Planning for a probably second wave

It won’t have escaped anybody’s attention that COVID infection rates are rising across the country, and in Staffordshire. We’re not in the formal level of government intervention, like our colleagues in Birmingham, Solihull and Sandwell, and in an increasing number of other urban centres across the North and Midlands, but it is a concerning situation. We heard a pretty stark warning from the Government’s chief scientific adviser this morning about the rise in case numbers, and the need for swift action to curb it. We need to get ready for what is likely to be a difficult winter.

I raise this, as we haven’t really had a period of respite since the onset of the initial outbreak in March. No sooner had the initial wave passed, than we got stuck into recovery planning, reopening society and the economy and getting our schools reopen. We now have to plan for a probable second wave, and all that entails, before we have a functioning vaccine which will, hopefully, put Covid-19 in the same place as other illnesses and diseases such as winter flu.

It is often said that unpleasant experiences are marathons, not sprints, but, in this case, that is a simplification – we won’t be running at the same rate at all times in the coming months. If there is a better athletic simile, it might be that it is more like a relay race.  There will be difficult days when we are working flat out, when we will need the support of friends, loved ones and colleagues. We’re used to that, and we’ve got a string of achievements behind us, of which we can be rightly proud. But there will also be days, or periods of days, when the pressure is off, and we have to learn to switch off when we can. If you will forgive me for drawing from my experience leading on military operations, one of the tricks to getting through is not to feel guilty about relaxing when the opportunity arises. The other aspect of a relay is that it requires teamwork; you must look out for your colleagues and friends, make time for yourselves, and take leave when you can.

I’ll admit that I’m not especially good at this – I find it hard to disengage – but I work at it, and will have to work at it harder in the coming weeks and months, because, like many colleagues, I’m tired, but we have to keep going. Let’s work on this together.

Covid-19, and inspiring trust and confidence

I couldn’t start off this week’s blog without a mention of the rising infection rate of Covid across the country, and particularly in Birmingham, Sandwell and Solihull, where they will enter into a form of local lockdown on Tuesday.  Our rate of infection is also rising in Staffordshire, and it is imperative that residents follow the national guidance of measures to avoid transmission of the virus; it’s the only viable method of saving us from falling into another lockdown.  With schools returning and the economy showing signs of recovery, we simply must get this right.

The failure of the national Test and Trace programme has been covered widely in the media; the result of the lack of laboratory capacity nationally has resulted in testing teams locally standing idle while residents are being offered tests in Aberdeen and other far flung places.  Rather than join the chorus of complaint shouting from the side-lines, we have done what we have done previously with Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), delivering food parcels and mobilising volunteers – we’ve produced our own solution.  Working with Stoke City Council, we will be forming up a local testing operation in Stoke, Burton and Stafford this week.  It’s a pilot at the moment, quite small in nature, but we will learn lessons from it and expand. Doing something in these circumstances always beats just talking about it.      

I hope that you will forgive me being a little reflective on leadership in this blog entry.  There are over 600 colleagues across the council who have a line management responsibility and every one of us experiences leadership in some way in our day to day. In my limited forays into social media – I only use LinkedIn – I’ve been struck by the conversations among leaders about being trusted, and it has set me thinking about this subject as we get used to how we are going to work in the future, the “New Normal”.  Having now led at senior levels in 2 very different sectors, I’m firmly of the belief that trust and confidence are relationships, like so much in life, rather than one-way qualities.  If I want my colleagues to trust me as a leader, I first have to trust them in their professional roles, and if I want them to be more confident, I first have to demonstrate confidence in them.  It’s a pretty simple theory to describe, but much harder to implement, particularly when you’re under pressure, where the tendency is to micromanage.  It’s going to be even harder as we evolve into the New Normal, as the old certainties of seeing somebody at work every day to reassure yourself that they’re doing the right things will reduce, and we will have to find new ways of establishing and maintaining those trust and confidence relationships.  If you are a line manager and haven’t yet looked at the learning and development support available as part of the new iManage programme, can I ask that you take some time to look at it?  I’d love to hear your ideas on how you achieve that trust and confidence relationship with your teams.

Getting back to the office

As we are opening up more and more of our buildings for colleagues to return as and when they need and want to, we have to acknowledge that our ways of working have changed out of all recognition in the past 6 months; we are adapting quickly to make the most of the opportunities.  Many of you will have heard me say that I’m very glad that we went down the Smart Working road some 4 years ago, but we’ve learned more in the past 6 months than we have in those previous 4 years.   I’m quite clear that we are not ordering people back to the office, but rather enabling safe environments for us to make the most of the new realities.  Fewer of us will come to the office for a desk and a computer, and more of us will come for specific activities, such as meetings which work better face to face than virtually. 

I was struck by conversations after a recent Business Brief that some colleagues in jobs that involve stressful interactions with clients and the public really miss the opportunity to sit with their teams and decompress.  As an intelligent, thinking organisation, we  are making that happen, and I seek your support in this endeavour.

We also recognise that our town centres rely on the footfall from office-based staff during the week. By providing a safe environment for more colleagues to return to workplaces, I hope an added benefit is that we can collectively support our local shops, eating places and other businesses, at a time when they really need our custom.

Elsewhere ,the county council is also adapting our HR policies to suit us as an organisation in the future.   We had an excellent briefing at SLT last week on re-thinking our HR policies.  I have personally always worked on the basis that I assume that everybody got up this morning wanting to do their best, and when that doesn’t happen, there are usually things that can be done to recover the situation with a bit of focussed leadership.  I was therefore delighted to listen to a briefing from Hannah Reade–Head of our Education HR Service which proposes “Freedom within a Framework”, reducing the number and complexity of our HR policies. The aim is to empower our people, accept that mistakes happen, that they are a sign of a learning and developing organisation, and the measure of success is that the same mistake isn’t made two or more times.     

Lastly this week, I couldn’t miss the opportunity to make a “plug” for the upcoming iManage workshops. In the coming weeks, managers will be asked to enrol on a series of workshops to give them the skills and confidence they need to have great conversations. It’s a conscious step-change in our approach to one-to-ones. I’m looking forward to the sessions and seeing you taking part.

Planning, Test and Trace, and VJ Day

The government’s proposals for changing the planning process to change the balance in favour of development has received a huge amount of attention this week.  Although we are not a planning authority in terms of housing, it is an area in which we have a strong interest, not least in providing the roads, schools etc. that developments require to make them sustainable communities.  The narrative from London is that councils are getting in the way of development, and I fear that local government’s response does not counter that view well.  We need to make the argument strongly that councils and councillors only reflect the wishes of their residents.  As a relatively recent arrival in local government, I would observe from my previous experience that difficult decisions become easier the further that you are from them; they are hardest to explain when looking the person that they affect in the eye.  I very much hope that we can retain the wishes and aspirations of residents in any new system. 

The national news on Test and Trace is that the system is developing and improving, which is encouraging, particularly as we prepare for the winter, and whatever that may bring.  There is a fear in the medical community that the combination of Covid-19 and a severe winter flu could overwhelm the health and care system, so we must prepare thoroughly.  From a local viewpoint, we have closed down the response to the outbreak at the Crown and Anchor pub in Stone after testing over 1,000 people and tracing 22 positive results, and we continue to manage the outbreak in Burton, which is thankfully experiencing reduced infection rates owing to our collective efforts.  I was told this week that Staffordshire leads the West Midlands in terms of testing rates, and our rapid responses to such outbreaks in Burton and Stone are being viewed as best practice. This early targeted response is much preferable to waiting for better information and having to impose localised lockdowns. 

I hope that you will forgive me for picking up on the 75th anniversary of VJ Day, the end of the Second World War in the Pacific, which falls on Saturday.  My late father was a Merchant Navy Officer in the Pacific in August 1945, and his view of humanity was shaped by the task of transporting starved former Prisoners of War back to Singapore after their release from Japanese captivity.  Whatever else we celebrate this week, let us renew our resolve to build that better world that their generation imagined in 1945. 

Outbreak control, and the county council’s new leader

The Burton-on-Trent Covid-19 outbreak continues to be our major focus in Test and Trace.  The key here has been to move early, adapt the tactics to suit the circumstances, and build and maintain consensus.  We have conducted testing in one of the mosques in Burton, which is a first, with over 360 people tested in one day.  We have also been engaging closely with the community; I am immensely grateful to Councillor Syed Hussein who has been pivotal in this effort, as well as to our other county council and borough council members, our Public Health team and NHS and East Staffordshire Borough Council partners.  I have said often that we are “learning by doing” in these activities, but it is pleasing to note that our assumption that building consensus is more important than powers issued by central government is being borne out in practice.    

More broadly on controlling outbreaks, the strategy of moving early and with confidence has been vindicated by the early shutting down of a potential outbreak at a Staffordshire farm late last week; the first case was identified on Tuesday; the team were on site to establish control and implement additional measures on the Wednesday; testing took place on the Thursday; and with results received on the Saturday, the outbreak was shut down.  Speaking this week to Clive Wright, the Regional Convenor for the Test and Trace programme, the difference between our outbreak and the Herefordshire vegetable farm where there are over 100 positive cases, and is still running, is about 48 hours. 

Away from Coronavirus, you will have seen the announcement that Staffordshire County Council has a new Leader in Councillor Alan White, who was voted in at a virtual Annual Council Meeting held on Microsoft Teams on Thursday.  This is another first in terms of our use of technology, and it went very well indeed; Members appeared to be enjoying the experience, and, from an interested observer’s viewpoint, the level of debate and engagement matched that which we see in the Council Chamber on a normal meeting.  We very much looking forward to working with Alan and his Cabinet on the recovery of Staffordshire’s economy and society from the Coronavirus pandemic. 

Helping schools and businesses to get back on track

The announcements this week that pubs will re-open on 4 July eclipsed all other news, it seems.  It is, of course, a hugely important signal that we are emerging from the lockdown of 3 months, and we are seeing a return to a form of normality that is encouraging.  Staffordshire schools have been welcoming eligible children back into their buildings since June 1, and their return has been made possible by our colleagues’ excellent efforts in building confidence in our parents, students and school staff.   The signals are that all children will return to school for the new school year in September, and we will continue our efforts as we have previously.

I was hugely encouraged by the positive reaction to a small scheme of offering PPE to Staffordshire microbusinesses.  Within the first 2 days, 300 of the 2000 small packs of gloves and masks had been dispatched.  Probably as useful as the “freebie” was that around 1,000 hits had been registered on our website to offer advice on where to get their own supplies and guidance on how and when to use it.  The prize is, rather like the efforts in our schools and care homes, to raise confidence in business owners and customers to get the economy going again.  It is in these relatively simple, but carefully thought-through measures, that we will serve the residents of Staffordshire most effectively.     

COVID in numbers

Today marks three months since Boris Johnson announced that the UK was going into lockdown. For me, it both feels like yesterday, and also a lifetime ago.  That is not unusual when one is working at pace in a stressful environment.  If you’ve not seen it yet, the COVID in numbers infographic gives just a snapshot of the scale of our response to date. £30m spent supporting care for our elderly and vulnerable residents, 1,400,000 pieces of PPE provided to protect workers in health and care, over 3,000 emergency food parcels delivered… the list goes on.  We must remember that this is primarily a human tragedy – in the past 3 months, over 700 people have lost their lives in Staffordshire, but thanks to your hard work, we have seen the number of deaths in the county continually fall in recent weeks and we are now seeing fewer deaths than we would expect to see at this time of year. As a result, our focus is now shifting to local outbreak control and working with the NHS Test and Trace team/Public Health England to prevent the spread of infection. This is a new responsibility and we’ll be submitting our plans to Government this week. So far, we’re thankful that we have not seen any outbreaks in the county, but we are ready to act when we are needed.

It’s a unique feature of this emergency that we are working on response and recovery at the same time. Many of you are now working hard to support our recovery and early plans were considered at Cabinet for each part of the organisation last week. Already we have seen recycling centres and country park car parks reopen and our schools welcome a wider number of children back to education. We’ve also launched our economic recovery strategy and outlined what we will do to support Staffordshire to get back to business. I know how much hard work has gone into making this happen.

We expect an announcement this week that social distancing will reduce to 1m from 2m, along with a raft of other measures designed to allow life to return to a greater degree of normality while staying safe.  Philip Atkins, Mark Winnington and I met with representatives of the leisure and hospitality sector and a number of our MPs on Friday to clarify what was needed to get these sectors working again.  It was not surprising that the 1m social distancing makes a huge difference to occupancy, just as it does in our offices and schools, but also that they need notice of any changes to implement them in time (beer takes 2 weeks to brew, after all) and they want clarity.  Although it is easy to criticise, particularly when one bears no responsibility for the outcomes, these decisions will weigh heavily on ministers and scientist advising the Government.  There is no perfect answer, but it feels like we can take the next steps towards a return to normality.   

I’ll leave you with one final thought.  This has been something the like of which none of us has previously experienced; I only half-jokingly tell former military colleagues that it’s been an odd mixture of the last five years in Staffordshire County Council and the previous 30 in the Army. The challenges and opportunities presented to us have been exciting and exhausting. It is vitally important that you look after yourself so that we can continue to support our communities to the best of our ability as we go forward. Make use of the support available to you through your colleagues, through Thinkwell, Mindkind and iLearn.  In the coming days, you’ll be invited to share your experiences and views in a short survey so that we can learn from them and emerge from the crisis as a stronger organisation.

iLearn, and making our workplace Covid safe

We have launched our new digital learning library. iLearn offers bite-sized content on topics including leadership and strategy, managing people and teams, and personal skills.  It has been designed to enhance our colleague learning offer and allow people to take their development into their own hands.  Having spent a little time on it, it’s much more intuitive than the GO platform, which is welcome. At the moment the content is generic and can support all areas of our business– I spent a few minutes looking at the smart working section, and learned a few things.  I have to say it is very good and well-presented.

Platforms like this rely on our active engagement and our responsibility to drive our own learning.

On the recent Business Brief, there was a very good question about whether Continuous Professional Development (CPD) was on the platform.  What you will find is a number of resources to help you develop your own personal development plan and ‘playlists’ or learning journeys to help develop specific skills such as ‘project management’.   Within the next 12 months we are looking to replace GO entirely with a new ‘Learning Experience Platform’ (LXP) which will support the development of our own content to support continuous professional development within all our job roles.

I’m getting used to one staircase for up and another for down in Staffordshire Place 1, but still catching myself out if I’m concentrating on other things.  As well await the ruling on social distancing, we are following the guidance of 2m as you would expect, and at the moment, there is no problem with capacity in our buildings.  Thanks to your efforts, and the amazing achievements of the ICT staff in not only maintaining and protecting our network, but in building its capacity, the vast majority of us as working from home, and overcoming the challenges.  Meanwhile, the Lifting Lockdown working group is continuing to ensure our workplaces and practices are in line with Government guidance, for those who cannot work from home. Today, we are releasing a safe workplace video to give colleagues an idea of what we have implemented and how we are progressing.  It’s worth a brief watch if you haven’t already. 

Moving into recovery, and Test and Trace

As we pivot our efforts into recovery, while remaining engaged in the response against Covid-19, Staffordshire County Council has launched a number of practical measures intended to help businesses to restart and for the economy to get going again.  It is notable that the central government response has yet to get beyond discussions, but then, in their defence, they are looking at very big programmes that will involve huge sums of money for capital projects.  Our job is to roll up our sleeves and get on with the practical things that will make the difference between success and failure for many thousands of small and medium enterprises in Staffordshire.  While we will continue to be engaged in the conversations and the big ideas, concepts as the Small Business Grant Scheme and the Staffordshire Start-Up Programme, launched last week, are where we can really make a difference. 

All of this has to take place while we are still responding to Covid-19.  As the infection rate reduces, there are some very finely-balanced decisions to be made, the most important of which is how to deal with isolated outbreaks.  The national Test and Trace has gone live, and in Staffordshire we have an Initial Operating Capability, which we will develop into a Full Operating Capability through June.  While it is easy to criticise aspects of this strategy, the truth is that nobody has done this before and we will be learning by doing, and from other countries which are ahead of us in the progress of the disease.  The key will be containing outbreaks with rapid testing, importantly with results getting to the individuals and decision-makers in a timely manner.  The really difficult part will come when localised lockdowns or quarantine are required, which will get harder as people get used to their new-found freedoms after long-term lockdown.  We will continue to refine this policy as we learn and as new techniques and technology become available.   

Lifting Lockdown, Microsoft Teams, and Online Coaching

I mentioned in my last entry that we had reached the peak of the outbreak, and were going to be running response and recovery concurrently for probably several months, which is an unusual approach in normal circumstances.  But as you will undoubtedly agree, we are not in normal circumstances, and we have to adapt to the situation around us.  I’ve been immensely impressed with the way that colleagues have stepped into the breach; my abiding memory from this episode will be the fortitude and energy that you have put into their roles, and the willingness that you have shown in adapting to new roles and realities.     

As we plan towards lifting lockdown, last week we sent initial guidance to WLT/OMT and to the wider workforce via The Knot, which is well worth a read.  The key thing is that we are not in a hurry to rush back to our offices; we’ve made our own luck, as an old friend and colleague used to put it, with our efforts in Smart Working, and we can afford to get it right.  You should continue with your current working arrangements until your manager gives you the information that you need; those of you who are working from home should keep doing so.

I take my hat off to the ICT team for their exceptional efforts in maintaining and protecting our network.  With my military background, you won’t be surprised of the importance that I attach to being able to communicate effectively as a means of effective leadership.  The impressive part is that Vic Falcus and his team have not only maintained and protected, but also improved, which is always a risk when engaged in a high intensity operation such as in which we are engaged.  We’ve implemented split tunnelling, which most will have missed, but you won’t have missed the effect that video conferencing got a lot clearer a few weeks ago.  You will however, notice the next change, as we try to move everybody out of Skype and into Teams.  This week, we’ll be starting to encourage colleagues to stop using Skype for Business and start using Microsoft Teams to stay connected. Teams is a much better tool in my opinion and is really easy to use. More info here if you are interested in this.

Lastly for this entry, we’re offering some online Coronavirus Coaching to colleagues to overcome challenges and be the best they can be – we’ve got a pool of internal coaches who are there to support. Coaching is a big part of us being ambitious, courageous and empowered in the workplace. A number of them have agreed to keep coaching remotely, as we continue to work through the coronavirus response and recovery. There are some brief details here, and we’ll be promoting the offer in the various internal updates this week.

Stay safe and well.