Archive for November, 2015

Using our time well

Friday, November 27th, 2015

It’s been another very busy week, but it’s got me thinking more about our time and diary management.  I am finding myself too often running between appointments, starting late, and then occupying the full allocated time, leaving no time either for doing anything in between or even for moving between appointments and meetings.  Speaking to members of Cabinet, SLT and WLT, I find that I’m not alone.  Slightly disturbingly, this is often excused as the way it’s always been.  Put bluntly, I’ve never done it before, and I don’t intend to start now; it’s not the sign of a professional or well-mannered organisation, and if you’re one of the people who has had to wait for me to arrive for a meeting, please accept my apologies.  After a couple of months in post, I tried to reduce hour-long meetings to 45 minutes, but I found that people assumed that, if they had an hour of my time, that meant 60 minutes.  Indeed, I had to persuade one person this week to walk to the exit of the building with me to persuade him that our meeting was over.

We are very busy, and this is a particularly busy time of year, but that is no excuse for poor time-keeping or diary management.  For my own part, I’m reinstituting my 45 minutes for an hour’s meeting rule, and will be a little more critical in my own diary management.  I would ask that you do the same and ask yourself “Is this meeting really necessary?”.  I guarantee that the organisation will run better if we do.

We are proudly a Member-led authority, and I have often used this blog to extol this as a virtue.  There have, in the last couple of months, been a few instances where we could have kept Members better informed of what is happening in their Divisions.  I appreciate that this takes a bit more time, and sometimes Members will ask awkward questions, but it is worth it.  Whatever the subject, having the local Member onside and properly informed will pay dividends, particularly if the decision is in any way controversial.  As we head into a period when we will be making ever more difficult decisions, we simply can’t afford not to.

The meeting in Leek on Thursday of the Stoke and Staffordshire Council Leaders and Chief Executives moved the devolution agenda a long way forward.   We now enjoy a clear political  consensus across the city and county that we wish to advance simultaneously on 3 fronts: economy, skills and health.  The political consensus that we have built has concentrated – I believe rightly – on the “why” and the “what”, without getting bogged down in the “how” of governance.  The meeting confirmed the “why” and the outline of the “what”.  Before the next meeting in mid-February, we, the council officers of county, city, borough and district, are tasked with fleshing out the “what” and getting into the “how” where required.  It’s a real opportunity that we must not miss.  If you’re involved in these workstreams, do please give them the time and effort that they require.

Great Place to Live

Monday, November 23rd, 2015

This week started early, on Sunday, with the beginning of the County Councils’ Network, which, as the name implies, is a membership organisation that represents English County Councils.  It took place in Guildford, a town that I knew well about 25 years ago when I was on the teaching staff at Sandhurst.  There was a lot to discuss, with the Spending Review, and with all councils facing similar financial pressures, particularly around funding adult social care.  There were some interesting presentations giving some useful ideas and best practice, but the one that I’d share with you was something unusual.  A group of young people, including a police sergeant, a graduate student and a former looked-after child now working in the voluntary sector, were asked to voice their concerns for the future – all of them cited fear of never owning a property, even the relatively well-paid police officer.  It made me think that, while we may look to aspects of counties like Surrey with envy, our young professionals in Staffordshire can at least afford to get on the property ladder.

I spent 2 days interviewing for the Director Health and Care appointment that came out of the reorganisation that I mentioned in previous posts.  I won’t go into any detail here, as the process still has some way to run, but I can tell you that the quality of the candidates was, without exception, excellent.  We will, without doubt, get somebody who will provide the leadership that is needed in this vital area.

Talking of social care, Alan White and I spent part of Thursday morning with some 250 social workers and occupational therapists at Stoke City’s stadium.  Helen Coombes had brought them all together for the first ever Social Care Workforce Summit, and we were delighted to have Lyn Romeo, the UK’s lead social worker, with us.  She spoke to the group with passion and energy, and took questions from the audience.  This undervalued profession needs all of our support, as the pressure of an ageing population increases.  As always, I learned a lot from listening to the discussions at the tables, and hopefully will be able to resolve at least one of the problems that we discussed.

Friday evening was the annual Connect Awards ceremony, at Staffordshire University.  It was great to see all of the nominated colleagues, and those who had written them up, during the evening.  It is so important to say thank you and well done – in a busy and sometimes stressful work schedule, it is too easy to forget the things, and concentrate on solving the latest problem.  I really enjoyed reading the 100+ citations for the awards, as it made me think about what we’re doing as an organisation.  I would repeat what I said at the event – take time to say well done and thank you, not only to those who work for you, but also to your colleagues, and perhaps surprisingly, to your boss where appropriate. A bit of 360 degree appraisal is always useful, and it helps enormously to have honest conversations with your boss when things are going well, as well as when they could be improved.

Lastly, this week will see the Chancellor’s Autumn Statement, when we will get some indication of the scale of the challenge for the next few years.  We will probably not get the detail until just before Christmas, but we’ll know the main headings this time next week.

Partnership and solidarity

Monday, November 16th, 2015

The challenges of Health have run through this week like lettering on a stick of seaside rock.  We are in the process of recruiting a Director for Health and Care, sifting through the 30+ applications that we have received.  It’s really important that we get the right person for this job; she or he will lead our efforts to integrate adult social care with healthcare in the coming years.  Meanwhile, our Senior Leadership Team had a full discussion on the subject, and I visited the Staffordshire and Stoke-on-Trent NHS Partnership Trust team in Tamworth.  It was fascinating to meet the mixed team of nurses, social workers and occupational therapists who plan the care that we commission for our residents. There are no easy answers, but we’ve got the right people working on the solutions.  One aspect that comes up time and again is the need to integrate adult social care and the efforts of the voluntary sector more effectively.  That will be the challenge for the next iteration of our voluntary infrastructure contract, which we’ll renew next year.

Devolution made the agenda again the week with Philip Atkins and I attending a meeting of East Staffordshire Borough Council members in their historic council chamber in Burton-upon-Trent. It is very helpful that the discussions on this subject are focussed on what is good for the residents of Staffordshire, rather than on the make-up of governing bodies.  We are developing our thinking on economic development, transport, skills and health, building on the work that the council has undertaken over the recent past.  In many ways, it’s business as usual, requesting freedoms and permissions from central government ministries as required.  For those of you who are interested, there are two staff devolution briefings on 24 and 25 November – I would urge you to go, as this will be part of our lives for at least the next five years, and probably beyond.

The Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP) held its Full Partnership Board this week, which included briefings on Agritech and from the Royal Signals, as well as the more normal updates.  It is clear that we enjoy a broad and varied economy in the county, which may well explain why we have such low unemployment – down again this month to just over 4000 Jobseekers’ Allowance claimants across Staffordshire.  I had a snapshot of this on Friday morning when I visited the Enterprise Centres around Newcastle-under-Lyme. We have well over 90% occupancy in the offices and workshops that we rent out to local entrepreneurs. It’s a bit of a hidden gem, but speaking to the tenants, it seems that we are a good landlord, and, although we charge market rents, our conditions are such that people starting up their businesses prefer to work with us.  If we’re achieving occupancy rates such as we are, getting a good income and encouraging people to start businesses, we must be doing something right.  Of course, we can’t be complacent, and any suggestions as to how we could do better would be gratefully received.

Closer to home, I was briefed on the HR Business Plan and The Story of Staffordshire this week.  Both were great examples of the work that is going on across the organisation – it’s a real pleasure to listen to the quality of thinking that is going on every day.

I cannot close without paying my respects to the victims of the attacks in Paris on Friday evening. Look most people, I find it very hard to understand the motivation of anybody who embarks on this type of action.  I remember a conversation with an Afghan militia commander, Mohammed Atta Noor, who was turning to politics, during my first tour of Afghanistan in Mazar-e Sharif in 2004.  Atta had seen some terrible things, having fought the Soviet forces very successfully for a decade, but he had no time for people who blew themselves up in the name of Islam. We can only hope that Atta and his friends prevail in this fight for the future.


Remembrance and progress

Monday, November 9th, 2015

Returning from a week’s leave, it was straight into the Members’ Event at Rising Brook in Stafford.  We had a good turn-out from our councillors and we excellent engagement from all who were there.  The theme was the current Medium Term Financial Strategy (MTFS) discussions, during which we work out how to balance our budget, and the difficult decisions that will be needed.  How this all pans out will become clearer after we get the detail from the Chancellor’s Autumn Statement, of which more below.

I used my first day of visits to the Department for Communities and Local Government in London to explore the limits of devolution and what might be in the Chancellor’s Autumn Statement. Our discussions were thorough and wide-ranging, and the good news was that our colleagues in London are keen for us to succeed, and don’t see this as an opportunity to empty their “too difficult” trays. There are open sessions on devolution for all staff towards the end of this month, so do come along if you would like to find out more.

I spent part of Friday in Burton-upon-Trent with the Claims Management Team.  I suspect that, like many colleagues, you will be surprised to read that this pretty large team is conducting a national role in support of the Department of Justice, keeping the claims management industry, which pursues compensation in cases of loss or damage, under control.  In common with every other time that I get out of the office and meet people in their workplaces, I learned a lot about the subject, and was enormously impressed with their quality and commitment.

Writing this on my first Remembrance Sunday since leaving the Army, it was a change to be in a civilian suit and standing in the crowd at the German War Cemetery on Cannock Chase.  This very moving service is conducted every year with equal participation from the German Embassy and the local community, paying tribute to the dead of all conflicts from both nations.  I was, until my arrival 6 months ago, unaware that Staffordshire plays host to the only dedicated German military cemetery in the UK.  As well as remembering those who did not come back from operations in which I have served, I was struck that it is now 70 years since the end of the Second World War; the UK can be justifiably proud of our achievement in helping the Germans in the years after the war to build their nation into the peaceful democracy, leading economy and close friend that it now is.