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Cheshire East: Why we've set out a member/staff behaviour code

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After an LGA report found evidence of bullying, Cheshire East engaged staff to redefine workplace culture and behaviour

  • Project: Brighter Future Together (culture) programme
  • Outcomes: - People say they are proud to work for Cheshire East Council - Our people feel valued, trusted and supported and understand the vision of the organisation and the part they play in achieving it - All staff and members are even more aligned and accountable, acting on objectives and results and acting as role models for the desired behaviours - All employees feel they can give feedback, influence things and have their voice heard within Cheshire East Council - Our people are led by those who can build capacity and have the confidence to deliver high performing culture fairly and consistently - Cheshire East Council is becoming an employer of choice - Members and officers have a shared attitude, and value and create a supportive and safe environment in which all can excel
  • Timescale: March 2018-March 2019
  • Cost to authority: £151,460
  • Number of staff working on project: Not possible to specify
  • Officer contact details: Sara Barker 01270 686328

Cheshire East Council has, for the past 18 months, had a strong focus on culture and workplace wellbeing. Most notably, council leader Rachel Bailey (Con) and I invited the Local Government Association to independently review our organisation’s culture, focusing on bullying and unacceptable behaviour by some officers and elected members.

While many relationships between members and officers across the council have been strong and productive, we had ambiguous areas and had to accept not everyone was clear where the lines should be drawn in these interactions and relationships. We also had reports of unacceptable behaviour and an inconsistent culture being formed across the council.

This was the backdrop for the LGA review of organisational culture and the subsequent development of our Brighter Future Together culture transformation programme.

Our response included commissioning a strategic partner to work with us to deliver an ambitious and far-reaching piece of work to improve our workplace culture across the entire organisation. The programme was launched in March this year.

The LGA report highlighted key areas that pointed to historical failings. It said, after the council’s inception in 2009, that an opportunity was missed to define and establish a positive, respectful organisational culture.

This created a vacuum, filled by the behaviours of some with power, which resulted in organisational confusion and distinct experiences across the workforce, some of which were described as bullying or inappropriate behaviour.

Clearly defining the differing roles of officers and members has been an important part of changing our culture.

These have not always been easy conversations to have, but both sides have shown real commitment in ironing out uncertainty through a revised member/officer protocol.

Again, this work was supported by the LGA in workshops and discussions. But developing a protocol would, we believed, only address part of the challenge. We needed to be clear about what was acceptable behaviour and what wasn’t.

In forming an employee deal, we put in writing that it was no longer acceptable to turn a blind eye to poor behaviour, ignore something or say nothing when something goes wrong, or pass the buck and blame others.

Those affected by bullying or bad treatment could end up leaving the organisation, taking out grievances, seeking help from their trade union, being less engaged or being absent due to sickness.

This results in the organisation potentially losing talented people, and using precious resources to deal with the aftermath and the stories people tell. These stories can themselves become the organisational culture in the absence of clearly defined values and behaviours, which all staff experience on a daily basis.

sandbach crosses

Sandbach Crosses

As part of the council’s response to the LGA culture review within Cheshire East, we established both officer and member forums. Part of their work has been to establish a workplace culture vision, an employee deal, and most importantly a behaviours framework.

Within this, the type of behaviour we want to see has been developed by our staff and members in an inclusive way. This includes a set of behaviours for elected members, which a cross-party forum has considered and agreed.

This aspect of the behaviours framework together with the new member/officer protocol are key foundations in recalibrating the relationships and interactions between members and officers at all levels of the organisation and across all political parties.

The questions we asked everybody, from the front line to the council leader, were: “How do we want it to feel to work here? How do we make that happen?”

We are a large unitary council with 3,550 people working in different office locations with a wide geographical spread. We were clear that we wanted – indeed needed – input from all levels of the organisation and across our range of services if we were to capture the issues and identify all the changes needed.

We started building a framework for change. We also created a steering group which was underpinned by a programme team, a staff forum and a member forum – the latter two elements acting as critical friends throughout the process.

This was tough. The needs of staff and members were different, but the common factor was a need for behavioural change. For our programme of change to be meaningful and far-reaching, it was critical we engaged across the board – members, practitioners, managers and leaders. I am delighted to say we have achieved this.

We are now halfway through our Brighter Future programme and already there is much more honesty, confidence and an absolute message of permission to call it out. There is a growing and infectious positive energy around the council.

We have recruited more than 100 Brighter Future champions – colleagues involved in the transformation process throughout and acting as ambassadors for change. We have co-produced a vision for our workplace culture with all members and staff.

We have reset our values, created new behaviours and, for the first time, have an employee deal. It will take time to see the impact of this work, but we are confident that our fullycommitted, bottom-up and inclusive approach to doing this will deliver both sustained and positive change.

The member/officer protocol and members’ behaviour framework have been critical foundations for sustained cultural change.

We have fantastic, talented staff working on behalf of our communities and are clear that they have a right to work without fear and in an organisation with a positive culture.

I have welcomed the frankness and openness of all the staff and members who contributed to the LGA review and the subsequent development of the member-officer protocol and behaviours.

That honesty from everyone has been essential in our progress.

Kath O’Dwyer, acting chief executive, Cheshire East Council

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