Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

Staffordshire in Tier 3 and the Spending Review

Monday, November 30th, 2020

The main news this week that Staffordshire and Stoke will be placed in Tier 3 when England exits the national lockdown on Wednesday has somewhat eclipsed the progress we’ve made in reducing infection levels across the city and county, a 25% reduction from the peak 10 days ago. The task in the next two weeks is to maintain this progress and make the reduction to Tier 2 at the next decision point a certainty. 

As well as maintaining residents’ compliance, which is a challenge the longer this emergency lasts, we are working to develop our local Test and Trace programme, using Lateral Flow Testing (LFT). This is the technology which gives results in 30 or so minutes, which allows us to move more quickly in pursuit of outbreaks. We have the freedom to create an end-to-end process from intelligence-led targeting of businesses, schools and communities, through testing, contact tracing and testing of contacts, to support and compulsion for those who have a positive diagnosis. We already have around 150 volunteers applying to be testers in our programme, and we will develop the tactics, techniques and procedures as we learn by doing. 

The other big news this week was the Chancellor’s Spending Review on Wednesday.  Obviously, we will have to wait for the full detail, but I’m cautiously optimistic, and happy with the result. For local government, it was a rollover from this financial year and a little bit more in some important areas; there’s a bit more for social care, the potholes fund continues, and there is a mechanism for recouping a proportion of lost council tax. This last piece is very important, given the economic impact on our residents of the pandemic.

Having been careful in our shepherding of resources over many years, and particularly throughout the pandemic, Staffordshire County Council is well-placed to lead the response and recovery for our residents, businesses and communities, and we can do so without having to make difficult and damaging cuts in our activities.  The advantage of this is that we can remain focused on our residents, complete the transformation programmes as planned and stick to our MTFS, safe in the knowledge that it’s working well.  As an old friend used to put it to me, we’ve made our own luck, and now is the time to make the most of it. 

iManage and leadership energies

Monday, November 23rd, 2020

I thought I might cover something other than Covid this week.  I was fortunate to meet virtually with a group of colleagues on the first workshop of the iManage programme.  You might recall that we agreed at an SLT and WLT session that each member would sponsor a group, and more importantly, take an active role in each of the activities.  I have to say that it was a welcome opportunity to listen to colleagues, discover a new approach to management, and do a little introspection.

Dave Tomkinson of AndPartnership introduced us to the concept of the four energies of leadership: physical, intellectual, emotional and spiritual.  In essence, these are qualities that we all possess in some quantity, and the proportions that we use dictate how we lead and interact with our peers.  The core of his teaching is that, although we have a natural level of these in each of us, we can dial them up and down to suit the situation, within the limits of our approach being credible and genuine.  It got me thinking about how my own approach had evolved over the years, in response to changing environments, the amassing of experience and the evolution of attitudes in society.  For example, a General pointed out to me about 15 years ago that my almost forensic, intellectual approach at that time could be intimidating to those working with me, so I consciously dialled it down. I also dialled down the physical energy and dialled up the emotional energy when I arrived in Staffordshire County Council, as I realised that I was working in a different environment, which needed a different approach. I find it interesting that the Armed Forces have, in the interim, done the same thing in response to the changes in society, with the Sergeant Major of the Armed Forces, Glenn Houghton, speaking openly about mental health; that simply would not have happened a decade ago, but it is very welcome.

The iManage sessions are a real opportunity for all of our managers, and I would really recommend that you make best use of them.  I’d welcome any reflections that you have had as a result of Dave’s sessions and the conversations that follow.

Covid vaccine, virtual events and the US election

Monday, November 16th, 2020

I write this entry in the second weekend of the second lockdown, and in the week that we learned that a vaccine for Covid has achieved 90% effectiveness.  The Prime Minister was absolutely right to be cautious in his optimism at the news, as we remain a long way from putting coronavirus behind us.  All that said, we are a step closer to the finish, and Staffordshire County Council is closely engaged in making any vaccination programme a reality for our residents. 

Meanwhile, we are continuing to operate as we have always done, but with so many more events now virtual than before.  This week saw the excellent Dignity in Care Awards take place virtually, with attendees contributing in the chat box, rather than face to face.  I’ve mentioned this event before, in that it is unusual – possibly unique – in celebrating professional as well as voluntary carers.  It has added another string to its bow by going online.  We also had an Informal Cabinet away-day to discuss the Medium Term Financial Strategy (MTFS), which was a hugely useful session in laying out and discussing our options for the years ahead.

Both of these events, and many others, such as the recent Practice Week for our Children’s Services, held entirely virtually, have demonstrated our ability to adapt and overcome these difficulties.  Regular readers will remember my analogy of the pendulum having swung from face to face to virtual, and that it will swing back to some degree; our task is to choose where it stops, making the best of all options.  I’ve asked the Digital Leadership Group to start to consider our preferred choices in the future. Some will return to face to face; some will offer hybrid choices; and some will remain online. Your views count – please let me, or a member of the Group, know what your thoughts are.

I couldn’t finish this entry without a mention of the elections in the United States.  I spent three years living there, and another three working in an American military environment, which taught me that the biggest mistake that Brits make with Americans is thinking that they’re Brits with funny accents.  It really is a different country, and this past fortnight has demonstrated that admirably.  I’m sure they will find a way through it, but the level of Covid infections, hospital admissions and deaths across the US must be a great concern to American public health professionals.   

Tackling coronavirus

Monday, November 9th, 2020

I’m writing this on a very unusual Remembrance Sunday, on the 4th day of the second lockdown.  Although this is a very unwelcome turn of events, it’s probably the only viable option given the rise in infection rates through October.  In Staffordshire, we have risen from below the national average to well above it, with outbreaks in a range of settings. The highest source of transmission though is in and between households – between families and friends. We continue to manage outbreaks down with our local version of Track and Trace, but there is really only one way to make a difference, and that is by changing our individual behaviour. Each and everyone one of us has the power to stop the spread of this virus by staying at home where we can, following the guidance around ‘hands, face and space’, isolating and getting tested if we have symptoms. We’ve got just under four weeks to get Staffordshire back on track.

Hopefully, the four-week lockdown will have the desired effect, but there is a real need to think beyond the New Year and work out what our long-term strategy is. One of the many differences with this lockdown is that the public are tired and stressed after eight months of Covid countermeasures, which have affected our lives and livelihoods.  Thankfully, in Staffordshire, we have always treated our residents with respect and trusted in their common sense.  This puts us in a better place in terms of maintaining the consensus that is required to get through what is already shaping up to be a difficult winter.   

What this means for us as colleagues in Staffordshire County Council is that we remain focussed on doing the best for our residents, while looking out for each other and ensuring that we remain well.  We will continue to work hard when we have to, but also take time to relax and decompress when we can.   

Coronavirus and Dignity in Care Awards

Monday, October 26th, 2020

The theme this week, in the Covid outbreak, is one of rising infection levels across the country; Staffordshire is not immune in this respect.  Stoke has moved into High Alert or Tier 2 on Friday.  In Staffordshire, infection levels are mostly lower, but nonetheless rising, and on the current trajectory it will be a question of when, rather than if, the county moves into High Alert too.  My aim, along with the whole of the county council, is to manage this transition in a planned manner, firstly through our ongoing discussions with government but more importantly by working with residents and partner organisations across the public and private sectors, to ensure that we strike the balance between control measures and keeping Staffordshire businesses and schools operating as well as is possible. 

Local test and trace arrangements are working well, which is the result of a great deal of detailed work by county council and NHS colleagues, but, we must remind ourselves that any test and trace effort contains the spread after infection has happened; as infection levels rise, the focus moves onto personal behaviours of hygiene, space and face coverings, which will have the greatest preventative effect on the spread of the virus.  Having made a great effort in the first wave to treat Staffordshire residents with respect and trust in their common sense, the fastest route out of Tier 2, if and when it happens, is for these efforts to be redoubled.

Adult Social Care providers bore the brunt of the first outbreak, and it was good this week to have an opportunity to speak to the care providers at one of their regular meetings with Health and Care colleagues.  My main messages were to says thanks, well done, and we will be with you in exactly the same way in the winter ahead.  We had some pretty dire predictions of infection levels and staff illness and absence in March and early April, which did not come to pass, principally because they and our colleagues put in some very targeted and effective measures which kept the show on the road; we are doing the same again to ensure that the winter passes safely. The virtual event worked well, with well over 150 attendees, which gives an indication of the size and complexity of the effort. 

I’m also delighted that we are continuing with the Dignity in Care Awards this year, also in a virtual format.  This is an excellent opportunity to recognise the efforts of carers across Staffordshire.  It is, I think, a unique enterprise, in that it gives equal attention to professional and voluntary carers, which, in my opinion is very important.  As we recover from the Covid pandemic, there is an opportunity to build upon the raised profile that care has as a profession and activity; events such as the Dignity in Care Awards offer a real platform to achieve that.    

Meeting teams, delivering for Staffordshire and MJ Awards

Monday, October 5th, 2020

I spent part of last week attending team meetings, either in person or using Microsoft Teams, and I thought that some of you might be interested in some feedback.  Firstly, I’m very grateful to the teams who were very welcoming, and allowed me to take about 20 minutes of their collaborative time.  I was hugely impressed and reassured by the robust morale which I perceived, and the upbeat nature of the conversations.  We are all working very hard, and many of us are struggling to find the boundaries between work and leisure – myself included – but there’s no doubt from the colleagues with whom I spoke, that we are all well aware of the importance of the work that we are doing, and of the positive results that we are achieving for the residents of Staffordshire. There is, however, a realisation that we’ve got another 6 months of this at least, and although some factors will be less pressing, because we’ve mastered them in the past 6 months, it will also be through a winter when we will undoubtedly have a flu season, and it will be getting colder and darker.

This morning SLT will discuss a paper on the piece of work that I trailed last week about moving capacity within the organisation to bolster those areas which are under increased pressure, rather like we did with the #iCount campaign in April.  It is a more deliberate, considered approach this time around, because of what we have learned, but also because we will be tackling this while all of our services are up and running.  I’m clear that all options are on the table in terms of increasing capacity where it is needed, including bringing in extra staff, and also taking some more risk by reducing in some carefully selected areas.  I’ll keep you posted on how this work progresses, and I would ask that you have a look at what is available under the #DoIt campaign, but hopefully you are reassured that I am completely focused on this as we enter winter.

Lastly, I’m delighted that we got three teams into the MJ Achievement Awards on Friday.  Sadly, I did not see it as I was with Gavin Williamson MP at the time.  Even more sadly, we did not manage to pick up any winners.  Whether in a normal year, where we would have had a face-to-face interview board, at which they could have seen the enthusiasm and the substance behind our entries, we would have done better, I couldn’t say.  But I am sure that the 3 teams – Provider Improvement Management Team in Adult Social Care, Staffordshire Warmer Homes in Public Health, and Highways – are representative of many excellent teams producing tangible results.  Without wishing to sound like a proud parent at a primary school sports day, you’re all winners!

Reaction to last week’s blog, and the introduction of We Talk

Monday, September 28th, 2020

I’m very grateful for the responses to last week’s blog entry, where I talked about how we are going to get through the next 6 months successfully.  You might also have seen the video which I did for The Knot on the same subject, following the Prime Minister’s announcements earlier in the week.  It seems that the message that we need to pace ourselves, working hard when we need to and taking leave when we can, looking out for each other and offering support when it is needed, struck a chord with many of you.  I’m going to be attending a number of team meetings, physically and virtually, over the coming weeks to listen to colleagues as well as to get my own feel for how the organisation is doing.  If you would like me to attend your meeting, please let me know. 

This coming week also sees the introduction of We Talk, the replacement for the My Performance Conversation (MPC).  I’ve mentioned it before, and it links strongly to the point above.  We Talk is our new approach to performance development, but it’s more than that, and in many ways, it’s a lot simpler as well.  It’s all about having good and meaningful conversations – conversations that build strong relationships, boost wellbeing and promote a positive working environment to deliver The Staffordshire Vision.  It reflects our values of an ambitious, courageous and empowered organisation.  If you can find a minute or two, there’s some really good material on the intranet, iLearn and iManage to help colleagues get to grips with the approach.  But my biggest ask is that we don’t over-complicate this; honest two-way conversations are what we’re looking for.  It’s as important for leaders to learn what their colleagues want from them, as it is for the led to learn what the leaders want. 

Planning for a probably second wave

Monday, September 21st, 2020

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

Monday, September 14th, 2020

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

Monday, September 7th, 2020

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.