Posts Tagged ‘your council’

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.

Planning, Test and Trace, and VJ Day

Monday, August 10th, 2020

The government’s proposals for changing the planning process to change the balance in favour of development has received a huge amount of attention this week.  Although we are not a planning authority in terms of housing, it is an area in which we have a strong interest, not least in providing the roads, schools etc. that developments require to make them sustainable communities.  The narrative from London is that councils are getting in the way of development, and I fear that local government’s response does not counter that view well.  We need to make the argument strongly that councils and councillors only reflect the wishes of their residents.  As a relatively recent arrival in local government, I would observe from my previous experience that difficult decisions become easier the further that you are from them; they are hardest to explain when looking the person that they affect in the eye.  I very much hope that we can retain the wishes and aspirations of residents in any new system. 

The national news on Test and Trace is that the system is developing and improving, which is encouraging, particularly as we prepare for the winter, and whatever that may bring.  There is a fear in the medical community that the combination of Covid-19 and a severe winter flu could overwhelm the health and care system, so we must prepare thoroughly.  From a local viewpoint, we have closed down the response to the outbreak at the Crown and Anchor pub in Stone after testing over 1,000 people and tracing 22 positive results, and we continue to manage the outbreak in Burton, which is thankfully experiencing reduced infection rates owing to our collective efforts.  I was told this week that Staffordshire leads the West Midlands in terms of testing rates, and our rapid responses to such outbreaks in Burton and Stone are being viewed as best practice. This early targeted response is much preferable to waiting for better information and having to impose localised lockdowns. 

I hope that you will forgive me for picking up on the 75th anniversary of VJ Day, the end of the Second World War in the Pacific, which falls on Saturday.  My late father was a Merchant Navy Officer in the Pacific in August 1945, and his view of humanity was shaped by the task of transporting starved former Prisoners of War back to Singapore after their release from Japanese captivity.  Whatever else we celebrate this week, let us renew our resolve to build that better world that their generation imagined in 1945. 

Outbreak control, and the county council’s new leader

Tuesday, July 28th, 2020

The Burton-on-Trent Covid-19 outbreak continues to be our major focus in Test and Trace.  The key here has been to move early, adapt the tactics to suit the circumstances, and build and maintain consensus.  We have conducted testing in one of the mosques in Burton, which is a first, with over 360 people tested in one day.  We have also been engaging closely with the community; I am immensely grateful to Councillor Syed Hussein who has been pivotal in this effort, as well as to our other county council and borough council members, our Public Health team and NHS and East Staffordshire Borough Council partners.  I have said often that we are “learning by doing” in these activities, but it is pleasing to note that our assumption that building consensus is more important than powers issued by central government is being borne out in practice.    

More broadly on controlling outbreaks, the strategy of moving early and with confidence has been vindicated by the early shutting down of a potential outbreak at a Staffordshire farm late last week; the first case was identified on Tuesday; the team were on site to establish control and implement additional measures on the Wednesday; testing took place on the Thursday; and with results received on the Saturday, the outbreak was shut down.  Speaking this week to Clive Wright, the Regional Convenor for the Test and Trace programme, the difference between our outbreak and the Herefordshire vegetable farm where there are over 100 positive cases, and is still running, is about 48 hours. 

Away from Coronavirus, you will have seen the announcement that Staffordshire County Council has a new Leader in Councillor Alan White, who was voted in at a virtual Annual Council Meeting held on Microsoft Teams on Thursday.  This is another first in terms of our use of technology, and it went very well indeed; Members appeared to be enjoying the experience, and, from an interested observer’s viewpoint, the level of debate and engagement matched that which we see in the Council Chamber on a normal meeting.  We very much looking forward to working with Alan and his Cabinet on the recovery of Staffordshire’s economy and society from the Coronavirus pandemic. 

COVID in numbers

Monday, June 22nd, 2020

Today marks three months since Boris Johnson announced that the UK was going into lockdown. For me, it both feels like yesterday, and also a lifetime ago.  That is not unusual when one is working at pace in a stressful environment.  If you’ve not seen it yet, the COVID in numbers infographic gives just a snapshot of the scale of our response to date. £30m spent supporting care for our elderly and vulnerable residents, 1,400,000 pieces of PPE provided to protect workers in health and care, over 3,000 emergency food parcels delivered… the list goes on.  We must remember that this is primarily a human tragedy – in the past 3 months, over 700 people have lost their lives in Staffordshire, but thanks to your hard work, we have seen the number of deaths in the county continually fall in recent weeks and we are now seeing fewer deaths than we would expect to see at this time of year. As a result, our focus is now shifting to local outbreak control and working with the NHS Test and Trace team/Public Health England to prevent the spread of infection. This is a new responsibility and we’ll be submitting our plans to Government this week. So far, we’re thankful that we have not seen any outbreaks in the county, but we are ready to act when we are needed.

It’s a unique feature of this emergency that we are working on response and recovery at the same time. Many of you are now working hard to support our recovery and early plans were considered at Cabinet for each part of the organisation last week. Already we have seen recycling centres and country park car parks reopen and our schools welcome a wider number of children back to education. We’ve also launched our economic recovery strategy and outlined what we will do to support Staffordshire to get back to business. I know how much hard work has gone into making this happen.

We expect an announcement this week that social distancing will reduce to 1m from 2m, along with a raft of other measures designed to allow life to return to a greater degree of normality while staying safe.  Philip Atkins, Mark Winnington and I met with representatives of the leisure and hospitality sector and a number of our MPs on Friday to clarify what was needed to get these sectors working again.  It was not surprising that the 1m social distancing makes a huge difference to occupancy, just as it does in our offices and schools, but also that they need notice of any changes to implement them in time (beer takes 2 weeks to brew, after all) and they want clarity.  Although it is easy to criticise, particularly when one bears no responsibility for the outcomes, these decisions will weigh heavily on ministers and scientist advising the Government.  There is no perfect answer, but it feels like we can take the next steps towards a return to normality.   

I’ll leave you with one final thought.  This has been something the like of which none of us has previously experienced; I only half-jokingly tell former military colleagues that it’s been an odd mixture of the last five years in Staffordshire County Council and the previous 30 in the Army. The challenges and opportunities presented to us have been exciting and exhausting. It is vitally important that you look after yourself so that we can continue to support our communities to the best of our ability as we go forward. Make use of the support available to you through your colleagues, through Thinkwell, Mindkind and iLearn.  In the coming days, you’ll be invited to share your experiences and views in a short survey so that we can learn from them and emerge from the crisis as a stronger organisation.

Lifting Lockdown, Microsoft Teams, and Online Coaching

Monday, May 18th, 2020

I mentioned in my last entry that we had reached the peak of the outbreak, and were going to be running response and recovery concurrently for probably several months, which is an unusual approach in normal circumstances.  But as you will undoubtedly agree, we are not in normal circumstances, and we have to adapt to the situation around us.  I’ve been immensely impressed with the way that colleagues have stepped into the breach; my abiding memory from this episode will be the fortitude and energy that you have put into their roles, and the willingness that you have shown in adapting to new roles and realities.     

As we plan towards lifting lockdown, last week we sent initial guidance to WLT/OMT and to the wider workforce via The Knot, which is well worth a read.  The key thing is that we are not in a hurry to rush back to our offices; we’ve made our own luck, as an old friend and colleague used to put it, with our efforts in Smart Working, and we can afford to get it right.  You should continue with your current working arrangements until your manager gives you the information that you need; those of you who are working from home should keep doing so.

I take my hat off to the ICT team for their exceptional efforts in maintaining and protecting our network.  With my military background, you won’t be surprised of the importance that I attach to being able to communicate effectively as a means of effective leadership.  The impressive part is that Vic Falcus and his team have not only maintained and protected, but also improved, which is always a risk when engaged in a high intensity operation such as in which we are engaged.  We’ve implemented split tunnelling, which most will have missed, but you won’t have missed the effect that video conferencing got a lot clearer a few weeks ago.  You will however, notice the next change, as we try to move everybody out of Skype and into Teams.  This week, we’ll be starting to encourage colleagues to stop using Skype for Business and start using Microsoft Teams to stay connected. Teams is a much better tool in my opinion and is really easy to use. More info here if you are interested in this.

Lastly for this entry, we’re offering some online Coronavirus Coaching to colleagues to overcome challenges and be the best they can be – we’ve got a pool of internal coaches who are there to support. Coaching is a big part of us being ambitious, courageous and empowered in the workplace. A number of them have agreed to keep coaching remotely, as we continue to work through the coronavirus response and recovery. There are some brief details here, and we’ll be promoting the offer in the various internal updates this week.

Stay safe and well.

Dealing with the present, and planning for the future

Monday, April 20th, 2020

It is a couple of weeks since I wrote a blog entry, mostly because I have been doing a number of video messages for The Knot, but in the spirit of planning for getting back to normal, here goes. Experts believe we are in the peak of the Coronavirus outbreak, and it is clear, that although the statistics of Covid-19 deaths are shocking, the NHS and Social Care Services are holding up well. Having done a brilliant job of constructing the temporary Nightingale Hospitals in London and Birmingham so quickly, it looks like they might now be used for other purposes, as the rate of illness has been kept within the Health and Care system’s ability to admit and treat. That is the strategy, and it seems to be working. The shielding operation whereby up to 1.5 million of the UK’s most vulnerable people are being supported as they self-isolate for 12 weeks, is, in my opinion, a piece of genius, and makes the most of the “N” in our NHS. To my knowledge, no other country is attempting this, as no other country has the level of personal health data at a national level to be able to achieve it. If it works, and I believe it will, it will reduce the death toll from this disease considerably. 

In Staffordshire, the care sector, in which we count Care and Nursing Homes as well as domiciliary care in people’s own homes, is holding up well so far. Starting our efforts to procure and supply Personal Protection Equipment (PPE) early in the emergency has paid huge dividends; we now have a stable and resilient supply chain with trusted suppliers, which has maintained the confidence of the users. That is absolutely key in a contingency operation where demand surges and ebbs, sometimes unpredictably. Having a reliable supply of PPE is a key factor in maintaining and bolstering the morale and effectiveness of the care workforce, and I would ascribe a good portion of the success to those efforts. Recruitment and training for our I Count and I Care volunteers continues, to create an emergency workforce that is able to fill-in where necessary in Care and Nursing Homes where staff are off work, self-isolating for Covid-19. 

Looking ahead, we are already planning to play a leading role in the recovery of Staffordshire’s economy and society. There will be a huge amount to do, and we will have to adopt a pragmatic approach. That said, there is much that come out of this terrible outbreak that is good; I would cite community spirit, the value of public service and a willingness to look at different ways of working to name but three. At Staffordshire County Council, we have cemented into practice the 4 years of cultural and digital changes that we achieved through our Smart Working programme; over 3,000 colleagues are successfully working from home, and we held our first Cabinet meeting over Skype last week. Many commentators are pointing out that things will never be the same again – we need to make sure that we choose the ones that we want.       

The importance of listening

Monday, January 20th, 2020

For me, the highlight of a very varied and interesting week was our first LEAD Conference of the year on Tuesday afternoon, which brings together 100+ of the county council’s senior leaders, managers and members of cabinet four times per year.  Regular readers will be familiar with my theme of opportunity for Staffordshire County Council as we enter the new decade, and that came out strongly in the discussions.  This grouping of people is, for me, pivotal to success, as the attendees are the leaders and managers who will take the county council’s strategy, convert it into tactics and make it real.  I was hugely impressed with the energy and morale of everybody there.  I believe that we are ready.

Our external speaker, Simon Eastwood of Blue Starfish, gave an excellent session on communication, focussing on how we speak and how we listen.  Some readers may remember Simon from previous work which he has done with us, but it was the first time for me, and I was hugely impressed.  He told us about the three levels of listening, and it reminded me of my efforts when I first came to Staffordshire of bearing down on our meetings culture.  I think that we have got better, but I brought it up with the group, and the feeling was that we should remind ourselves of the basics.  In essence, let’s make more time for doing meaningful things rather than sitting in meetings.  If you’re checking your emails while sat in a meeting, you should ask yourself what you’re doing there, as you’re not listening at Simon’s third level, where you’re taking in the non-verbal communication as intently as the words.  Equally, can we have another go at timings?  Let’s try to complete a half-hour meeting in 20 minutes and a one-hour meeting in 45 minutes.  That leaves time to do other things, like emails, with complete attention. 

I’ll share one last thing that Simon mentioned, which absolutely rang a bell with me.  If you feel, when talking to somebody, that there’s nowhere else that you’d rather be, discussing any other subject, or with anyone else, then your partner in the conversation has made a great achievement in empathy and leadership.  I know a number of people who fit that description, and my challenge to us all is to be that person.  Have a good week.

New Year, Clarity and Finances

Monday, January 13th, 2020

Firstly, Happy New Year to those of you to whom I have not already seen in person.  I hope that 2020 is a happy, healthy and prosperous year for you and your family.  It is also the start of the new decade, and it feels like we have a number of differences for Staffordshire County Council to take advantage of.  The political stalemate in London has been cleared, and we now have some clarity in terms of leaving the European Union; that clarity will hopefully also extend to getting some of legislation, held up for the three years since the European Referendum, passed.  Secondly, the Prime Minister and his government have stated that they are more focussed on the Midlands and the North of England than they were before, and we must be ready to react quickly to attract as much of that attention – and funding – to Staffordshire.  Thirdly, we are in a good place as an organisation, well-balanced and capable – the obvious partner for realising the government’s ambitions.

Picking up on the last point, if you have not read our Medium Term Financial Strategy (MTFS), it would be worth a few minutes of your time to browse through it.  Getting to this point has been hard; we have made tough decisions and followed through on them.  We are a smaller, more agile organisation than even when I arrived in post five years ago, and I do not underestimate the effort required to get here.  That said, we have come through austerity in good condition, and some of the conversations that I have had on the side-lines of local government events before Christmas about “Is austerity over?” are missing the point.  We are where we are, and we won’t be going back.  If there is some more money in the coming months and years, we will aim to invest it in the future, for the benefit of Staffordshire’s residents, rather than turning on things that we have turned off in the past.  The analogy with our personal finances is, in this case, sound.  When we face a financial shock at home, we can either raid the savings, run up debt on the credit card, or reassess our spending.  Like every sensible person, Staffordshire County Council did the latter, and if our income rises in the future, we will spend it on what we need today and tomorrow.          

The General Election, support and Merry Christmas

Monday, December 16th, 2019

I couldn’t not mention the General Election in this week’s blog.  Many readers will have seen my message to all staff on Friday; whatever one’s views, we now have a period of more clarity in front of us; we must use that wisely.  It is mostly due to the hard work over the past years that we in Staffordshire County Council have the ability to plan for the future with confidence.  We still have a challenging Medium Term Financial Strategy (MTFS), but it is achievable and balanced over the 5 year period; that is not something that all local authorities can state.  We have refreshed the strategy to include the focus on environmental sustainability, embody the ambition that we want to champion and support, and to enunciate that balance between encouraging personal responsibility and looking after the most vulnerable.  I’m very grateful for the efforts of Members and Officers across the Council in bringing us to this point.  It feels to me that we have a real opportunity, and we must use it wisely for the benefit of Staffordshire’s residents.    

Some readers may be aware of a recent court case which involved serious threats of violence made against one of our social workers.  I just wanted to mention it, both to thank everybody involved for their prompt and courageous behaviour in bringing this to court, particularly the social worker involved, but also to reassure colleagues that the Council will, in all circumstances, support those who are facing threats or violence.  We regularly work with people in stressful periods in their lives, and often with the most vulnerable people in society.  We will always strive to help and do our best for them, but never at the cost of risking the safety and well-being of our staff.  It’s a fine balance, and I am constantly impressed by the fortitude and resolve that our colleagues demonstrate.  Where that balance is tipped, we will always support our staff.  In this case, due to the significant threats being made, the Magistrates have referred the matter to the Crown Court for a higher sentence; the perpetrator has been remanded in custody until a hearing date is set.

Lastly, in what has turned out to be a very varied blog entry, this is probably the last entry that many readers will read before Christmas.  Can I take this opportunity to thank everybody for their immense efforts in 2019?  It’s been another busy and, at times, stressful year.  Looking back, we’ve achieved a huge amount across the organisation, and I am very proud of you.  I hope that you all have an opportunity to relax and enjoy some time with family, friends and loved ones over the Christmas break, and that you enjoy a happy, healthy and prosperous New Year in 2020.  For those of you who will be on duty in the services which cannot shut down, I hope that you have a quiet duty.