Health and social care integration, and our Industrial Strategy

It was a delight to get out of the office on Tuesday and visit an exemplar of integration in health and care at the Samuel Johnson Hospital in Lichfield.  Claire Wood, the matron, was our host as we listened to NHS employees and adult social care workers operating together in a highly effective manner.  In essence, they had heeded the advice of somebody whom I worked for many years ago, namely sometimes it is easier to ask for forgiveness than to ask for permission.  They had just got with working together, without worrying whether they worked for the NHS or the local authority.  Of course, there is no reason why they would have to ask for forgiveness, as they were doing the right things, but sometimes I think we worry about organisational structures too much.  The lesson for me is obvious; we all just need to concentrate on doing the right thing for our residents.

On a completely different track, I spent Thursday morning with members of the Local Enterprise Partnership – business people, academics, politicians and civil servants as well as local government officers –  working out what Staffordshire and Stoke’s Local Industrial Strategy will look like.  This is not merely an academic exercise; after Brexit, the EU funding to the county will stop and will be replaced by our proportion of the UK Shared Prosperity Fund.  Although the details are yet to be confirmed, it is almost certain that our share will be at least partly dictated by how compelling our strategy is.  It’s therefore worth us taking a lot of interest in it.

CCN Conference, Knowledge Exchange and Smart Staffordshire

I attended the County Councils’ Network (CCN) Conference last week, and rounded it off with a day discussing Smart Cities with representatives from the UK, Germany and France.  The CCN event was refreshingly upbeat, given the challenges that we all are facing, with a real determination to get through.  This was my fourth CCN conference, and they seem to get better every year, with very engaged speakers and higher attendance.  Finances remain the number one issue, but there is just a sense that there is some light at the end of the tunnel.  We await the detail from the Autumn Statement, due on 6 December, but the extra money for social care and highways will certainly help – let’s hope that we are successful in getting a Business Rates Retention Pilot.

I attended a session with other county chief executives at which we agreed to form an online Knowledge Exchange in which we can exchange best practice.  We will lead the implementation from Staffordshire, and I am looking for a facility in which we can swap best practice and seek advice from other practitioners.  The Army started a very successful version during the operations in Afghanistan, which allowed units in theatre to share experiences and seek advice from a wider, but secure, community; the upshot was a much improved and rapid lessons learned process.  If we can achieve that, I would be delighted.

I’m very glad that we published our MTFS early, as it has allowed us to start the discussions with partners early.  There are, as we all are aware, some very difficult measures to implement in our plan, and we will need to bring people with us on what will, at times, be a hard journey.  The evening that Philip Atkins and I spent with the elected members of South Staffordshire District Council was enormously useful in setting the context and seeking their views.  We are discussing similar sessions with a number of other districts and boroughs, which is very encouraging.

Lastly, a footnote on Smart Staffordshire, our version of a smart city.  We appear to be up with the leaders of the pack in our thinking, and our offer is quite unusual, if not unique.  In essence, we are working towards producing as many of the advantages of smart living in a city, but in a mixed urban, suburban and rural setting.  My fellow delegates found our focus on people being enabled to live better lives in a digital world innovative and compelling; many still focus on the technology rather than the people who will use it.  There were some fascinating discussions, including one led by a German technologist who painted a very different and attractive version of retail in our high streets, which is possible now, but which is yet to be taken up.  Clearly, this is a rapidly moving area, and our role is to make it possible for residents and businesses.

Valuing our ex servicemen and women

As we commemorate the 100th anniversary of the end of the First World War, in which the greatest number of British service personnel died in any of our wars and conflicts, it is fitting that we focus on those who did not come back. But I would like in this blog entry to ask you to think a little about those who came home from this, and other conflicts, and how they integrated back into society.

Staffordshire has a proud military heritage, and we should remember that our predecessors in 1918 spoke of making a country fit for heroes to live in. Just as we do now, they worked on building houses and providing jobs for the men and women who returned. I believe that this effort is as relevant today as it was in 1918; we must encourage young men and women to serve in our armed services, and, as importantly, make every effort to integrate them back into civilian society at the end of their service.

There is something about military service that brings people from all backgrounds together, and that is especially true of people who have experienced service in war and conflict. I am always surprised when I meet ex-service men and women who have been out of uniform for up to 70 years, at how they focus on their military service as one of the most important periods of their lives. There are a small proportion who are physically or mentally damaged by their service, but most of us emerge more confident and capable, ready to serve wider society just as we did in uniform.

With many of us now enjoying more than one career in our life time, I would encourage all employers to consider the huge rewards that having a ex-service person on their side and in their team could have.

Leading the Peer Challenge

They say that a change is as good as a rest. I’m not sure, but last week certainly was a change for me, leading the Peer Challenge for Hertfordshire County Council.  There are considerable similarities to ourselves, a large 2-tier authority with a stable political and officer leadership, but there were also differences, not least that they have some of the highest house prices in the country, whereas we have some of the most affordable housing nationally.  That brings advantages for them in terms of council tax income, but challenges for their care market in terms of finding workers.

Having had our own Peer Challenge last month, which you will be aware went well with some very useful advice and suggestions.  It was fascinating to be on the other side of the exercise.  John Wood, their CE is retiring, and has been a very steady hand on the tiller for his 6 years in the role.  He is the originator of the expression, “our job in local government is to do boring well”, and it was clear that his attention to detail and his calm leadership have put Hertfordshire in a good place, and one which the new Leader and CE will be able to develop strongly.  We had some fascinating conversations about getting the balance between “down and in” – running the business – and “up and out” – shaping the place.  Hertfordshire has many similarities with Staffordshire in that respect; we both have some noisy neighbours as one director put it to me, but we are quietly competent.  It is a question of striking that balance, and we should just check that we are getting it right from time to time. 

 

Mindkind and mental health support in the workplace

One of the biggest changes in the last decade in society has been the welcome de-stigmatisation of mental health issues; it is now completely acceptable to talk openly about not feeling all right.  We still have some way to go in terms of parity of esteem in formal health care, but I know that will come as the relevant professionals are trained and come on line.   

Meanwhile, in Staffordshire County Council, we have built on the Thinkwell programme which provides counselling to colleagues and last week launched the MindKind programme, which aims to take the treatment of mental health into the everyday workplace.  I hope that many of you spoke to Becky Lee and the team in the foyer of Staffordshire Place 1 on Wednesday and had a chance to access the link.  We have had an excellent response for volunteers to be Mental Health First-Aiders, but, inevitably given that this week’s display was Stafford-based, they are concentrated in SP1 and 2.  We do, however, need first-aiders from across the County Council, so if you’re interested, do please access the link, and volunteer.  You will be doing your colleagues an enormous service, and I guarantee that you will learn a lot about yourself as well.

 

The Local Government Challenge, and Destination Innovation

We had two teams in the West Midlands Employers (WME) Local Government Challenge last week, and they both did very well indeed.  This is an exercise in which teams are given a series of tasks simulated to represent the normal working of a local authority, albeit with a year’s worth of activities crammed into one day!  It’s a significant effort to put on such an exercise, as there is the writing to ensure that participants are given realistic and challenging tasks, but also from the number of people who are required to act as the external contacts for the teams to work with.  WME do it very well, and everybody always gets a great deal from the day.  As we did last year, the teams were made up of volunteers rather than selected individuals, and I think that they were the more effective for it.  Staffordshire Team 2 were in the top 3 as a team and for their presentation, but the honours of the evening belong to Kerrie Morris, who won the Best Chief Executive award.  Mark Lucas, our other team leader, was in the top 3, so overall it was a great night for Staffordshire County Council.

There’s an exciting event happening in reception on Tuesday October 9–Destination Innovation.  As the world around us changes at pace, it is more important than ever that colleagues are empowered to collaborate, connect and contribute to driving forward new ideas and innovation. A group of our colleagues from across the organisation are launching an exciting opportunity to focus on your personal development and organisational networks while helping solve some of the key challenges faced by the public sector in Staffordshire.  Destination Innovation is an ambitious development programme that gives everyone the opportunity to work together to solve some of the biggest issues facing our organisation.

If you want to know more about this exciting opportunity there is a drop-in session taking place on the 9th October in the Foyer of SP1, as well as information on GO , and a workshop on the morning of 19th November.

If you want to develop, unlock your creativity, learn more about our organisation and be involved in shaping innovative solutions, then register your interest via GO today.

The LGA Peer Review

This week has certainly been an active one, with the Local Government Association Corporate Peer Challenge and the discussion of our MTFS at Cabinet, among several other key activities. 

The Peer Challenge is effectively our 5 yearly inspection, although the team and the LGA do not use the “I” word; that said, it is a hugely important event, and it is the key point at which external assessors look at the overall health of the organisation.  Ours was led by Councillor Colin Noble of Suffolk County Council and Nathan Elvery, Chief Executive of West Sussex County Council.  We couldn’t have asked for a more accomplished and capable team, and they really got under the bonnet of SCC during their 4 days.  I found it an excellent experience, although definitely not a relaxing one.

We will have to wait for the final report in a few weeks’ time, but the debrief on Thursday afternoon gave us an overall clean bill of health.  They were very complimentary about our people, both members and officers, and highlighted the cohesion and morale in the organisation.  They fed back that we all grasp the financial challenge, and that there is a real will to tackle it.  Nathan was particularly taken by his session with the Wider Leadership Team and the Operational Management Team, as was Colin from his sessions with Cabinet and members.  They also commented on the strength of our external relationships. 

There were some really useful observations which we’ll take on board in the coming weeks.  Our performance and financial reporting is difficult for outsiders to grasp at the first attempt, and we will look at simplifying that, as we will at the length and complexity of our Cabinet reports, which took some time for them to understand.  We also need to get on with the Children’s System transformation and the Workforce Strategy; the team liked them and felt that we should press ahead.  I agree entirely.

Lastly, on a more personal note, we have been making some videos about the mentoring scheme for our Looked After Children.  My interview with Ryan, a looked-after child who has just started at the Defence Sixth Form College is on the intranet if you are interested.  The scheme is open to all officers and members, and allows us to give something back to these children in terms of mentoring.  As I say probably too often on the video, it’s probably the single most rewarding thing that I’ve done in this job.

The Medium Term Financial Strategy

Most of you are aware that we published our Medium Term Financial Strategy (MTFS) last week. It will be discussed and recommended for approval at Cabinet tomorrow, after which the hard work begins to implement it.

The figures are sobering. We have to take £35M out of our operating costs next year – that’s a bit over 7% across the business. We’ve been at this for a long time – £240M removed from costs over the past 9 years. But as we all know, it gets harder every year as the savings become increasingly hard to find. On top of that, at the same time as we’re finding savings, demand for social care is rising; SCC is spending £315M on children and adults this year against £200M a decade ago. It just means that there is less money around for the things that don’t immediately contribute to safety and health.

With the scale of the changes we are proposing, there will be a period following the Cabinet meeting where detailed plans will need to be drawn up so that you have a clear view of what will happen and when.

I know that this is a very difficult process, and that the announcement has caused a great deal of uncertainty. My undertaking to you is that I will be open and honest and tell you what we know as soon as we can.

I would reiterate my thanks to you personally and corporately for a job well done thus far. I’ve been enormously impressed with the commitment and professionalism of officers making what are often difficult and painful decisions as well as the continued passion of colleagues to do what is right for our citizens. I finish by reminding those of you in leadership positions to do everything you can to support your people as we work to implement this programme.

The new John Taylor Free School

It is always a delight when a long-planned project comes to fruition, and this is particularly so when it has taken a lot of effort and involved a lot of people.  This week sees the opening of the John Taylor Free School in Burton, the first all-new secondary school in Staffordshire in the past 25 years – we’ve refurbished many and rebuilt some more, but this is the first all new school for a long time.  It fills a well-established need in Burton where there has been a significant uplift in the building of new houses, and therefore a notable increase in the birth rate.  The build phase has lasted 2 years, and incorporates such innovations as a leisure hall that is built alongside the school that can be used by the wider community in evenings and weekends as well as the students.

The project was large in every respect, costing £30M from the County Council and the Education and Skills Funding Agency, and with a capacity for 1550 pupils.   It was designed by Entrust, our education support services joint venture company with Capita, and constructed by Seddon.  Although the construction ran pretty much to plan, the whole project took a long time to come to fruition, with a wide variety of opinions on where the school should be, and what form it should take.  We are delighted that the location is close to one of the larger developments to the west of Burton, and that the John Taylor Multi Academy Trust has taken the leadership of the school, with Sue Plant as the Head Teacher.  Given their strong reputation for running other schools in Staffordshire, we are sure that this sets the school on the right track for success.

Having got back into the stride of secondary school construction, our Cabinet will be shortly considering a paper which proposes a number of new school construction projects to support Staffordshire’s growing population.

Getting the most out of My Performance Conversations

With the arrival of autumn, it’s time to think about our My Performance Conversation (MPC), and the mid-year appraisal.  You might recall my blog a couple of weeks ago about having conversations between leaders and led when things are going well and not so well.  This is just an extension of this, with an opportunity to have a conversation about how it is going.  I would ask you not to get hung up on process, but just to sit down and have an honest and open discussion.

I would offer the following 5 questions as a guide:

How are you?
What’s gone well?
What hasn’t gone so well?
What do you want to do next?
How are we going to get you there?

For many colleagues, the answer to the fourth question will be no change; they don’t want to be promoted, and just want to keep on doing their job well.  I’m very content with that, and I would ask you therefore to make the fifth question: What can we do to make you more effective in that role?  With the Workforce Strategy that we are working up, and the opportunities of apprenticeships in the workplace, there are many ways to develop ourselves and learn.

I take a close interest in who is doing their MPCs and what level they are achieving, because I believe that giving feedback and taking an interest in your people is, in my view, a basic leadership function.  I would suggest that two conversations a year is too few – personally I like to hear feedback as and when it is available – but the rigour of having MPC reminds us in a busy world that we need to do think about our people.