In straitened times it is no surprise to hear a chief executive talk about the bottom line but at Lancashire CC Angie Ridgwell is determined to change the culture to help achieve the necessary savings.
Lancashire is facing a funding gap of £47m in 2018-19 and plans to use reserves to plug that.
Reserves, however, can only be used once and with the county council needing to find £69m further savings in 2018-19, Ms Ridgwell says her “top priority” is to move the council into a more sustainable fiscal position.
To do this Ms Ridgwell has set her sights on changing the culture of the county council’s management towards a more collaborative and responsive style of communication.
“People work best when the mission of an organisation calls to their hearts, not their heads,” she says. “You can get a return on that.”
LGC reported last August that Lancashire’s cabinet had rejected the advice of James Goudie QC and approved a plan to merge former chief executive Jo Turton’s role with that of the section 151 officer to create a new position of chief executive and director of resources. Ms Turton, who did not have an accountancy qualification, left and Ms Ridgwell was subsequently appointed.
The decision to combine the two senior officer roles in Lancashire prompted Chartered Institute of Public Finance & Accountancy chief executive Rob Whiteman to predict this would become more prevalent as councils faced increasing financial pressures.
Research by Pixel Financial Management, published in LGC last month, found counties had by far the lowest level of usable reserves of any type of council.
Ms Ridgwell says everyone in local government “is in fiscally tight positions which means we need to drive down the costs of our services”.
While Ms Ridgwell acknowledges that changing the culture of a workplace will not bring about significant savings immediately, she believes her plan to improve staff engagement and productivity will eventually stabilise the council’s long-term financial bottom line.
If an organisation is not performing as expected Ms Ridgwell says is “almost certainly” facing problems of a cultural nature. Many of these problems originate at a managerial level and so change must first be addressed there, she says.
“It’s really important we can link everything we do to a personal context,” says Ms Ridgwell. “We serve individuals and the work we do eventually comes down to making a difference to a resident of Lancashire.”
Reforming management is the long-term aim, but Ms Ridgwell has already made a number of changes since she joined the county council at the beginning of the year. Prior to this she was director general, corporate services at the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy, while she has previously served as Thurrock Council’s chief executive and worked as a strategic director for Bristol City Council.
Among the immediate initiatives Ms Ridgwell has introduced are changing staff members’ homepage to the intranet so the management’s message is “front and centre” in people’s minds when they start work in the morning. Managers are also now required to have an email signature that states their name, position and contact details. Thirdly, executive directors must also display photos in their email signatures.
“It brings a more personal and engaging feel to a dispersed organisation, especially if you don’t regularly talk face-to-face with your employees,” says Ms Ridgwell.
It is hoped that changes like these will help to engage staff, in turn making them more productive.
Similarly, Ms Ridgwell believes better data brings better results. When organisations compile information on their customers in “excruciating detail … the better they can design the service delivered to them”, says Ms Ridgwell.
Ultimately, this data could be used to prioritise prevention services that help to reduce the council’s expenditure.
“If we understand why people are presenting to our services, we can see if we can stop the need for them to present upstream rather than deal with the issue downstream. It’s prevention rather than cure,” she says.