’t forget it either.”
She adds: “I have never been conscious of being ambitious. I grew up with two brothers, though sometimes it felt a lot more, so there was always competition and I suppose I developed a resilience and robustness. But I like hard work and I really enjoy my job and I believe the harder you work the luckier you get. It’s just kind of happened, my career. I never had a grand plan.”
Starting off in social and economic regeneration she worked in the infamous Ferguslie Park area of Paisley with its unemployment, deprivation and drug addiction problems. She says she “loved it, making a difference to people’s lives”. From there she went to Nitshill and the Gorbals in Glasgow, climbing the career ladder to middle management and moving into education before local government reorganisation when she became deputy director of education for East Ayrshire.
In 2000 she moved again to East Dunbartonshire as director of education, social work and cultural services, eventually rising to chief executive. Then came Aberdeen and now Edinburgh.
For someone so keen to change lives, and who has said she holds shipworkers union boss Jimmy Reid’s statements about individuals and their place in society as a reference point, has she ever thought about going into party politics?
“I was asked a long time ago if I would stand but I have never been a card carrying member of any party,” she says. “It was in Glasgow and I won’t say which colour.
“I have fairly strong views that if you’re a public servant you have to be politically neutral, and of course for a long number of years I’ve had to be by law. That kicks in as soon as you become a chief executive.
“I’ve been in local government since I was 20 and a chief officer since I was 35. You just get used to the fact that people are speaking to you knowing that you are neutral. You have your own private views which will never be expressed.”
She adds: “I really like working with politicians. You have to have a sharp political nose to be able to do this job. And in this job when you have a conversation with a politician what is said in the room stays in the room – you never repeat it or share it, they need to know they can have a private conversation with you. You’re in a privileged position with people sharing their concerns and plans and come to you for advice.
“Sometime you look at it [politics] and think it would be a really interesting thing to do, but I don’t think I’d do it now – but who knows? Never say never.”
Of course her career in Edinburgh so far has not been without criticism. The statutory notice scandal is still running and there’s her external work with energy supplier SSE – the firm which supplies the council’s housing stock with gas and electricity. She sits on its board as a non-executive director.
“Which I do in my annual leave time,” she says. “I think it’s invaluable to my job here. Recently I was incredibly tired but I had to attend a board meeting and didn’t really want to go but I did, and it was so invigorating it was like a fortnight off.
“I’m learning so much from it. It’s a FTSE top 50 company learning things there I can bring back here – what they say they get from me is a different perspective. We don’t expect economic outcomes, but social dividends, so they get a more social science view of their world.” She certainly believes councils need to be run like businesses. “This is a massive business in anybody’s terms. And although the dividends we deliver to the city are shown in terms of social and economic outcomes, we have to run it like a business.”
SUE BRUCE IN HER OWN WORDS
PUBLIC SERVICE: “There’s a lot of pleasure to be had in public service. It’s a privilege to have an influence on people’s lives, to be responsible for such a wide range of services and to make sure they have a positive impact . . .
though we don’t always get it right.”
EDUCATION: “I’ve gained my degrees while working, paying for them myself, so it was a surprise to be conferred with an honorary degree from Heriot-Watt. In this job I’m used to standing up and speaking to people but I was as nervous as hell that day.”
THE FUTURE: “It’s not a secret, my age and length of service. I haven’t made any plans but there will come a point to move on. One day when I have more time on my hands I’ll look forward to doing more gardening, especially vegetables.”
MARRIAGE: “I have been working at some hell of a pace for a long time . . . lots of weekends, most evenings. I see my husband about twice a week, the balance has to swing in the other direction eventually.”
INTEGRITY: “Sometimes you have to make decisions, go down a direction which is difficult. You have to be able to go home and look in the mirror and ask if you still like yourself. It’s important to ask if your humility and integrity are intact, to be able to put the brakes on, not to get too big for your boots.”
THE REFERENDUM: “It was the biggest political event I’ve been involved with. I’m glad that it all went smoothly in Edinburgh.”
MOTHERHOOD: “A number of chief executives I know are mothers. I have had a really good professional life, but I do regret that I don’t have any children . . . I do reflect on that.”
SEXISM: “It did affect me early on in my career. There were times in meetings when it was assumed I was the secretary rather than in charge. In one of my earliest jobs I had a manager who sent me out to do trivial things when there was more interesting stuff going on. I really felt that . . . being demeaned . . . being excluded from opportunities.”
FITTING IN: “I have a good sense of humour which gets me through a lot of tough situations, but if I do feel put down by something I try and keep it private. I was in a lot of different schools as we moved about a lot as a kid, so I had to make friends quickly. I’ve never considered myself gregarious but that has probably developed over time and it has made me like change.”
SLEEP: “If you’re not properly rested then you’re not doing your job properly. It’s a 12-hour day through the week . . .
a 70-hour week is not sustainable in the long term. If you really enjoy your job it’s difficult to find the stop button, I need to get things out my head before I forget them, and before I can sleep.”
SURPRISING PEOPLE: “I’m a mad rugby fan and a bit of an amateur artist – and I used to be able to service a car and ride a motorbike. I had a Honda 404, which was low-slung for short people.”