Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

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.

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.