Sarah Mitchell takes up the reins as Surrey’s strategic director of adult social care

Surrey’s new adult services boss, Sarah Mitchell, is bringing to her new post the work ethic and enthusiasm from her time at the Isle of Wight, reports Natalie Valios

When Sarah Mitchell was leaving the post of Isle of Wight’s director of community services a few months ago, one of her management team told her he had never worked as hard in his life as he had during her stint in charge, but that he had never enjoyed himself so much either.

This sums up Mitchell well. She’s a work hard, play hard type; passionate about what she does. Full of energy and creative thinking, she’s not afraid to try new things and tell it like it is.

So it’s easy to see why she was the right person to take up the role of strategic director of adult social care at Surrey Council. Its lacklustre performance in adults has seen it drop from three stars to one in just two years. In a reversal of fortune, the Isle of Wight went from two stars and uncertain prospects when Mitchell arrived in September 2006, to three stars with excellent prospects by the time she left.

So why leave now, and why move from community services back to pure adult social care? “It was the right time to go because of where the social care debate is at,” Mitchell says. “It’s the most exciting time in social care since community care legislation. I was involved with implementing that in Hampshire and I wanted to be involved in leading the transformation of social care in a big department.”

Make a difference

She says she likes the idea of going and making things better. “When I went to the Isle of Wight, we were in a similar position. I know that we can make a real difference.”

Mitchell’s remit as the island’s director of community services included responsibility for the Isle of Wight festival, Dinosaur Isle and leisure services. As Mitchell says: “The Isle of Wight is quite special in what it has to offer. Not many community directors can say they’ve had a 125-million-year-old dinosaur to look after.”

The fun element aside, Mitchell feels she’s learned a lot from the role that will help in her new job. “It changes your attitude and approach. Working with [other council departments] will be easier now because I know the pressures of running a huge swimming pool and the pressures on housing.”

Damning verdict

When the Commission for Social Care Inspection delivered its damning verdict on Surrey’s adult social care services in November 2008, it particularly criticised the low take-up rates for direct payments and the adult safeguarding board’s lack of strong leadership and formal agreements between partner agencies. Ian Davey was brought in as interim director, and Mitchell says he has put the department back on the right track.

“He did a fabulous job and has identified all the things we have to work on.”

She says the improvement with direct payments has been dramatic. As for adult safeguarding, she set up a multi-agency service on the Isle of Wight, so is ahead of the game. She has already drafted in Nick Georgiou, previously interim director of adult services at Hampshire Council, to chair Surrey’s adult safeguarding board for a year and then will advertise for an independent chair. “He will hold me to account for practice in the county,” Mitchell says.

Kept in the picture

Although she may be the strategic director, Mitchell’s eye remains fixed on the frontline. Each week she makes a point of reading a case file and talking it through with the relevant member of staff.

She also e-mails a weekly briefing to her entire team about that week’s issues and what she has been up to, so that everyone is kept in the picture.

She is most looking forward to staff enjoying what they are doing again. “When you are rated at one star for two years, it has a huge impact on morale,” Mitchell says. “When we got three stars in the Isle of Wight, I gave staff an extra day’s leave. And I will hugely enjoy the day when I can do that in Surrey.”

Mitchell will miss the Isle of Wight (although she is booked on a ferry for the festival later this month). “We had a lot of fun and we enjoyed the feeling of delivering good services,” she says. “The island gives you the opportunity to do things differently and we got the results. I wouldn’t want to lose that creativity and innovation. I want people who want to make a difference.

“At the adult services directors’ spring seminar [care services minister] Phil Hope said this is our moment in social care,” Mitchell says. “I’m saying this is our moment in Surrey, because we are going to do great things.”

Sarah Mitchell: CV summary

● October 1984-July 1987: social worker, Hampshire Council.

● May 1994-April 1996: commissioning and care management co-ordinator, Hampshire Council.

● April 1996-November 1996: social Services Inspectorate policy inspector, Department of Health.

● August 1999-April 2004: assistant director (older people), Portsmouth Council.

● September 2006-March 2009: director of community services, Isle of Wight Council.

● March 2009-present day: strategic director of adult social care, Surrey Council.


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