Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

The importance of #DoingOurBit

Monday, June 17th, 2019

You will hopefully have picked up the launch of #DoingOurBit. This is an honest conversation with residents about Staffordshire County Council helping people to help themselves, with the honesty around what we will now be enabling as opposed to doing, as we might have in the past.  It’s about the county council and residents working together for a better Staffordshire, but in a different way.  Part of this has been collating the countless things that our officers are already doing in their communities, and the presentation by the Destination Innovation group to Informal Cabinet on Wednesday was a real eye-opener.  This group of colleagues are taking an innovative approach to what many companies and organisations call Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), with the unique selling point being that it is about using our professional and organisational skills in our voluntary activities.  The first results suggest that we are engaged very firmly in our communities and groups – many of our colleagues play indispensable roles.  Given that 80% of us are Staffordshire residents, it should be no great surprise, but it’s clear that we are already invested in the project, and #DoingOurBit is as much about turning up the volume as it is something completely new.  I urge everyone to go to http://doingourbit.info  to find out more, and to explore the ideas for small things that everyone can do to help themselves, their family and their community.  Small things really do make a difference.

On Thursday morning, I was invited to speak to the Staffordshire University Staff Research Conference, which was a fascinating event.  Staffordshire University is on a rising curve under a group of excellent people, led by Professor Liz Barnes, whose well-deserved award of a CBE I mentioned last week.  Research is, in many ways, the glue that holds a university together.  It provides the answers to many problems in society, but it also forms the reputation of a university, and gives pride to students and staff.  The big names and projects are often associated with the larger universities, but it was a real pleasure to listen to some of the excellent work being undertaken at Staffordshire University under the direction of Dr Tim Horne, the University’s Director of Research.   

Lastly this week, I attended the Association of County Chief Executives (ACCE) Spring Seminar in Nottingham.  It was a great pleasure to gather with about 30 colleagues from across the country and discuss the big issues in local government as they affect England’s counties.  Although money and finance is never far from the agenda, the big themes this year are the pressures on children’s services and SEND, and the potential of digital to disrupt and improve what we do and how we do it.  After some very good presentations and discussions, it was crystal clear that we are all facing the same issues and challenges and that we need to work more closely together.  The closer links with the County Councils Network (CCN) allows a more effective mechanism for sharing best practice and the costs of innovative solutions.  Staffordshire County Council are engaged in this work, and we will be driving it forward in the coming weeks and months.       

Queens birthday honours, and a Peer Challenge

Monday, June 10th, 2019

I was delighted to see our colleague Sue Ball awarded an MBE in the Queen’s Birthday Honours. Sue has worked in our library service for more than 30 years. She oversaw the recent moves to new premises at Stafford and Newcastle, and is currently responsible for our strategy and policy. As past chair of the National Association of Senior Children’s and Education Libraries, she was instrumental in developing national approaches to helping expectant parents and tackling childhood obesity. So this recognition is richly deserved.

It was also a great pleasure to read that Professor Liz Barnes, Vice-Chancellor of Staffordshire University has been awarded a CBE Liz has been in post slightly over 3 years, and has achieved a huge amount in a short time, establishing Staffordshire University as a forward-thinking and dynamic institution; this is reflected not only in this award, but also in the consistent climb every year in all of the university league tables.  You may have also seen the aptly named Jean and Bill Foster in the news, awarded MBEs after fostering more than 100 Staffordshire children over the last four decades.

I also want to thank everyone who played their part in making yesterday’s Ironman 70.3 Staffordshire another resounding success. It really is a day when we can showcase our wonderful county to a global audience and many of you play a part every year, either in your day job, by volunteering, or of course, taking part.

I’ve spent the last week leading the Local Government Association (LGA) Corporate Peer Challenge for Nottinghamshire County Council.  Many of you will have been involved in ours last September, and this is now the 4th that I have done, 3 as the team leader.  I have to state that I think that it is a very good system; a team of politicians and officers are drawn from similar councils across the country and facilitated by a permanent LGA senior officer.  This strikes the balance between the risks of having professional inspectors who inevitably become out of touch with what is happening on the ground, and keeping a constant standard across all peer challenges.  In essence, we start with an empathy for the council and understand the issues that they are facing, because we are facing the same things at home, but we have a guide to ensure that we follow the process and produce consistent results. 

Nottinghamshire is probably the closest peer to Staffordshire in the country.  They are a 2-tier authority covering 800 square miles with 817,000 inhabitants and a core city of Nottingham surrounded by the county; we are 1000 square miles with 871,000 and Stoke instead of the county town as the unitary council.  They are doing some really interesting things, and I have come home with at least 3 ideas that I’m going to investigate for Staffordshire.  There are also some significant areas in which we could cooperate, such as digital, where they are copying our MyStaffs app, and we could learn from their digital integration of NHS health and council care records. 

Perhaps most interestingly for those who follow local government closely, is Nottinghamshire’s decision to return to the committee system in 2012, leaving the cabinet system which we have in Staffordshire.  In a council where political control is more finely balanced than it has been in Staffordshire, there are logical reasons for this decision, and the team, all of whom came from cabinet-run authorities, took a genuinely agnostic approach the issues.  What came out was perhaps not surprising; both systems work, and it is the “how” rather than the “what” that is important.  We made some recommendations on how they might use digital means such as Microsoft Teams to speed up the production of papers for their committees, and hopefully it was a useful experience for all involved.

The county’s role in planning new homes

Tuesday, May 28th, 2019

We had a visit last week from a couple of senior people from Homes England (HE), the government body which is charged with raising the number of houses being built from a historic low to levels not seen since the 1960s.  It is a daunting task, and our part in it is becoming increasingly clear.  For those with longer memories in SCC, you will remember the Homes and Communities Agency, HE’s predecessor. Some of you may remember that county councils had a formal role in planning through such devices as the structure plan.  Whilst the structure plan no longer exists, we are working with Staffordshire’s districts and boroughs to produce a Strategic Infrastructure Plan, which will create the framework into which individual developments will fit.  We have been doing this in an informal manner in the past, but, with the Council’s new strategy coming into effect last year, we have assumed a more hands-on approach.  I had a look at an early draft this week, and it’s very good.

The feedback from the HE representatives was very positive.  If Staffordshire was a listed company with shares, analysts would be rating us a “buy”.  We have a great location in the centre of the country, with a thriving economy and physical and digital connectivity of which most areas can only dream, yet our property prices are low and incomes are around the national average, which means that Staffordshire residents have more disposable income and a good quality of life.  We cannot allow ourselves to be complacent, and the aim is to build on that attractiveness with developments that meet the future housing need.  As such, we are looking at options for young and old, and energy-efficient developments for the increasingly discerning “green” customer.    

It is an exciting time to be in this area, and the next steps include an invitation to present our plans to the HE Board.  If we get this right, it will not only raise Staffordshire’s profile, but it will free up some government funding to unlock developments that work for all.

If you want to hear more from Mark Parkinson, who has developed our Strategic Infrastructure Plan, you can watch him at the recent Business Brief here.

The benefits of ‘Thinking Outside the Box’

Monday, May 20th, 2019

After a week off, it was straight back into it this week, but in a good way.  This week also marks my 4th anniversary in this appointment, which, as well as being an opportunity to reflect, makes this the longest job that I’ve ever done.  In the military, although you stay with the same employer, you never stay longer than 3 years in any one appointment, and usually a lot less.  Looking back on it, I think that they might be missing something, as I now see many of the things that we started in my early days coming to fruition – our renewed focus on delivery, strategy linked more strongly to tactics, a people strategy in place and digital and smart working taking hold.  I’m enormously grateful to all members and colleagues. 

A really good example of linking strategy to tactics came to my attention this week from Alison Hasdell of the Care Market Development Team (CMDT).  Providing Home Care for some of Staffordshire’s most vulnerable residents is one of our most important tasks, and one of the most difficult.  The profession has suffered from a poor reputation as a career, with 40% staff turnover annually, poor morale and the consequent fragility of providers; you simply can’t run an organisation effectively if you’re recruiting, training and exiting close to half your staff every year.  The CMDT have launched a Health & Social Care sector membership package for Staffordshire Care Providers in association with the Staffordshire Chamber of Commerce. This is the first health & social care package developed specifically for businesses in this sector nationally. It offers care providers access to a range of support, guidance and networking to help grow and sustain successful care businesses, drawing on the advice and support of other dynamic Staffordshire business leaders.

We are really proud that the team has forged a partnership with Staffordshire Chamber of Commerce to help Staffordshire care providers recruit and retain staff.   For me, this is a practical example of our people “thinking outside the box”; it involves a bit more effort now, but it will reap benefits in the future. If it is successful in Staffordshire, it could, and indeed should, be rolled out nationwide.

Could you mentor a looked-after child?

Monday, April 29th, 2019

This week, I caught up with the young man whom I’m mentoring as part of our initiative to give our Looked-After Children a good start in life.  He’s in his first year at Welbeck, the Army’s Sixth Form College, and is doing very well – 4 A-S Levels this year and 3 A Levels next year.  Having passed the Army Officer Selection Board last year, he is looking forward and choosing his university and subject.  It’s hugely rewarding to hear and see close up what our efforts as corporate parents can achieve, and just occasionally offer some advice.  It was also a great pleasure by coincidence in the same café at the same time to meet the young lady whom Deborah Ramsdale is mentoring, who is in her final year at university. 

The reason for mentioning this scheme is that we are expanding it and looking for more colleagues to act as mentors.  It is not an onerous task – I meet my mentee every month or two for an hour, and we exchange the occasional email.  What you can offer is a different perspective, particularly from your professional and personal experience, which might just make the difference to a young person and allow them to reach their full potential.  If you’re interested, please contact Sarah Rivers, the Virtual Head of our School for Looked-After Children, who will give you more details.  In all honesty, it’s probably the single most rewarding thing that I’ve done in this job. 

Update from the Senior Managers’ Conference

Monday, April 15th, 2019

This week saw the second in our revamped Senior Managers’ Conferences—many thanks to Sarah James and the Comms Team for putting on such a good event.  Our big idea is really very simple – to connect the council’s strategy securely to the tactics that every one of us are undertaking in our everyday work.  Operational managers have a vital role in this; whereas the wider leadership team work out from the strategy what we’re going to do, operational managers are the ones to figure out how we’re going to achieve it.

The conference went really well—we focussed on our New Council Offer and the People Strategy, issues that you will learn more about in the coming weeks and months.  These afternoons are more than just a day out of the office, in that we will use digital means such as Microsoft Teams and Skype to continue the work and draw upon the deep well of knowledge and goodwill from everyone in the organisation.  On the New Council Offer, I was impressed by how people were up for the challenges of getting citizens, groups and communities to “Do Our Bit,” and I know that many people around the organisation will be just as enthused.  There is clearly more to do, but I left feeling energised.

On the People Strategy, there was a real feeling that we have to demonstrate progress quickly.  Having listened to a large number of colleagues, and noticed myself, we have a number of processes and procedures which do not make sense.  They probably were perfectly sensible when they were brought in, but if we want to be a more confident and agile organisation operating in a smart way in a digital world, we need to challenge them, and get rid of as many as possible.  This will require us to step outside of the normal comfort zone, but it’s about building trust and confidence with our colleagues. 

Clearly there are some exciting and challenging times ahead, and I’d like as many of you as possible to take every opportunity to get involved.

Supporting children with special educational needs

Monday, April 8th, 2019

I spent Monday afternoon taking part in the Minister for Children and Families Roundtable in London.  Nadhim Zahawi MP chairs a group of civil servants and local authority chief executives who advise him on the best options for Government policy towards children’s services. 

I consider myself very fortunate to be include in this grouping, given that I do not have a professional background in the area, but I have been more vocal than previously in my view that very often the narrative around children’s services is negative. This not only impacts on team morale, but also on recruitment and retention.  We are fortunate in Staffordshire that as an authority, our teams are well supported both by their senior leaders and political leaders. Across the country this is not always the case. 

We talked for much of the session about Special Educational Needs and Disability (SEND). The Children’s and Families’ Act of 2014 set out an aspiration to consider education, health and care needs in a joined-up way, but many local authorities have struggled to make the theory work in practice. 

This is exacerbated by the way support for children with special educational needs and disabilities in schools is funded and recognised as part of the school inspection regime. Currently, head teachers fund the first £6000 towards the cost of supporting a child with special educational needs and disabilities from their school budget. OFSTED inspections focus heavily on attainment, not inclusion or progress as a measure of success. This means that when school budgets are tight, they face difficult decisions with regards to the balance of support they provide to pupils with and without additional needs.

If our societal aim is to support people with special educational needs and disabilities to enjoy fulfilling and independent lives, we need people to recognise the positive contribution they make to our schools, communities and workplaces, as well as understand the challenges they face. For example, GCHQ has recognised that people with autism are very effective in the complex role of code-breaking, and actively recruit them.  But for this to work well, they need colleagues and bosses who are familiar with the attributes of people on the autistic spectrum. Some of this can come from formal training, but the foundation of this kind of understanding comes from breaking down barriers and children with mixed abilities growing up and learning together at school.  The Minister recognises this, and is currently reviewing the OFSTED inspection regime to ensure that inclusion and progress are as much a measure of success as overall attainment and exam results. Overall, it was a fascinating afternoon with people who really want to make a difference.    

Care Leavers’ Offer and officers visit from Royal College of Defence Studies

Monday, March 18th, 2019

Along with the normal events that keep us all busy, this week has seen two interesting visits to Staffordshire County Council that I thought might interest readers:

On Friday morning, Mark Riddell visited us to discuss the Care Leavers’ Offer, the work that we undertake with our looked-after children to ensure that they enjoy as fulfilling careers and lives as possible after they leave school, college and university.  We now have a responsibility that goes out to a young person’s 25th birthday, which reflects more closely the realities of parenting; most young people turn to their parents for advice and help throughout their young adult lives, if not longer, and as corporate parents to our care leavers, we do the same, with the possible exception of doing their laundry on return from college or university.  

Mark is a fascinating person, a care leaver himself, who led the care leavers’ programme in Trafford in Greater Manchester, and was exceptional in achieving the first “Outstanding” grading from Ofsted for his efforts; his passion for the subject is evident, and I was impressed that he talked in stories to illustrate his points rather than reciting statistics – very effective and compelling.  He now works for Central Government to improve the outcomes for care leavers across the country and is visiting councils to learn what we are doing, and what we could learn from his experience.   The question to which he always returns is: “Is it good enough for your own child?” It is a simple and effective test.  I certainly learned something in how we might present our offer to our children so that it makes more sense to them, rather than as council document, and I think that he was impressed with the mentoring scheme run by Sarah Rivers, the Head of our Virtual School for Looked After Children

On Thursday afternoon, we had a visit from 15 senior military officers from the Royal College of Defence Studies (RCDS), who are in the middle of their “How Britain Works” term.  The team was highly international, everything from a Mexican Admiral to an Indian Brigadier and Albanian Colonel, and probably some of the sharpest military strategic brains on the planet.  We therefore decided to put them to work, rather than giving them a lecture, setting them the task of coming up with solutions to two of our greatest challenges: how do we raise aspiration across Staffordshire, and how do we combat isolation?  Kerry Dove from our Strategy Team led on aspiration and Vicky Rowley from Public Health on isolation, with pithy briefings and round table discussions that would not have been out of place at any military staff college.  The international perspectives were fascinating, with the parallels drawn by the female Kenyan senior civil servant between what they have done to raise aspiration in Kenya and what we might think about, striking a real chord with me.  I don’t think that we have solved the problems, but I think that we all left the session with a greater appreciation of the issues and some ideas to follow up on.    

Leadership and maximising our canal network

Monday, February 25th, 2019

With many colleagues taking some well-earned leave with their families during the half-term week, it was an opportunity to catch up in the office and more widely. Making the most of it, I spent a very enjoyable couple of hours with Adnan Saif and Simon Pepprill of the Canal and River Trust at Stone. We chose to meet at Stone deliberately; it is known as Canal Town, and it was a pleasure to conduct our discussion in the sunshine, walking along the towpath of the Trent and Mersey Canal. We probably don’t make enough of our canal network in Staffordshire, and it was good to be reminded that we have more than any other county in terms of navigable canals, at 265km. Many of our colleagues work closely with the trust on improving the network, particularly in developing the towpaths as cycle paths. There is however, more that we could and probably should do to help the Trust to develop their potential. There is a clear alignment in their volunteering strategy with People Helping People, and there is probably something around reducing isolation and improving physical and mental wellbeing on which we could work together.

On a completely different track, I have been following, and occasionally contributing to a debate on LinkedIn around leadership, and more especially the applicability of military leadership to a civilian setting. Four years after hanging up my uniform full-time, I now feel qualified to comment from a position of experience in both places. The bottom line is hardly surprising; soldiers and civilians want the same things from their leaders – clarity, consistency and trust. Having started in a part of the Army where the soldiers were highly qualified mechanics and technicians, I learned very early on that everybody wanted to do the best job possible, that I would never know as much as the people that I was leading about their specialisms, and that my job was to solve the problems that prevented them from being more effective. The motto of the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, “Serve to Lead” is deliberately simple and in English to ensure that it can be understood by every cadet under training. The concept of Servant Leadership is controversial in some areas – the leader in the role of servant to those whom they lead – but it works for me. I’d value your thoughts.

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.