Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

Digitisation, and the Children’s Services Ofsted

Monday, February 11th, 2019

I’ve spent part of this weekend with the leadership and governors of Staffordshire University, where I am the Deputy Chair.  It’s a fascinating organisation, on a similar journey of modernisation to the County Council, and facing some interesting challenges.  I learn a lot from the sessions with them and from listening to the people involved, both staff and students. 

Like us, the university in on a digitisation journey, and probably ahead of us in many ways.  They have always been a leader in computer science, and Liz Barnes, the Vice Chancellor, has put huge emphasis on expanding this area, along with computer gaming and e-sports.  This last one was a fascinating example of moving quickly – it went from a concept to delivering the teaching to the first students in little over a year, making Staffs Uni one of the first in the world to offer a degree in e-sports.  We also move quickly in the County Council, but I sense that there was a little more acceptance that it would not be perfect before implementation, and I think that we could learn from that.  If the idea is right, one can keep a little capacity to making running amendments and adjustments as the idea develops.  As the famous French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre put it, “Better is the enemy of Good”. 

Lastly, many thanks and well done to everybody who has been involved in the OFSTED inspection of our Children’s Services over the past 2 weeks.  We will get the formal feedback in 2 weeks’ time, but the immediate debrief was a positive experience; much that was good and better was reflected to us, and those areas for improvement being known and understood.  I am hugely impressed by the inspirational manner in which everybody “turned to” and told their story to the inspection team – despite our being in the middle of a complex transformation process, everyone that they spoke to was positive about what they were doing and who they were doing it for.  People often talk glibly about leadership – as if it were the secret ingredient in a cake recipe to be added by those in the know – but there is real, quiet and effective leadership in our Children’s Service, built up over a long period.  I’m very proud of you, and a bit in admiration.

Capita’s Growth Conference, and the public/private sector

Monday, January 28th, 2019

I spoke at Capita’s Growth Conference on Monday in Manchester, which was a fascinating opportunity.  The company has gone through some turmoil in the past couple of years, along with most of the other outsourcing companies with whom local authorities and the wider public sector do business.  It matters to us in Staffordshire County Council because we have a Joint Venture with Capita in Entrust, delivering our education support services, along with some other capabilities.  We also have relationships with many other commercial partners, and they have been hit by the same issues.

Regular readers will remember my comments that we need a better narrative on our relationships with the private sector than the polarised pendulum swinging between “Public Good, Private Bad” and “Private Good, Public Bad”.  We are fortunate that we seem to have stopped the pendulum in Staffordshire at a point where we recognise that the public sector are better at some things and the private sector at others.  For instance, I would be amazed if any private sector company took on a complete children’s service, as the risks, both financially and reputationally, are almost unlimited.  On the other hand, where we only do things on a relatively small scale, such as our Waste to Energy plant at Four Ashes, it makes sense to engage a partner, such as Veolia, who focusses on this activity and does it many times across Europe – they can build expertise on a scale that we cannot. 

So it was good to listen to Jon Lewis and his team talk about the future direction of Capita, and it struck me that, under his leadership of just over a year, they have moved much more closely to the public sector in terms of social responsibility; I was struck by their Head of Sustainable Development talking about their values and standards – I wouldn’t have heard that 5 years ago.  At the same time, the best public sector organisations, and I would count SCC in that cohort, have become much capable commercially.  It means that the conversations that we are having are different, more informed and a meeting of like minds.  I would predict that the big outsourcing deals are a thing of the past, and we will be working with partners such as Capita on more distinct activities where they have the technical skills and scale that we do not.  It’s a new approach, and I, for one, regard it as a positive move.

The Stoke and Staffordshire LEP Annual Conference

Monday, January 21st, 2019

This week saw the annual conference of the Stoke and Staffordshire Local Enterprise Partnership, a combination of public and private sector leaders whose role it is to steer the Staffordshire economy.  Although there is much focus on the LEP Review and whether the current overlapping membership of our 4 southern districts with Birmingham will continue, the real task at hand is writing the Local Industrial Strategy.  This vital piece of work will dictate the level and direction of future central government funding that will replace European funding when we leave the EU – probably as importantly, and more so, is making our economy fit to face the challenges of the coming decade.  It is therefore worth taking some time to make sure that we get it right. 

As the famous American baseball player, Yogi Berra, stated, “Making predictions is difficult, especially about the future”.  The challenge therefore is to get it more right than wrong, as making no predictions, or assuming that current industries and businesses will continue as they are today, is not an option.  The economy of Staffordshire will inevitably change, and the pace of change is accelerating.  The world of work is changing – jobs which exist now will either cease to be, or will require people to adapt, and there will be jobs which we can only guess at now.  The dominant theme would appear to be digital, and speech by Alun Rogers, Vice Chair of the LEP, drove home that message.   We are probably on the right track in our work on Smart Staffordshire, with its focus on enabling people to operate effectively in the future digital world, whether at work, while learning or at leisure, but we certainly can’t afford to be complacent.

Senior Manager’s Conference, and a thank you to the Emergency Duty Team

Monday, January 14th, 2019

Continuing with my theme of renewal and energy in 2019, I was enormously grateful for the enthusiasm and engagement that our leadership demonstrated at this week’s Senior Managers’ Conference at Yarnfield.  The central theme was raising our eyes from the here and now and looking to where we want to go.  To use a motoring analogy, we’ve spent a lot of time under the bonnet in the past year, and now we need to get back into the driving seat and get moving. 

One of the highlights for me in 2018, which was one of the busiest years that I’ve ever experienced, was the increased engagement of the Wider Leadership Team in our thinking and planning.  We have created a level of understanding and knowledge across the organisation that allows us to become much more than a sum of the parts – we wouldn’t have achieved the results which we did in terms of the MTFS, the strategy, and the People Strategy to name but three, if we hadn’t had that engagement.  The Peer Challenge in September found great strengths in the knowledge levels and capability of our Members and Officers, and highlighted the WLT as a particular strength.  I want now to extend that into the Operational Management Team, the level below.  In simple terms, the WLT take the strategic idea from Cabinet and SLT and convert it into the tactical plans required for delivery – the OMT then deliver on those plans for the benefit of Staffordshire’s residents.  Thursday’s conference took a slightly novel form with much more conversation and feedback on 2019’s themes than in previous events, and heralds the first of a regular series of these events involving the OMT in landing our delivery plans.   I predict that this will have a similarly transformative effect.

And finally, I wanted to say a big ‘thank you’ to our Emergency Duty Service (EDS) team.  As you will have no doubt seen on the news, last Wednesday a lorry found to be harbouring 27 migrants was picked up by police on the M6.  Amongst the 27 were four children, so our Emergency Duty Service had to work quickly in tough circumstances to ensure we had everything in place to support these children.  Our EDS team do very difficult job, and this incident was particularly trying.  I wanted to say thanks for their professionalism and the speed in which they worked to ensure these children were getting the right support.

Happy New Year

Monday, January 7th, 2019

Firstly, can I wish you a happy, healthy and prosperous New Year.

I hope that you had an opportunity for some downtime with family and friends, and have returned refreshed.  I would also like to thank those of you who were on duty during the holiday period.  The nature of the services that we provide to the people of Staffordshire is such that we operate around the clock and through holidays.  I know that for some of our services, there is a paradox over Christmas that demand rises rather than falls; the weather can cause more problems on the roads, and for some families and individuals, the festive period can exacerbate the stresses of the rest of the year leading to problems in which we must become engaged.

Looking forward to the New Year, I’d like to share a thought with you that I have found useful in the past.  As we enter the New Year, cast your mind back to when you arrived in your present job, and remember the energy and enthusiasm that you had at that point.  Also, remind yourself of the objectives that you set yourself, and run a checklist on whether you have achieved them.  If you can, try to summon up some of that initial energy, and bring it to your efforts in 2019.

A meeting with MPs

Monday, December 10th, 2018

Philip Atkins and I spent part of Monday in Westminster for one of our regular catch-ups with the County’s MPs.  It’s always an interesting session, and, given the understandable preoccupation with Brexit in Parliament, it was a pleasant surprise that 6 of our 9 MPs attended in person, with the others represented by their constituency workers.  In slightly over an hour, we had a spirited and good-humoured conversation that covered pretty much everything that the County Council does for Staffordshire residents.

Of course, the question that we were all waiting to be answered is the final outcome of the Chancellor’s Autumn Statement, delayed until this week because of the Brexit debate.  This is frustrating, but we have had some clarity on at least 2 parts of the money question.  We will be getting an additional £8.89M for highway repair, a repeat of this year’s Adult Social Care grant of £3.5M specifically to ease winter pressures next year, and an additional £6.05M for social care more widely – children’s and adults’.  The main area of uncertainty is the awaited result of our Business Rates Retention Pilot, which would be probably the only money to come without any strings attached.  Of course, it’s all “one-year money” which means that we can’t plan beyond April 2020 with any certainty around it, but it is welcome nonetheless.

A lot of work is currently being done to ensure that we get best value for money, but we think that the conditions are reasonable and will allow us to achieve maximum effect.  If there is a downside, it is that there is little prospect of being able to roll back the MTFS measures which we have published, and we will have to implement what will be a difficult plan.  The extra money will undoubtedly make the implementation easier than it might otherwise have been.

In summary, we are fortunate in having the support of our MPs; they have lobbied strongly on our behalf throughout this difficult year.  Of course, they will be challenging and want us to solve issues for Staffordshire residents, just as our elected Members do, but they do understand the pressures under which we are operating.  Leaving Westminster and the atmosphere generated by the Brexit debate, I was very happy to be returning to the relative calm and sanity of Staffordshire.

Sometimes you have to count your blessings.

Health and social care integration, and our Industrial Strategy

Monday, December 3rd, 2018

It was a delight to get out of the office on Tuesday and visit an exemplar of integration in health and care at the Samuel Johnson Hospital in Lichfield.  Claire Wood, the matron, was our host as we listened to NHS employees and adult social care workers operating together in a highly effective manner.  In essence, they had heeded the advice of somebody whom I worked for many years ago, namely sometimes it is easier to ask for forgiveness than to ask for permission.  They had just got with working together, without worrying whether they worked for the NHS or the local authority.  Of course, there is no reason why they would have to ask for forgiveness, as they were doing the right things, but sometimes I think we worry about organisational structures too much.  The lesson for me is obvious; we all just need to concentrate on doing the right thing for our residents.

On a completely different track, I spent Thursday morning with members of the Local Enterprise Partnership – business people, academics, politicians and civil servants as well as local government officers –  working out what Staffordshire and Stoke’s Local Industrial Strategy will look like.  This is not merely an academic exercise; after Brexit, the EU funding to the county will stop and will be replaced by our proportion of the UK Shared Prosperity Fund.  Although the details are yet to be confirmed, it is almost certain that our share will be at least partly dictated by how compelling our strategy is.  It’s therefore worth us taking a lot of interest in it.

CCN Conference, Knowledge Exchange and Smart Staffordshire

Monday, November 26th, 2018

I attended the County Councils’ Network (CCN) Conference last week, and rounded it off with a day discussing Smart Cities with representatives from the UK, Germany and France.  The CCN event was refreshingly upbeat, given the challenges that we all are facing, with a real determination to get through.  This was my fourth CCN conference, and they seem to get better every year, with very engaged speakers and higher attendance.  Finances remain the number one issue, but there is just a sense that there is some light at the end of the tunnel.  We await the detail from the Autumn Statement, due on 6 December, but the extra money for social care and highways will certainly help – let’s hope that we are successful in getting a Business Rates Retention Pilot.

I attended a session with other county chief executives at which we agreed to form an online Knowledge Exchange in which we can exchange best practice.  We will lead the implementation from Staffordshire, and I am looking for a facility in which we can swap best practice and seek advice from other practitioners.  The Army started a very successful version during the operations in Afghanistan, which allowed units in theatre to share experiences and seek advice from a wider, but secure, community; the upshot was a much improved and rapid lessons learned process.  If we can achieve that, I would be delighted.

I’m very glad that we published our MTFS early, as it has allowed us to start the discussions with partners early.  There are, as we all are aware, some very difficult measures to implement in our plan, and we will need to bring people with us on what will, at times, be a hard journey.  The evening that Philip Atkins and I spent with the elected members of South Staffordshire District Council was enormously useful in setting the context and seeking their views.  We are discussing similar sessions with a number of other districts and boroughs, which is very encouraging.

Lastly, a footnote on Smart Staffordshire, our version of a smart city.  We appear to be up with the leaders of the pack in our thinking, and our offer is quite unusual, if not unique.  In essence, we are working towards producing as many of the advantages of smart living in a city, but in a mixed urban, suburban and rural setting.  My fellow delegates found our focus on people being enabled to live better lives in a digital world innovative and compelling; many still focus on the technology rather than the people who will use it.  There were some fascinating discussions, including one led by a German technologist who painted a very different and attractive version of retail in our high streets, which is possible now, but which is yet to be taken up.  Clearly, this is a rapidly moving area, and our role is to make it possible for residents and businesses.

Valuing our ex servicemen and women

Monday, November 5th, 2018

As we commemorate the 100th anniversary of the end of the First World War, in which the greatest number of British service personnel died in any of our wars and conflicts, it is fitting that we focus on those who did not come back. But I would like in this blog entry to ask you to think a little about those who came home from this, and other conflicts, and how they integrated back into society.

Staffordshire has a proud military heritage, and we should remember that our predecessors in 1918 spoke of making a country fit for heroes to live in. Just as we do now, they worked on building houses and providing jobs for the men and women who returned. I believe that this effort is as relevant today as it was in 1918; we must encourage young men and women to serve in our armed services, and, as importantly, make every effort to integrate them back into civilian society at the end of their service.

There is something about military service that brings people from all backgrounds together, and that is especially true of people who have experienced service in war and conflict. I am always surprised when I meet ex-service men and women who have been out of uniform for up to 70 years, at how they focus on their military service as one of the most important periods of their lives. There are a small proportion who are physically or mentally damaged by their service, but most of us emerge more confident and capable, ready to serve wider society just as we did in uniform.

With many of us now enjoying more than one career in our life time, I would encourage all employers to consider the huge rewards that having a ex-service person on their side and in their team could have.

Leading the Peer Challenge

Monday, October 29th, 2018

They say that a change is as good as a rest. I’m not sure, but last week certainly was a change for me, leading the Peer Challenge for Hertfordshire County Council.  There are considerable similarities to ourselves, a large 2-tier authority with a stable political and officer leadership, but there were also differences, not least that they have some of the highest house prices in the country, whereas we have some of the most affordable housing nationally.  That brings advantages for them in terms of council tax income, but challenges for their care market in terms of finding workers.

Having had our own Peer Challenge last month, which you will be aware went well with some very useful advice and suggestions.  It was fascinating to be on the other side of the exercise.  John Wood, their CE is retiring, and has been a very steady hand on the tiller for his 6 years in the role.  He is the originator of the expression, “our job in local government is to do boring well”, and it was clear that his attention to detail and his calm leadership have put Hertfordshire in a good place, and one which the new Leader and CE will be able to develop strongly.  We had some fascinating conversations about getting the balance between “down and in” – running the business – and “up and out” – shaping the place.  Hertfordshire has many similarities with Staffordshire in that respect; we both have some noisy neighbours as one director put it to me, but we are quietly competent.  It is a question of striking that balance, and we should just check that we are getting it right from time to time.