In this month’s good news and gratitude, we would like to thank Julie Webster, Director of Public Health, Wirral Council for her years of service to Wirral and the wider public health system ahead of her retirement.
Julie has been a fantastic leader on Collaborative programmes of work during her career. She has also been the lead DPH for the Collaborative as Wirral Council hosts the Champs Support Team.
We sat down with Julie to learn more about what first interested her to work in public health, some challenges along the way, what she has been most passionate about, top leadership tips and finally how she intends to spend her retirement.
Julie was appointed as Director of Public Health in October 2017, she has worked for the NHS and local councils across Cheshire and Merseyside.
Welcome Julie. What first interested you to work in public health?
In the 1990s, I worked in the Liverpool Public Health team, which sparked my interest in public health. We had Ruth Hussey there as the Director of Public Health and a whole range of people that I could name check that were instrumental in helping me to pursue my ambition to make public health my career.
At that point, I was working with GP practices and I realised that public health approaches had such potential to have a positive impact on the health and wellbeing of a large number of people and that a lot of it was practical and common sense but needed a higher profile.
I suppose I’ve always been driven by trying to make a difference and a sense of social justice as well, so I could just see that the values of public health and my values really came together, and I was surrounded by some inspirational people that really showed me how you could make a difference.
There were many people that really helped me to think about ‘how do you support, engage and encourage people to think about their own health’ and then think about the health of the population. And it was exciting, challenging and just what I was looking for.
Looking back, what were the biggest challenges you faced in public health?
It’s been about trying to keep a focus on public health outcomes and not get caught up in just reacting. It’s been particularly challenging because we’ve had a backdrop of changing policy. So really needing to be tenacious in what I do and what the team does.
It’s the tenacity which is so important, because sometimes you felt like action to tackle health inequalities and promote public health was never going to progress because it was all about the here and now, financial challenges and ‘how are we going to change this service’ but I think what I’ve learned over time is you feel like you’re knocking your head against a brick wall, then all of a sudden the wall falls down and you sort of fall in and the opportunities are amazing.
The example is the smoke free legislation back in 2007. We never thought we would get that off the ground, even though the evidence base was really strong and then all of a sudden, doors opened and we were able to do that.
I think the other challenge that I need to comment on was the move to local authorities in 2013. There was lots of apprehension about the move, but I think it’s the best thing that happened to us and has enabled us to blossom and to move to tackling the wider determinants of health and getting upstream.
It must have been a big change transitioning from NHS to a local authority?
It certainly was and the challenge of working with politicians. We had all been trained to work in the NHS, then all of a sudden, we were working in a very different culture and a very different environment. It was very scary, but I don’t think any of us that work in local authorities would now say ‘we want to go back to the NHS’.
What have you been most passionate about in your work?
I think it’s changed over time. Social justice and tackling inequalities runs through me like a stick of rock but earlier in my career, it was certainly about the potential around secondary prevention to tackle heart disease and stroke. That was when I was working with general practice and got into public health because of its potential to make a difference for large groups of people.
This interest led me into getting involved in activities such as the smoke free legislation. So, then I was moving more into the policy world. Since I’ve been in Wirral, I’ve really championed the importance of listening to local people and being a professional in that space, being willing to change and adapt because using the evidence base is fundamental. It’s really, really important but we need to be cognisant of the challenges people are facing in their daily lives, just telling people to do things we know doesn’t work.
As I say, it’s changed over time. I think what’s really important is that you don’t have a fixed mindset and that you adapt and listen to what local people are telling you.
We understand that you’ve done a lot of engagement in your role at Wirral?
Yes, I love it. The insight work that we did was such an eye-opener to me because I thought I was part of the solution and then I realised I was part of the problem because I’ve been ‘this is what the evidence says’, ‘so this is what we must have’ but local people said ‘we know we should be eating five-a-day but actually the problems that we’ve got are around debt advice, being supported to get back into employment and help with childcare’ and actually until you can tackle those issues, the other issues around eating five-a-day and stopping smoking will fall down the list of priorities, so you need to start where people are at rather than where we as professionals think they should be. And that’s challenging but I think as I say, it was a real eye-opener to me.
It’s about being true to your values and not just telling people what to do, so you’ve got to have that credibility with local people. I think certainly being in a leadership space and Director of Public Health, you’ve got a profile and we’ve certainly had a profile over the past couple of years. I can only do that if I’m talking from my heart and talking from my values set and that, I think brings a credibility that you can then have the conversations with local people that you need to. And if they can see that you’re coming at it from the right place, then I think that goes a long way.
In your experience, what have been the biggest public health issues in Wirral and across Cheshire and Merseyside?
It’s the ingrained health inequalities that we’ve got. So last year, in the public health annual report for Wirral, we looked at the impact of COVID on the borough and I think again there was a bit of a heart sink moment, because whilst COVID shone a spotlight on health inequalities, what I was writing in that report, I could have written 10, 20, probably 30-40 years ago and it would have been the same.
So, I think it’s how do we move people, whether it be individuals or policymakers to really focus on upstream issues around employment, housing and education because until we really tackle those, some of the other work we do is really just putting sticking plasters on things.
I think we’ve still got the same issues that we’ve had for quite some time, which is not where I would have hoped to have been ending my career, but hopefully because of COVID and the spotlight it’s shone on health inequalities, the work we’ve done with Michael Marmot locally, then hopefully people are moving into a different space making sure that we do get upstream of issues.
What changes would you most like to see in public health across Wirral, Cheshire and Merseyside?
I’m actually really positive about the way that we work locally and across Cheshire and Merseyside. I think that close working has been strengthened even more over the past two and a half to three years. I think certainly having worked most of my working life in Merseyside, there was always a strong bond across the Merseyside local authorities because we were health action zones back in the day. We worked very closely and a lot of us have trained together so we’ve been through various sorts of life changes along the way.
I think with the opportunities we’ve got now with the Integrated Care System and in Merseyside with Liverpool City Region Combined Authority I wouldn’t change much. We’ve got challenges around our workforce and our capacity to deliver. I do worry because I think we’ve got lots of opportunities but how we get capacity to do that I think is a real challenge for us at the moment. It’s not unique locally but I think within public health as a profession. It’s challenging, really challenging.
What are your top three leadership tips for other people?
I think you have to be prepared to listen and not have a fixed mindset. You need to spend time in your community and really get to know them and understand them. And keep curious. Always be curious and want to try out new things. As well, be prepared to take a risk, calculated, but prepared to test the boundaries.
Finally, how do you plan to spend your retirement?
Hopefully spend a bit of time with some frontline services through volunteering. I’m just exploring that with local groups. Definitely spend more time with my family. I know it’s a bit of a cliche, but we are planning to go travelling and make the most of opportunities now that we’ll have some flexibility with our time. That’s what I’m planning to do.
Julie retires from Wirral Council on 30th September. Congratulations to Dave Bradburn on his appointment as Director of Public Health for Wirral, who will take up the post following Julie’s retirement.
Dave is currently Acting Deputy Director of Public Health/Consultant in Public Health at Warrington Borough Council, where he’s worked since April 2013.
We look forward to welcoming Dave to the Collaborative’s Executive Board.