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Bravery and a plan: how to transform your council

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Job losses have been a common occurrence in society over the past decade, for the most part due to economic turbulence and technological change, and people w orking in local government have been hit particularly badly.

LGC analysis of official statistics earlier in the year showed how councils’ total workforce had decreased nationally from 2.89 million in 2010 to 2.12 million in 2017. There had been a 9% reduction in the previous two years alone.

While there has been some natural wastage, drastic reductions in the size of councils’ workforces have been hastened by austerity, with redundancies aplenty, as LGC research this week shows.

As councils’ workforces reduce, organisations have to adapt. Some councils have done it better than others.

Wigan MBC has already made about £135m of its planned £160m savings through The Deal – an initiative aimed at reducing demand on services and making communities more self-sufficient. Chief executive Donna Hall told LGC that her workforce has reduced from about 5,200 people in 2010 to about 4,500 now, although that number was bolstered last year by the fact the council’s arm’s-length management organisation was brought back in-house, adding about 500 staff.

Despite losing at least 13.5% of her workforce in eight years, Ms Hall said: “It sounds a bit callous but they were the right staff [to lose]. They either didn’t agree with The Deal, didn’t have the energy for the next stage, or they elected to go because it was good for them.”

Ms Hall said she made national headlines when she categorised workers as either cheerleaders (enthusiastic workers with passion for the organisation’s future direction), sleepwalkers (people who coast from day-to-day) or vampires (unhappy and disengaged).

What she has at Wigan now is a “very different” workforce which is less “paternalistic” and “much more fired up for change and for working differently with residents”, she said.

This transformation is not unique to Wigan.

Stephen Baker, chief executive of Suffolk Coastal and Waveney DCs which will merge to become East Suffolk Council next year, said he has reduced the councils’ headcount by almost half in a decade – from about 1,350 on 1 April 2008 to about 730 today.

Writing for LGC in March, Mr Baker said “one of the biggest challenges was getting the communications right” while he added: “We had to watch out for the ‘organisational detractors’ who were resistant to change anyway, but for whom partnership working was an additional excuse to resist changing the way in which they did things. Something as simple as sharing best practice could become a highly political issue if such individuals could argue they only had to work in that way because that was the way in which the other council worked.”

Reduced workforces require smarter ways of working.

Ms Hall said there is still a lot more all councils can do to not only cut costs but improve services too.

“I look around at other peoples’ plans and just think they are woefully inadequate for the modern world we live in,” she said.

From Torbay Council to Lancashire CC, via Somerset and Northamptonshire CCs and Birmingham City Council, there are plenty of councils struggling to balance their budgets.

Ms Hall urged chiefs to come up with a sustainable plan for their social care services.

“If you don’t have a plan, don’t be surprised if things go wrong. You need a decent plan which strips out demand from the system and that doesn’t just make short-term cuts,” she said.

Mr Baker said he wished he had “gathered more evidence” to show how the new ways of working were “improving our capacity”.

Technological advances can also help to transform councils, even if there is a sense it is taking a lot longer for the sector as a whole to embrace new ways of working. However, Jason Kitcat, executive director of corporate development at Essex CC, told a recent LGC roundtable that “the demand and demographic issues mean that continuing to use a Victorian era model of organisations just is not sustainable.”

Ms Hall said it is “really depressing” reading stories about councils’ financial woes. “It frustrates me because they know what they need to do,” she said, and urged councils to stop “raiding” their reserves as “that’s no long-term solution”.

She also pleaded with officers and politicians to “stop closing things that are actually going to connect people together like libraries and community centres”. Ms Hall, who is also accountable officer for Wigan’s clinical commissioning group, told councils to “start working intensively with partners in the NHS, with GPs, schools, the police, housing and alcohol and drug services, and provide communities with the tools that they need to be more self-reliant”. She said investing more money in strengthening an area’s community and voluntary sector was better than “perpetuating the status quo”.

Richard Grice, director for customers, transformation and resources at Haringey LBC, told LGC’s recent roundtable that radically changing the way services are delivered will require “brave leadership” at “every level”.

Wigan now holds an open day once a month for officers and politicians to learn more about The Deal and how it has been implemented. However, Ms Hall said it is “very unusual for chief executives or leaders to come” as they often leave it to their heads of policy or transformation.

“What we really need is for the leadership to get it and to buy into it, and then more importantly turn the talk into action,” said Ms Hall. “The reason we’re paid so much as chief executives is to turn strategy into action and too often I see chief executives relying on directors of finance to bail them out.

“This is not about organisations led by financial imperatives. It should be organisations led by strategic imperatives.”

However, as some councils firefight their finances, can they really turn things around quick enough by focusing more on fundamental public sector reform?

“It’s never too late,” said Ms Hall.

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