Acting chief executive Kath O’Dwyer talks to LGC about tackling deep-seated cultural problems
cheshire east council
A staff survey as part of peer review by the Local Government Association of the culture at Cheshire East Council found 200 respondents said they had personally experienced bullying in the previous six months, while 360 said they had personally witnessed bullying.
With high-profile police investigations into the council and the suspension of senior managers, including then chief executive Mike Suarez, providing an uncomfortable and challenging backdrop, Kath O’Dwyer was tasked with leading the council out of the crisis after stepping up from deputy to acting chief executive in April 2017.
She told LGC the first step was for the council to listen to staff and acknowledge there may be a problem, and then to have the courage to ask for external help to put things right.
Ms O’Dwyer said inviting the LGA in “felt like a very brave thing to do, politically and from an officer perspective”.
“We didn’t know the answer to the question so there was a risk of the answer being painful and politically difficult,” she said.
Ms O’Dwyer admitted getting organisational agreement for the peer review “took a lot of work and influence at my end”, as did ensuring the findings of the review were “presented in a way that would be helpful rather than inflammatory, but still factually correct.”
The council also commissioned a strategic partner, consultants Sticky Change, to support the required step change in behaviour and culture.
This, Ms O’Dwyer said, “came with some pain” as there were accusations from some quarters of taxpayers’ money being wasted.
“But if we are serious about making this a priority, you have to put your money where your mouth is,” she added.
Reflecting on factors that contributed to Cheshire East’s problems Ms O’Dwyer references the “relatively acrimonious divorce” from the other half of the county when the council became a unitary in 2009.
She said not enough was done to establish a new organisational culture after reorganisation brought together staff from three districts and Cheshire CC “all with different ways of doing things”.
“The net result was the [human resources] policies lacked clarity and were interpreted by different HR officers depending where they had come from,” Ms O’Dwyer added.
“What we didn’t have was any consistency in the application.
“There had been a lack of investment in frontline managers, in how to effectively manage performance – those difficult conversations – and a lack of transparency around expectations.”
All HR procedures have been rewritten to make them clear and user-friendly and to remove previous contradictions.
A ‘business partner’ model has been established, with each directorate having a nominated HR member of staff who is the first point of contact and attends management team meetings.
Key to transforming Cheshire East’s culture has been the creation of about 120 “brighter future champions” – frontline staff and managers nominated by their colleagues.
If we are serious about making it a priority, you have to put your money where your mouth is
These champions meet on a monthly basis and Ms O’Dwyer attends on invitation. Five of the champions are part of a steering group chaired by Ms O’Dwyer that also includes the deputy leader of the council, the head of HR, the head of organisational development and a consultant.
“The most powerful part of that meeting is the big chunk of time we spend taking feedback from the champions about how it really feels out there, what’s making the difference and what their frustrations are.” Ms O’Dwyer said.
“That has massively informed what we do and how we do it.”
She said the new approach encourages resolution at an informal stage rather than when “battle lines are drawn a bit” in a formal grievance process.
However, this comes with challenges when seeking to provide evidence of progress.
“Capturing the data on that is really difficult because it is an informal stage. When we look at our data it feels like an incomplete picture,” Ms Dwyer said.
“One of the questions is how do you demonstrate success when you can’t count is what you’ve prevented?”
Cheshire East has also established various lines of reporting to ensure staff have options for raising concerns, including a direct line to Ms O’Dwyer herself if necessary.
LGC’s research found the number of formal grievances involving bullying and harassment at Cheshire East has increased from four in 2015-16 to 16 in 2017-18, a year in which seven were upheld.
“We anticipated at the start that the number of grievances would significantly go up because people felt empowered and they had permission to raise their concerns and shout it out,” Ms O’Dwyer said.
“We haven’t seen a spectacular rise at all but anecdotally what we are hearing and feeling is that informal resolution stage is happening much more often and is much more successful.”
Kath O’Dwyer: Factfile
Became acting chief executive in April 2017
Appointment followed suspension of previous chief
Police investigations into council ongoing
How Cheshire East emerged from bullying crisis