Posts Tagged ‘your council’

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. 

Inspiration, and getting things done

Monday, December 9th, 2019

Sometimes inspiration comes from unlikely sources, and so it was this week.  One of our Looked After Children acted where many others would have hesitated, and prevented a friend from making a terrible mistake.  Readers will understand if I don’t go into details as the incident involved the potential use of illegal drugs, but that was avoided by a young man who has faced his own challenges, having the strength of character to stand up for what is right.  Along with his own part in this, his foster carer and social worker can take credit for creating a positive environment to allow him to develop as well as he has. 

This time of year involves a number of conferences and events where Chief Executives and other senior leaders in Local Government gather to compare notes and learn from each other.  The conversations this year are framed by the unusual December General Election; policy and its implementation were always to the fore in the discussions.  The thing that has struck me more than anything else in my time in this appointment is the practicality and pragmatism of the Local Government sector.  Central Government, of whatever colour or tone, deal in strategy, policy and theories.  They pull metaphorical levers and switches in Whitehall and hope that they have the desired effect on the ground.  Local Government then takes the idea and makes it real, dealing with the problems and challenges along the way.  Taking a relatively uncontentious promise from the election campaign, on planting tens of millions of trees, it will be local authorities who have to source these trees, find somewhere suitable to plant them, and make sure that they survive into maturity.  It’s a details business, and one which will occupy the attention of councillors and officers long after the ministers and civil servants have moved onto their next initiative.  Having worked in both strategy and tactics, I wouldn’t have it any other way – making things real, as we do in Staffordshire County Council in so many areas, is much more rewarding when the two are connected as we are.  Have a good week.

The New Parent Mentoring Scheme and Vision for Staffordshire

Monday, November 4th, 2019

I’m always heartened by colleagues who take matters into their own hands and come up with solutions – it reminds me of the calibre and energy of our people. I spent some time recently with 5 members of the New Parent Mentoring Scheme, an initiative to assist colleagues who are becoming parents for the first time. The group is made up of people who have recently returned to work themselves from maternity and paternity leave, and who are keen to offer support to those going through the same process.  They focus on providing practical and emotional advice and guidance, providing a “buddy” from prior to the birth through to the return to work.  Some of what they have identified is practical, such as our ICT policies which lock accounts out which have not been active for a number of weeks, but a lot of it is about supporting people who are juggling work and parenthood for the first time. I was enormously impressed with the enthusiasm of the group, and I envisage that it will grow in strength, not only in the practical aspects of supporting colleagues, but also in formulating policy which fits with our People Strategy of retaining, developing and recruiting quality people. 

Also this week we had the high level meeting of the Vision for Staffordshire group, attracting senior leaders from across the public and private sectors.  The three areas that we are focussing on are: Smart Staffordshire, in which we are looking to retain the lead that we have built in superfast broadband into the next generations of 5G mobile phones and fibre broadband; a Data Institute in which we are looking to maximise the sharing of data across the public sector to the benefit of Staffordshire’s residents: and Place Branding, an effort to produce a coherent and compelling brand for Staffordshire with due consideration of our history, but focussing on the county that we want to be in the future. It’s a fascinating set of programmes, and it is clear that the County Council sits at the centre, as the organisation with the reach and the mandate to provide the necessary leadership and effort.

Lastly this week, we had a slightly longer Digital Programme Board in which we conducted an audit into the many digital projects that are running across the County Council. We have deliberately allowed colleagues the freedom to run with projects to make best use of the intelligence and enthusiasm in the organisation, and it was heartening to see how much is going on – over 50 separate projects. The other key finding was that there is remarkably little overlap and duplication, which is always a risk with this approach; it appears that we are much better at working across barriers than sometimes we give ourselves credit for. Watch out for the introduction of a chatbot to assist us in taking Smart Working to a higher level – we’re closer than I had hoped. 

Clothes Swap, and the Queen’s Award for Enterprise

Monday, September 23rd, 2019

For this week’s blog, I wanted to remind everyone about the Waste Team’s brilliant ‘Clothes Swap’ taking place in SP1 today. We throw away so many clothes these days, when many can be reused or recycled. This clothes swap is an excellent way to recycle your old or unwanted clothes, and will help us to think more carefully about what we throw away in future.

For more information and to get involved in this and future swaps, click here.

It was a pleasure to attend the awards ceremony for the Queen’s Award for Enterprise for Conversion Rates Experts, a small and highly international digital company which is based in the unlikely setting of a country house in Rugeley.  Most of the employees were there, gathering for their one day a year when they meet face to face.  The rest of the year they work from their homes designing and optimising some of the most world’s biggest companies’ websites.  As well as sharing in their celebration, I learned more about Smart Working from a company that really makes it happen.  They have developed techniques and tools which build the ethos of the company, but the key is getting the culture right, which came as no surprise to me.  In an industry where people move very quickly, they have built up an amazing loyalty.  I’m hoping that Ben Jesson will come to one of our future Senior Managers’ Conferences to explain not only what a successful digital business in Staffordshire needs from its county council, but also perhaps share some tips on the next steps for us in Smart Working.

On a completely different subject, and testament to how varied this job is, I returned to the office to present the Health and Care Sustainability and Transformation Partnership (STP) Estates Strategy to senior NHS officials.  Last year, we were disappointed to receive an “Improving” grade for our work, but we listened to the feedback, and this year it looks like we will be heading into “Good” territory.  This is testament to the efforts of a large number of people, but if I can single out 3 for particular praise, it would Wendy Woodward, Becky Jones and Phil Brenner.  The Estates Strategy will not in and of itself makes the transformation that community care needs in Staffordshire and Stoke, but it will enable many of the changes that need to be made, and support the new workforce model, as well as integration of health and care, and the digital offer. 

#CouncilsCan

Monday, September 2nd, 2019

With the return from summer holidays, for many of us our thoughts turn to finances.  That is especially so this year, where we are awaiting Chancellor Sajid Javid’s one-year spending round being unveiled on Wednesday 4 September. As was reported in the LGC last month, uncertainty is hanging over at least £3.5 billion of council funding streams for 2020-21, including the £1.8 billion Better Care Fund. 

On Monday 2 September, we will be joining in with the Local Government Association’s #CouncilsCan campaign, to call on the Government to give us the certainly we need from the spending round and ensure we can sustain the services we provide. Councils up and down the country will be posting about how secure funding from Government will help to continue local services. I hope you can join in with the campaign–look out for the hashtag #CouncilsCan on the County Council’s Twitter, Facebook and Instagram pages, and get behind the campaign by pressing the like button, retweeting and sharing the posts.  

Hopefully, this will highlight all the great and innovative work done by you and local government every day to keep communities running.  It’s a timely intervention, and I would add that Councils Already Do, and Will Do in the Future, but that probably doesn’t have the same ring as #CouncilsCan!

Graduations and planning for the future

Monday, July 22nd, 2019

Philip Atkins, the Council Leader, and I visited the New Beacon Group in Stafford this week to find out their plans for developing the Beaconside site to the east of the county town.  We met Richard Li-Hua, the President of the organisation, and his staff, and received a set of formal briefings, followed by a wide-ranging discussion.  They have great ambitions to link with Chinese universities in a business school and a School of China Studies, as well as with Staffordshire University.  We briefed them on the various plans for the county and the region, including HS2 and Midlands Engine.  It certainly feels like there is something in this that will benefit Stafford in the long term, and we will be working with them closely to achieve it.      

Elsewhere, the end of the academic year means graduations at our colleges and universities.  A few weeks ago, I attended the Newcastle and Stafford College Group graduation at the County Showground; last week it was Staffordshire University and this week it was Keele University.  It was a great pleasure to see so many people receive their diplomas and degrees after so much hard work – we are very fortunate to have such good colleges and universities in Staffordshire which take such a full part in the wider community as well as in academia.  It reminded me that I missed my own graduation because I was under training at Sandhurst – on the morning that I was supposed to be collecting my degree, I was soaking wet through, breathless and aching on an assault course.  There was, as I remember, no sympathy from the instructors!

This week has also seen a range of evening meetings in the many organisations in which we work with partners across the private and public sectors.  The Health and Care Sustainability and Transformation Partnership held a workshop with a wide range of partners on the progress of implementation as we look towards an Integrated Care System, and the Local Enterprise Partnership met to discuss how they are going to strengthen their planning ability as we approach Brexit.  In this latter instance, we will see the end of the EU funding that we have enjoyed for many years, and the start of the UK Shared Prosperity Fund, which will use as its basis the Local Industrial Strategy.  It will come as no surprise therefore. that we are working hard to ensure that this is as good as it can be, so we can attract the businesses and good-quality jobs that we need to continue Staffordshire’s progress.     

LGA Annual Conference, and thoughts on leadership

Monday, July 8th, 2019

I spent much of last week at the Local Government Association (LGA) Annual Conference in Bournemouth, which was a fascinating experience.  I was fortunate enough to be invited to a breakfast meeting with Matt Hancock MP, the Secretary of State for Health and Care, as well as sitting in the audience to listen to such luminaries as Mark Carney, the Governor of the Bank of England.  It’s a concentrated string of events, in which one usually finds that there is at least 2 things happening at once that one would like to attend.  The overall tone was surprisingly upbeat; local government is an island of relative stability in a turbulent political sea at the moment, and the attendees reflected that feeling.  Ministers were, given the impending change of Prime Minister, naturally guarded in making promises and commitments – they might not be in those jobs in less than a month –  but there was a general impression that local government is doing a good job. 

I also managed to speak to Odger Berndtson’s Emerging Leaders Programme during the week.  This is the major recruitment agency (head-hunters in the vernacular) and they run a scheme for particularly promising candidates whom they have identified for jobs across the private and public sectors.  As a result, I was asked to speak to a group of about 30 on leadership.  I have avoided doing many of these so far; because leadership is taught well in the military, and is something that is hugely important to them, many retired senior officers go into this field, without necessarily understanding the differences across sectors and organisations.  I chose to speak on building trust and confidence, but treating them as relationships rather than one-sided qualities.  There is a recurring theme about trust in leadership circles and forums such as LinkedIn, which is understandable, but the discussion feels, at times, one-sided.  My own view, formed mostly since my arrival in Staffordshire, is that trust, like so many human qualities, is a relationship; if you want to be trusted, you have to trust people.  The same goes for confidence; I want SCC to be a confident, outward-looking organisation, but to do so, I, along with all leaders, have to demonstrate confidence in our colleagues and their abilities.  It all comes back to the assumption that has served me well throughout my working life – we all got up this morning wanting to do a good job.  s

Armed Forces Day, and a mental health event

Monday, July 1st, 2019

With Armed Forces Day last week, we had an opportunity to celebrate the achievements and sacrifices that our armed forces make for our country.  With my own background and experience of moving from the Army to Local Government, it is perhaps not surprising that one of the areas that I am very keen on is the transition of Regulars into second careers and also making the most of the experiences of Reservists both in their civilian employment and in their military appointments.  Last week, I had a fascinating discussion with Dr Penny Mell, the Assistant Director and Transformation and Digital at Walsall Council, and a Lieutenant Colonel in the Royal Signals.  Her current military appointment is as a staff officer in the Army Headquarters, and it was clear from the conversation that the Army and Walsall Council have much to gain from her undertaking similar jobs in different circumstances; the cross-over of ideas allows her to take a different view of the same problems, but importantly based upon a wealth of knowledge and experience.  Sadly, as a country, we don’t make the most of this type of experience, and I would point to the United States, and particularly the Marine Corps, as an organisation where people transition seamlessly between full-time and reservist service, mixing the best ideas and experience to everybody’s benefit.

In other news, Chris Kirkland, the former Liverpool goalkeeper and mental health champion, is visiting Staffordshire County Council this Friday (5 July) to talk about his experiences, and continue the conversation about mental health.  There are a number of places still available, and you can find out more details here.

Do come along if you can – it looks like an excellent event.