Archive for June, 2015

Devolution – getting the best deal for Staffordshire

Monday, June 29th, 2015

Devolution seems to be occupying many people’s minds at the moment. I attended three events about it last week; two in Birmingham and one in Newcastle-under-Lyme. What’s clear is that we have to get the best deal for Staffordshire and its residents, focusing on growing the economy and getting better-paid jobs. Sometimes it’s useful to remind ourselves of this when somebody automatically defaults to discussions about new structures and governance. As Bill Clinton said during the 1992 US presidential election, “It’s about the economy, stupid”. We’re in an enviable location in the heart of the country, with very low unemployment, new businesses opening and existing ones expanding; we’ve got great opportunities internally and with neighbouring regions and cities, as well as internationally. Sometimes the debate is presented in a very polarised manner – you’re either in this structure or you’re out. Life’s not like that, and we would not be serving the people of Staffordshire if we allowed it to be so.

I had a good visit with Entrust on Monday afternoon. They have some excellent plans and are working hard to grow their business both inside and outside the county.

I was fortunate to be invited to the annual Fire Service MORE awards on Tuesday and to hear about some of the things that our nationally-leading fire service are doing. They have effectively got into the prevention business which means that they are being called to ever fewer fires. They are also keen to get more involved in the health and wellbeing efforts, which can only be a benefit.

Lastly for this week, Thursday afternoon was a fun event with the re-signing of the Armed Forces Covenant in County Buildings. It was very good to meet representatives from all three armed services who serve in the county, this time from the civilian side of the fence. Somebody had got hold of some British Forces Broadcasting Service footage from Germany, with an interview that I did in Bad Fallingbostel; it all seems a long time ago. That said, we have a great opportunity to welcome the two regiments of the Royal Signals into Stafford in a very practical manner in the coming months, encouraging them and their families to settle in the county, buying houses, spouses getting jobs, and children attending our schools. Life moves on, and in this case, for the better.

Attention to detail

Thursday, June 25th, 2015

I’m forming some emerging thoughts on Commissioning, and I think that we need to give it some attention.  I will admit that I am probably a bit obsessed about attention to detail, but it has stood me in good stead when things go wrong; they inevitably do when events get in the way of the best-laid plans. I’m also really keen on responsibility, and understanding exactly who holds it.  There have been times when I’ve heard, “We’ve commissioned that service” and then the speaker has been unable to answer any questions about how we’re ensuring that we’re getting value for money, or more importantly, how we’re ensuring that the service that is being delivered fits our requirements and expectations. More work here, I sense.

Lastly for this week, the question about devolution, and what it means for us in Staffordshire continues to occupy our thoughts. Last week, Tom Walker, the Director General from DCLG, visited the county, I had a sandwich lunch with him, David Frost, our LEP Chair, and John van der Laarschott, CE of Stoke City Council in Stoke Museum, surrounded by the finest ceramics collection in the world.  What was reassuring was to hear from him first hand, that it is all about economic development rather than political re-organisation; we would do well to remind ourselves of this as we proceed in the months ahead.

I also took some time to look at the Spitfire in the museum, a bit scruffy, but dry and complete. In this 75th anniversary of the Battle of Britain and the evacuation from Dunkirk, it reminds us that our current problems are all relative.


Inspirational visits

Monday, June 22nd, 2015

Last week was another round of visits, with Tuesday in South Staffordshire and Friday in Lichfield.  Did you know that there’s an award winning vineyard in Staffordshire?  I didn’t; Halfpenny Green Winery employs 45 people, and also provides a centre for crafts and other small businesses, only 4 miles from Wolverhampton.

The theme of the South Staffordshire visit was partnership working, with some excellent examples of people across the public and voluntary sectors working effectively together.  The session in Wombourne Library was particularly inspiring, in terms of integration and effective engagement with the voluntary organisations. That means structured conversations about what they’re doing for us, and how we’re getting value for public money.  The role of the Village Agents was something that I found particularly interesting, a real example of localities taking control of the services that are being delivered. Village Agents are local people, employed part time by the district council, who work with district and parish councillors to deliver projects on the ground.  We will probably develop some of these ideas in the work that we’re doing to integrate health and social care across the county.

Friday’s visit in Lichfield looked specifically at infrastructure projects and tourism. The bridge project over the West Coast Main Line is a great example of commissioning at its best – more about this later.  We’ve got Amey running the project with their prime contractor Galliford Try.  They removed the old bridge during the rail network shutdown on Christmas and Boxing Days, and have now progressed to the point where the abutments are complete; they’re almost ready to lift in the spans.  There are also opportunities for us to work with Lichfield District Council in terms of development, which will be win-wins for all concerned.

The visits this week, and indeed all of the others, have highlighted the role of the District Commissioning Leads.  They act as our eyes and ears in the districts and boroughs, and have established deep and effective relationships across their areas.  I wonder if we’re making enough of them.  I recognise their role from my previous military service as liaison officers.  An American general with whom I served used to say that if you can spare the officer that you send as an LO, you’re sending the wrong person – you should always send your best, and give them unrestricted access to the highest level.  Our relationships with the districts and boroughs are among our most important.  I sense that sometimes they have become quite transactional, with decisions viewed as shifting responsibilities around between us, rather than making a difference on the ground. We have to remind ourselves that we serve the same residents. Food for thought.


Learning and working

Monday, June 15th, 2015

It’s been a busy week, with much of it spent on the road around the county.  I’m still learning a huge amount about the organisation, and in particular the relationships that we have with partners.

The first half of the week has been dominated by the Health and Social Care challenge.  I met Wendy Saviour of NHS England and Mark Hackett of University Hospital North Midlands on Tuesday, followed by an excellent discussion in the Informal Cabinet on Wednesday. In essence, we need to be looking to do different things, as opposed to doing things differently.  The connections and complexities are bewildering, but there is a real appetite to tackle this challenge. We are now under remit to come back to the Cabinet with practical suggestions on how we make some of the ideas that were discussed through the week into reality.  Undoubtedly this is a theme that will continue to occupy our minds.

The Business Brief on Wednesday and the Induction Brief on Thursday were excellent opportunities for me to get some feedback from 2 key audiences – the wider leadership and new arrivals.  The WLT and OMT are key levels in the organisation; if we’re doing it properly, they’re taking the complexity and uncertainty of the strategic level, and translating it into clarity and simplicity for those delivering the services.  I’ve always found that new arrivals’ impressions are an important barometer of an organisation, as, once one has been somewhere for a few months, things that struck one as being wrong on arrival start to look normal.  The feedback, which was positive from both fora, was useful for me, and an opportunity to get across my messages on leadership, commissioning and responsibility.  I’d value any feedback from anybody who was there.

I visited Cannock on both Monday and Friday, firstly to see Tony McGovern, MD of Cannock Chase District Council, in his office, and then to spend the whole of Friday on a visit with Philip Atkins.  It’s a tough set of challenges; the sobering statistics come to life when you walk the ground and speak to the people delivering the services and the change, but there is a lot of positive things going on as well.  We saw everything from regeneration projects to primary schools to leisure centres and adult social care.  I was left with a profound impression of a long-term project which will require immense effort, but which is on the right track.

One of the more unusual activities was Monday evening when Janene Cox and I went to Lichfield Cathedral for the consultation on the appointment for the next Bishop of Lichfield.  Members of the public, the clergy and a spectrum of politicians and administration gathered to advise the Appointments Secretaries for the Prime Minister and the Archbishop of Canterbury on what qualities we would like to see in the next Bishop.

I had a hugely interesting meeting with Matthew Ellis, the Police and Crime Commissioner in his office on Thursday.  Given his previous experience with the county council, Matthew is working closely with us on a number of projects.

I suspect that this is one of those jobs where one never stops learning – I certainly hope so.

Meeting Chief Executives and shopping at Wickes

Friday, June 5th, 2015

I’m at the Association of County Chief Executives (ACCE) conference today, which is fascinating.  The good news is that we’re not alone in Staffordshire – all of the other counties have similar challenges, especially in making the health and social care system work effectively. The less good news is that there is no easy answer.

By the way, I’ve received my My Discounts card. If you haven’t yet got yours, you should get one soon. My experience with a similar scheme in the Army was not hugely positive, but this scheme has significant discounts in places where one might actually want to shop.  Next stop, Wickes!

Reflecting on last week’s visits to Stafford Borough and East Staffordshire, I found what many of our people are doing to be inspirational.  It also confirmed the enormous spectrum across the county, in terms of population and landscape.  I intend to continue to get out and about after these initial visits, as I’m learning much more by looking and listening than I would staring into my computer screen.

Thanks, incidentally, to the Trading Standards Team for taking me up on my request to tell me what you’re up to when I was walking about in SP1. I spent a really worthwhile few minutes learning about how we protect consumers and undertake vital animal health activities – it was a real education.


The Diversity of Staffordshire

Wednesday, June 3rd, 2015

Last Friday delivered one of those contrasts that one can only experience in a diverse organisation like Staffordshire County Council.  I started the day on Cannock Chase with the team that oversee the Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, and then spent the rest of the day with the social workers and support teams at the Springvale Centre in Cannock.

The AONB is a remarkable compromise between preserving the natural environment and making it available to as many people as possible.  The visitor numbers have risen 50% in only a few years, which is great, but adds to the conservation challenge.  It was an uplifting experience to meet the team, and by chance one of the volunteers who works with them and embodies our drive to support people to be active citizens.

Springvale was similarly inspirational, but for different reasons.  The challenges experienced by some people in some of our urban areas, as you know, run deep and have no easy solutions.  Listening to the young social workers about what they do, and how they do it, is something that I will not forget in a hurry.  One of the reasons that I do these visits is to get a feel for the job on the ground and find out if there are any ways that we can make people’s work easier and more productive. Sometimes change can be made quickly and there are a couple of practical solutions we can implement at Springvale, particularly with regard to our use of IT, which will take out some hurdles in what is already a very difficult job.

The Cabinet / SLT discussion on health and wellbeing on Tuesday was enormously useful.  Again, there is no single, simple solution to this: people living longer due to better healthcare is fundamentally a good thing, but brings obvious challenges in terms of the social care that many people need to support their old age. I find it useful to personalise this; my mother was the district midwife in the Gorbals in Glasgow in the mid-1950s, which is a sort of “Call the Midwife” with subtitles for non-Glaswegian speakers.  This generation is the one that won the Second World War for us, and rebuilt the country in the decades thereafter; we owe it to them to get this right.

I’ve been meeting the district and borough council Chief Executives in their offices across the county, and getting to hear their views. It’s not a surprise, but I’m struck at how diverse Staffordshire is, and how the challenges change in relatively short distances.  What keeps Tony Goodwin, the Chief Executive of Tamworth Borough Council, busy is completely different to what occupies Steve Winterflood, the Chief Executive of South Staffordshire District Council, on a daily basis.  What is common is their enthusiasm and commitment to making life better – we’re enormously lucky to have colleagues like them.

I’ve also been out and about on district visits in Stafford and Burton.  I’ll write more about them next week, but so far, it’s been fascinating.

I can’t believe that I’ve been in post for a month already – it’s flown by.  Have a good week.