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BEST PRACTICE - BACK TO BASICS IDEA PAYS OFF

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Following a 'poor' CPA rating, Wakefield picked itself up and turned itself around. Kath Burke finds out more...
Following a 'poor' CPA rating, Wakefield picked itself up and turned itself around. Kath Burke finds out more

COUNCIL Wakefield MDC

AWARD LGC Awards

CATEGORY Winner, most improved council

SPONSORS Improvement & Development Agency and Capita

In just three years Wakefield MDC has turned itself from one of the worst performing councils in the country to become an example for others to follow.

Wakefield leapt from 'poor' to the top of 'fair' in just over a year and its meteoric rise continued after a new chief executive was appointed, most of the old management board were removed, and staff were given three key areas to focus on. These are: better schools; social care improvements; and cleaner, greener, safer environments.

Chief executive John Foster's back-to-basics approach has given staff a clear vision and more self confidence.

'I'm proud that we've built a strong team between the administration and the politicians,' he says. 'We have been able to provide clear leadership across the whole organisation, across our partners and across the various localities in the district. And we're bringing back this old fashioned notion of pride in being a public servant.'

Mr Foster was headhunted from Middlesbrough in January 2003 to turn the

council around. Before he started, he had one-to-one interviews with all the chief officers,

and was given a clear brief from the council leader to change the council's performance and culture.

Mr Foster found Wakefield in a poor state. 'There was no performance culture. There was no personal and individual appraisal,' he says. Many staff were not supported by their managers and the focus was on 'trade union rights rather than on customer expectations and responsibilities'.

Changes had to start from the top down - Mr Foster kept only one of his 10 chief officers and the other nine left. Because of its poor showing in the comprehensive performance assessment the council was under strict supervision by the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister. 'We each had senior civil servants we reported to,' says Mr Foster.

But nine months later came the first big milestone when Wakefield became the first of that original tranche of underperforming councils to be released from the OPDM supervision list.

Mr Foster improved the council's leadership by putting all senior managers through a competency screening process to assess their strengths and weaknesses. Now 260 managers have been through this programme.

'They were initially apprehensive because many of these managers had only worked in Wakefield so they hadn't put themselves through external testing before,' says Mr Foster.

The results have been astounding - the council's social services were rated as two star in 2004 - a year after being brought out of special measures. This helped Wakefield become one of only five councils recognised by the

Audit Commission in its 2004 CPA report for sustained improvement. In 2004, Wakefield soared up the league tables to rank 17th out of 36 metropolitan districts on citizen satisfaction, compared to 31st in 2003.

Last year Wakefield celebrated its best-ever GCSE results, and has won a commendation from the Home Office for its three-year community cohesion plan. And the 2004-2005 audited figures show a 60% improvement in the council's best value performance indicators.

As Mr Foster spoke to LGC, the council was mid-way through its CPA inspection, and he is crossing his fingers that Wakefield will have gone up to three-star status. But he has his eye on the four-star rating - from this month, the council will be a local area agreement

pilot and it is stretching itself to perform harder over the next three years. Wakefield's theme is families and neighbourhoods - which Mr Foster sees as a continuation of the three back-to-basics themes he's instilled in staff already.

Although he is clearly delighted with the LGC award, and official plaudits, what really puts a spring in his step are compliments from local Wakefielders.

'When you go out into the street and people say 'we think the council's doing well Mr Foster. You're getting this more right than wrong' that makes me happy,' he says.

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