How doncaster council fought back

Ross Wigham charts the progress made by one council when it decided to put its
training and development policies at the centre of an improvement programme

Doncaster Council looked down and out. A failing organisation desperate for
reform, it was suffering from poor services made worse by allegations of
corruption against some of its senior managers.

Transforming a failing organisation is a tough enough task, made even harder
when leaders are at the heart of the problem, but the HR team is now receiving
plaudits for successfully turning things around.

The HR and training policies have been singled out for praise for playing a
vital role throughout the process, which has seen the council identified as one
of the fastest improving in the country.

The council hit the headlines between 1997 and 2001 for all the wrong
reasons. Councillors were jailed after an expenses fraud scandal, while other
managers were accused of junketing at the taxpayers’ expense, and a planning
official was sent to prison after accepting benefits from a local businessman.

HR strategy was key

However, the Government’s Comprehensive Performance Assessment (CPA)
programme recently cited the HR strategy as key to improvement which has now
seen Doncaster awarded a ‘fair’ performance rating.

Head of HR Mandy Coalter says the first step was to draw up a new vision for
the council, and to put HR and training at the very heart of Doncaster’s
values. She developed an HR strategy to reflect the overall goals and values of
the council, which included management development training and improved
communications. This plan was then embedded into the overall strategy,
reflecting the council’s new commitment to developing its 14,500 staff.

"We’ve modernised Doncaster by focusing on skills," she says.
"If we want a forward-looking council we have to be a forward-looking
employer. It’s about capacity and skills, and we provide the organisation with
the tools to deliver," she says.

Training the staff to appreciate the council’s goals proved so successful
that when the CPA inspectors arrived, every employee interviewed was able to
identify them. However, it was the body’s transforming leadership programme,
which brought the borough’s elected politicians and managers together, and
really caught the eye of the CPA.

"It’s very rare this ever happens in local government. It really
connects political leadership with the management values within the council,
building political awareness and making for a more joined-up
organisation," she says.

Kay Leigh, HR manager for learning and organisational development, was the
person responsible for putting the innovative leadership programme together.

She wanted the council’s elected members and senior managers to communicate
and work more effectively, because both were crucial to every aspect of the
council’s operation. This training initiative was actually the first time the
two groups had been brought together formally.

"Training gave people the opportunity to stand back and to think about
their role and what they could do differently to help move the organisation forward,"
Leigh explains.

The initiative arose following research taken from a cross-section of
employees which highlighted some key training needs for the top of the
organisation, and leadership was one of the key issues identified.

Leadership skills

"We looked at the whole area of leadership, what it means and how
individuals can relate to it. We wanted them to look at themselves and their
leadership skills, and then think how they could improve," she says.

The roll call for those involved reads like a Who’s Who of the local council
and included the borough’s first elected mayor and his deputy, members of the
local government cabinet, the executive directors, heads of service and the
chief executive.

"It was a real challenge getting everyone together at the same
time," recalls Leigh. "It was something of an achievement to get all
the senior managers and elected councillors involved."

Before setting off, everyone on the course went through a 360-degree
appraisal as a base for developing better leadership skills. The initial phase
of the programme comprised a two-night residential course attended by 46
councillors and officers and people attended in groups of eight. These two
nights away at Cave Castle in East Yorkshire were designed to investigate exactly
where the skills gaps were and what further action would be needed in the
future.

The attendees first took part in a Myers Briggs assessment to find out each
individual’s personality type and how they performed as leaders. This was
followed by a range of practical leadership exercises and complemented with
constant one-on-one coaching.

Personal development

Phase one was designed to raise awareness of the issues surrounding
leadership and build a level of knowledge that could be developed further at a later
date.

"It was very much the personal development stage of the training.
Participants did some group work, but it mainly consisted of lots of one-on-one
work and feedback," says Leigh.

After analysis of the first phase was completed, the council decided to
change its plans for the next stage, partly because of the work already
achieved and because it was then able to target specific areas for attention.

"We decided to tweak the second phase. We found we had slightly
different needs and started to focus on the importance of leadership around
issues such as dealing with change and project management," Leigh
explains.

The second phase began with a series of masterclasses using external
speakers to demonstrate how leadership worked outside the local government
sector.

This was to get the top people at Doncaster thinking about leadership from a
different perspective and in context with what they had learned from phase one.

The council also launched a programme of classroom-based modular training to
formalise some of the work done so far. This consisted of four modules covering
leadership, communication and image, change management and project management.
HR allowed individuals to choose dates most convenient to them to ensure
maximum attendance at the training courses.

Throughout the process, managers were supported with individual coaching
carried out on a one-to-one basis. The training department also arranged best
practice visits to companies that had excelled in leadership.

Leigh says this had the added benefit of bringing the team together.
"It’s really improving communication and understanding between the two
groups leading the council," says Leigh. "It lets people look at
their own behaviour – and in some cases changes it. You get a lot of motivation
and commitment because you have such senior-level buy-in."

Leigh and Coalter now hope the focus on the top of the organisation – 94 per
cent of whom said the training proved a positive experience – will benefit the
whole of the council.

"We needed to focus on the top of the organisation and get the
leadership right first. We hope that will now flow down throughout the rest of
the organisation," says Leigh.

The scheme has proved so useful that the council now plans to take another
200 staff through the process during the next 12 months.

Leadership has become a fundamental part of driving the council forward and
HR is following up the course with secondments and more coaching. "We now
plan to cascade this down through our internal trainers who have now started
the process with the next tier of managers and elected members," says
Leigh.

Innovative approach

She is looking to instil leadership qualities in the next generation of
managers through the Flying Start programme, which aims to identify potential
management talent and nurture it through internal training, secondments and
coaching.

"Leadership is the key thing we want in our managers, so I really hope
this whole initiative can help instil this, starting at the very top," she
says.

The course has been a central factor in helping revive a moribund Doncaster
Council and Leigh believes other local authorities should consider a similar
approach.

"It’s an innovative approach and I think a lot of emphasis should be
put on this. Other authorities should look at this as a joined-up approach to
leadership."

What is a CPA?

The Comprehensive Performance Assessment (CPA) is a key element
of the Government’s framework for the future of local government. The
assessments are carried out by teams from the Audit Commission and they have
inspected every local authority in the country.

The CPA makes a judgement on every tier of county council
management across England and published its findings in the form of a balanced
scorecard.

Each organisation was awarded an overall performance score of
either poor, weak, fair, good or excellent as well as a rating between one and
four on how it was run and how well its main services were functioning.

www.audit-commission.gov.uk

How Doncaster Council performed

In the corporate assessment, the council was strongly praised for its
progressive HR and training which it said was enabling Doncaster to deliver its
agenda.

"Doncaster Council is improving rapidly.  Until two years ago the council had some serious failings.  The rate of improvement this year has been
exceptional.  The transformation has
been ably led by an effective partnership between the newly selected mayor and
the chief executive.

"The council has a comprehensive HR strategy in place which identifies
the capacity and skills of staff to deliver are the full potential"

Overall rating:                                         Fair
How the council was run                     ***
Performance of main services             **

 

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