“OK, I’m struggling. I need help. My council is being merged with four others… I’m scared we will lose our place and reputation in innovation, business model change, culture and digital progress. If you’ve been through this in private or public, tell me your top three things you’ve learnt – positive or negative.”
When Aylesbury Vale DC chief executive Andrew Grant posted this on LinkedIn in February he did not expect that his call for advice on the reorganisation of councils in Buckinghamshire would spark a discussion that ran to more than 20,000 words. Mergers, it seems, are an emotive topic, with many who have been through them bearing battle scars.
On 1 April, 15 councils across England merged into eight new organisations (see box), while in Buckinghamshire and Northamptonshire existing councils have begun working towards reorganisation – into one and two unitaries respectively – by April 2020. But mergers, whether of whole councils or two or more teams within an existing organisation, often seem to work out better on paper than in practice.
In an interview with LGC earlier this year, Cheshire East Council acting chief executive Kath O’Dwyer traced recent problems with bullying back to the failure to establish a positive culture for the council when it was created from three districts and half of Cheshire CC 10 years ago.
Creating a positive culture for the new Buckinghamshire organisation was chief among the recommendations of respondents to Mr Grant’s call for help.
Paul Martin, who as joint chief executive of Wandsworth and Richmond upon Thames LBCs has since 2017 led a single staffing structure, warned that culture could be an “esoteric concept for staff”.
“In practice, culture is observed behaviours,” he wrote. “It follows that investment in discussing and agreeing the behaviours that are seen as optimal is time well spent. This can help make concrete what otherwise might be intangible.”
Another contributor, Greg Parston, who as chief executive of the Office for Public Management was involved as an advisor in the merger that created Unison in the early 1990s, said as well as working to create a positive culture, senior leaders must also “destroy … actively” the elements of predecessor organisations’ cultures they do not want.
Many respondents stressed the emotional toll of merger and said staff should be allowed to mourn for their previous organisations. A focus on the practical things that matter to staff – “will I have a job, where will I sit, how will I work, who will I report to?” was also seen as key to reassuring the workforce.
Lancashire CC chief executive Angie Ridgwell, who led a merger of Whitehall departments while working in central government, said these elements had to be in place before you could start to think about building a culture.
She said the hardest part was overcoming perceptions that one side was being taken over by the other. “What you think is parity of esteem isn’t always received that way, so call it out, nicely, and explain the rationale again and again and again. Don’t be afraid to keep giving the same messages,” she added.
Ben Page, chief executive of the polling firm Ipsos Mori, said the senior people in an organisation actually tended to be the “most difficult” due to insecurity, status and ego. “If you merge two cultures, one will tend to dominate. Showing parity of esteem in terms of who gets what is vital.”
Mr Martin advised that the senior leadership team of the new merged organisation needs to be “carefully selected to be a blend of the best of the predecessor organisations, along with some external talent”.
“It becomes far more difficult to win hearts and minds if corporate memory of what each predecessor organisation accomplished is lost in the change.”
But a senior officer involved in one of the county unitary mergers in 2009 told LGC including someone from every organisation did not always work out.
“Some of those people began to fail in the role because they were not experienced enough at working at a the scale required in a county,” they said. “You can’t rely on face to face contact with all your staff so it requires a different set of skills.”
Another recurring theme of the discussion was that successful mergers cannot be rushed, with many contributors stressing the importance of allowing senior staff at the organisation to spend some time getting to know and understand each other. However, time is not always something local government has the luxury of when subject to timetables laid out in statute.
In Dorset the two new councils will be up and running little over a year after then communities secretary Sajid Javid approved the plans in February 2018. Plans for Buckinghamshire were approved in November 2018, and unless they are derailed by district opposition, the new council should be live in April 2020.
Mr Grant said the councils had “built in a phase of ‘discovery’ to ensure that we start with understanding and appreciating what each party is really like”.
Stephen Baker, who started as joint chief executive of Suffolk Coastal and Waveney DCs in 2008, has had almost 10 years to work towards the creation of East Suffolk Council, which went live on 1 April. He told LGC he recognised he had the “luxury of time”: staffing structures were all merged by a couple of years ago before the councils moved on to a full political merger of the two organisations.
Mr Baker said: “Communications is absolutely critical… People almost look to be confused if they’re rattled by the change.”
He said this was not the time for a “grey” civil service kind of leadership from senior officers. “Staff are looking for someone with charisma who’s going to fight their corner so they’ll hopefully trust you when you take difficult decisions.”
Brandan Sarsfield, chief executive at the Peabody housing association, which last year merged with Family Mosaic, said a merger should be looked at as a “two-stage process” with integration completed before work begins on transformation. He said it was important to recognise that there will be “bottlenecks and differing speeds in different teams” but added that while the Peabody merger “feels successful” a “four-way merger sounds like a disaster”.
Wiltshire Council is widely regarded as one of the more successful of the county unitaries created in 2009. It brought together four districts and the county council.
Its corporate director Carlton Brand, one of the three individuals who share the status of most senior officer at the council, told LGC when the new council was created staff were told that because it was a new organisation “everything was up for grabs” in terms of how things were done. Staff were encouraged to get involved in the process of designing how the council would work, using systems thinking methodology.
“It never feels like a merger from a district perspective, it always feels like a takeover just because of the size of the county and the pull it exerts. We were very particular about that narrative with our staff, we never used the word merger.”
However, while Mr Brand is a strong advocate of switching to unitary government in two-tier areas, he noted the financial context in which the current reorganisation is happening is very different.
“In Dorset they’re having to deliver a lot of unitary savings from 1 April; we always had a very pragmatic view [that] we’d do them over a year or two,” he said.
Speaking to LGC about the discussion, Andrew Grant said it had given him lots of food for thought. He said his concerns had specifically been that the work Aylesbury Vale has done on digitalising services, including using artificial intelligence in its systems, would be lost in the new organisation.
“I’m hoping the legacy of what we have done in Aylesbury Vale through my people goes on and on.”
* LGC sought the approval of those mentioned to use their comments expressed on LinkedIn
New councils created on 1 April (and their predecessor organisations)
Bournemouth, Christchurch & Poole Council (Bournemouth and Christchurch BCs and Borough of Poole)
Dorset Council (Dorset CC, North Dorset, West Dorset East Dorset and Purbeck DCs, Weymouth & Portland BC)
East Suffolk Council (Suffolk Coastal and Waveney DCs)
West Suffolk Council (Forest Heath DC and St Edmundsbury BC)
Somerset West & Taunton Council (West Somerset DC and Taunton Deane BC)
Tips for a succesful merger
Recognise the emotional toll of mergers, allow staff to mourn for their previous organisations
Get the basics right – where will staff will sit, who will they report to?
Create the culture you want to see – and destroy what you don’t want
Communicate the vision and purpose of the new organisation, don’t be afraid to repeat the message