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The chiefs' verdict: Small is beautiful

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Small councils can be agents for transformation rather than barriers to change. Rachel Dalton reports on a Civica and LGC roundtable

Transformation has become an accepted theme in local government but much of the public discourse around transformation has focused on the activities of
large councils.

In an LGC roundtable supported by Civica, a group of chief executives of smaller councils came together to discuss how transformation works within a small organisation, the advantages districts and boroughs have over their larger cousins, and share their own experiences of best practice.

 

Participants

Stephen Baker, chief executive, Suffolk Coastal and Waveney DCs

Paul Bradbury, group business development director, Civica

Rachel Dalton, features editor, LGC

Amanda Deeks, chief executive, South Gloucestershire Council

Manjeet Gill, chief executive, West Lindsey DC

Chris Ginnelly, managing director, Civica Services

Steven Halls, chief executive, Three Rivers DC

Sue Smith, chief executive, Cherwell DC and South Northamptonshire Council

Julian Wain, independent consultant

Kaye Wiggins, acting news editor, LGC – chair

 

The role of councils

LGC acting news editor Kaye Wiggins, chairing the debate, set the scene for the discussion. “Financial cutbacks are not going away anytime soon, regardless of the political environment post-general election, and rising demand is an issue facing most local authorities at the moment. We would like to have a discussion about how those issues are affecting smaller authorities, and the challenges specifically in transformation,” she said.

Manjeet Gill, West Lindsey District Council

Source: Post Photographic

Manjeet Gill, West Lindsey DC

West Lindsey DC chief executive Manjeet Gill said successful transformation rested on a council having a clear vision of its future role.

“Before we embark on transformation one of the conversations we should be having is: what is our future role? In a two-tier system when our county council colleagues have got big challenges such as the health and social care integration agenda, we focus on what our roles particularly are. For me, there have been three roles: place shaping, thought leadership, and moving towards commercially-orientated services.

“In West Lindsey it’s been about commercial services. Our focus isn’t on outsourcing our services to become more efficient or outsourcing our services to other partner authorities, although in a few areas we are working like this, but to our SMEs and microbusinesses. There’s this real need for a small local broker, to provide them with support services.”

Stephen Baker, chief executive of both Suffolk Coastal DC and Waveney BC, said small authorities were uniquely placed to provide services to their communities - commercial or otherwise - thanks to their local knowledge, but could come up against problems when involving other stakeholders.

“Smaller districts certainly have that agility and focus on locality which is really critical,” Mr Baker said, “but we also have to work with this transformation agenda which strangely works against that somehow.

“We need to be very collaborative and therefore we need to have more stakeholders in the game. Every time you add another stakeholder it gets exponentially more difficult.”

However, Mr Baker said that his authorities were working well with Suffolk CC, in particular on a project called Lowestoft Rising.

“We’re establishing a whole system approach in East Suffolk. It is working particularly for Lowestoft Rising where the county, the district, the police and the health service are working together, completely ignoring organisational boundaries and saying, what is right for the people?”

Sue Smith, chief executive of Cherwell DC and South Northamptonshire Council, said her authorities have had to collaborate with two different county authorities.

“It’s hard work,” said Ms Smith. “Both counties seem focused on the health and social care agenda and the budget situation. They are less interested in the things that I am interested in, which are economic development and regeneration.”

However, despite this mismatch, Ms Smith said austerity has forced her authorities to work together transcending traditional boundaries for the better.

“I quite like that we’re being challenged financially because it’s allowed us to do some things that we always thought we should have done. We don’t now
stop working at geographic boundaries because we all work as though they’re not there, except where they really matter on council tax and planning. That is really good for communities; it’s getting better results and for best money.”

South Gloucestershire Council chief executive Amanda Deeks agreed that cross-boundary working was challenging but rewarding.

Amanda Deeks, South Gloucestershire Council

Source: Post Photographic

Amanda Deeks, chief executive, South Gloucestershire Council

“We’re a unitary authority and we’re part of the Bristol City region. Unless you are a county council there are always challenges about whether your boundaries are the right ones. Our boundaries (aside from county boundaries) are particularly unhelpful; we have an Avon and Somerset Police Authority, we have an Avon Wiltshire Gloucestershire Housing Partnership, and so on. Absolutely nothing lines up. There are a number of levels on which you have to work with others to make austerity work, with the community and voluntary sector and the town and parish councils.”

 

Changing mind-sets

Independent consultant Julian Wain said that despite the good practice that he had seen, there remained much to be done among some councils on transformation.

“How do you achieve transformation? How do you challenge that mind-set? It isn’t happening everywhere. How will we continue to drive that change to the culture for the next five years?”

Steven Halls, chief executive of Three Rivers DC, believed inertia within organisations presented a challenge. “I’ve wanted to do an awful lot before and have come up against the inertia,” he said.

Stephen Halls, Three Rivers District Council

Source: Post Photographic

Stephen Halls, Three Rivers DC

“Our chief constable had to close counters in his police station. We had some spare space in our office and we’ve now got a police station. That is a win/win/win situation. It meant the counter was open for much longer than before, so there was a better service to the public, and the public come in and use our services as well. There is synergy with our antisocial behaviour teams, and we saved money. You cannot have a single argument against that, but I had to fight to effect it. It irritates me that one has to work for such an obvious thing.”

Ms Deeks said the key to transformation was when the imperative to change and strong leadership came together. However, Mr Baker cautioned: “Never underestimate how complex local government really is.”

He added: “There’s a whole host of all different management styles, and every single authority is trying to deal with different circumstances.

“My transformation agenda is shaped by that local context: the community aspect, the political aspect, and the geographical aspect.”

Mr Baker said this meant one element of transformation was a change to the role of councils themselves, rather than changes to the services they delivered.

“Our councillors are thinking that the council’s role is to be more of an advocate. The days when you used to be elected to deliver a service or build a sport centre, frankly, are gone, and it’s about advocacy, about partnership.”

Ms Gill agreed, and said the key to achieving this was developing an engaged community that can take more of a role in service delivery.

“We invested 5% of our budget in community development four years ago. If the county council is closing the library, you need to have that community infrastructure in place, otherwise it is not going to work. The Big Society does exist but just like business development it needs community development to work. The heart of our work has been about developing the market in terms of social enterprise. I don’t think transformation can be seen narrowly in the concept of services. It’s no longer about services - it is about enabling the community to engage and shape,” she said.

However, Mr Wain countered: “Can community development meet that gap? Can we meet the need through it?”

Julian Wain, independent consultant

Source: Post Photographic

Julian Wain, independent consultant

Ms Gill said: “In some cases we have no choice. Part of the advocacy the county council is doing is about getting people out of hospitals. The solution is that people are all going to be at home and using telecare, but how do you do that without the community development? Not everybody has their family around with someone at home, and without the community development you can’t just simply say their neighbours will help out.”

Mr Wain asked whether community engagement could be relied on in all areas: “In affluent villages, community development is relatively easy. In urban centres, particularly the more deprived urban centres across the country, I think it’s much harder.”

However, Ms Smith disagreed: “Is it harder or is it different? South Northamptonshire is an affluent area. Does that make it easy for community development? No. It actually makes it very difficult.”

Ms Smith said she was interested more in how transformation worked within the council itself. “I am really interested in how you get the collective - whether that be staff, members, unions, the community, stakeholders or all of the above - to go forward in a more innovative, and sometimes more risky way.

“Each time we get a little success we make a fuss over it. When I first did that in South Northamptonshire, people asked ‘why are we celebrating?’ But now they love it, and they like success. It is making them braver, they are looking for what they would have said were riskier options and they are taking them in a calculated way and the more they do that the more we get out of it.”

Mr Baker agreed that encouraging council staff to take calculated risks was central to transformation.

“Risk is putting so many people off the transformation agenda,” he said. “We should share our experience and learning of transformation more to encourage others and to help them to accept it.”

Stephen Baker, Suffolk Coastal and Waveney District Councils

Source: Post Photographic

Stephen Baker, chief executive, Suffolk Coastal and Waveney DCs

Mr Baker added that transformation could only move as quickly as elected members were willing to allow. “Are we getting to a stage where our service structures and officer structures are able to evolve to meet the transformation challenges, but our political structures are slowing that process up?

“I chair the Suffolk growth group, with senior representatives from all the councils, and they just work as a team to deliver growth, and then you get to the portfolio holders and it is an entirely different ballgame because they are representing their local electorate.”

Mr Halls added: “You know you could be more effective if there were more leaders, be they micro-leaders of the community or political leaders, who are really trying to change things. I just don’t understand why people don’t get either more inspired or irritated, or forced by circumstances to become transformational in themselves.”

Mr Wain said he had seen members who are keen to transform: “In both of the authorities where I was a senior officer members were prepared to do different things but that really does vary.”

Mr Baker said part of the objection to transformation he had seen was due to the language used to describe it. “I wonder if we are doing ourselves a disservice when we use dramatic terms like ‘transformation’,” he said.

“When you go to town or parish councils and say ‘we’re going to do some transformation’, does that scare them off a little bit? Perhaps we ought to be a little bit softer in that language.”

 

Technology is key

Civica group business development director Paul Bradbury believed technology and data are key parts of transformation.

“One of the things we’ve picked up is analytics and how you help politicians understand it. With analytics becoming increasingly important to inform service re-design and demand management, one of the things we’ve picked up on is the need to help politicians understand it,” he said.

Paul Bradbury, Civica

Source: Post Photographic

Paul Bradbury, group business development director, Civica

“We recently met a technology evangelist from a large retailer and he talked about what retailers would do. Technology is there for you to understand what your community is like now, in five years’ time and in 10 years’ time. If you have that insight and the ability to analyse it, how much could that improve your planning and your demand management?”

Mr Wain said he feared councils of all sizes are “data rich and analysis poor”.

Ms Gill agreed: “For many councils, information was what we collected because the Audit Commission told us to. We don’t want death by league tables and things like that, and that created a culture where we don’t have information and that trips us up.”

Ms Smith, however, said some authorities were using data successfully.

“We’ve just done a piece of work with two other councils looking at businesses. We asked businesses fairly simple questions around what they actually want from us, if anything. We were quite surprised at what came back. The majority of people who responded wanted us to do things. We are going to move into key account management for four businesses [providing a specific officer to liaise with the firms]. We have an awful lot of information on businesses in lots of different ways. We don’t join it up and we don’t treat them as customers as we
would do if we were in the private sector. We will do this by next year.”

Mr Baker pointed out there were differences in data use between the public and private sectors: “We work in a slightly different context to the big retailers, where it’s not so much that customers don’t trust them; [retailers] just don’t even ask [customers for information]. In the public sector there is that question, ‘why is the council asking me this?’”

Chris Ginnelly, Civica

Source: Post Photographic

Chris Ginnelly, managing director Civica

Mr Bradbury added: “People complain about what they tell the council but they will post something on social media that they wouldn’t tell their other halves at home. One of the biggest advantages districts and boroughs have got is the amount of information they have on their citizens and residents, and it’s about the analysis.”

Mr Halls said data analysis had proved useful and costeffective for his authority: “Two districts got together to look at the public sector interventions that adults with complex needs have. I asked a very simple question: what is the biggest trigger for expenditure? The answer is problems with accommodation. Actually having all this information about specific people meant you can do something about keeping them in accommodation - you can make a bigger intervention in people’s lives.”

 

Taking risks

Ms Wiggins asked the group how they could ensure that transformational mind-sets, including the willingness to take risks, spreads through their workforces.

Ms Deeks said: “The organisation has to encourage innovation and say, ‘come to us with ideas’, but equally importantly, it must be an organisation that doesn’t blame when things go wrong. If you’ve got those two things then transformation does permeate down through the organisation.”

Sue Smith, Cherwell District Council and South Northamptonshire Council

Source: Post Photographic

Sue Smith, Cherwell DC and South Northamptonshire Council

Ms Smith explained how her councils encouraged innovation from all staff levels: “We have a group of staff across three councils working in partnership. This is a group of staff who like to work in innovative ways. They self-select to go in that group and they are given time to attend it.

“They are working through ideas which have come out through that group. The ideas have got to have commercial potential. We’re now at a stage where they are doing pitches to a panel, very much Dragons’ Den-style. If they get approval, they get a package of support and then we’re going to work up two ideas in detail and we’ll then take them to market. It’s powerful; it’s infectious.”

 

This roundtable discussion was sponsored by Civica. The topic was agreed by LGC and Civica. The report was commissioned and edited by LGC. For more information, see LGCplus.com/Guidelines

 

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