Sheffield stars

Raising skill levels across a workforce of 20,000 people became the ambition
of Sheffield City Council after it escaped financial disaster in the
mid-1990s.  Guy Sheppard reports on a
highly-praised runner-up

Establishing uniform standards of service poses special problems for an
organisation running everything from libraries and schools to street cleaning
and old people’s homes.

At Sheffield City Council, the responsibility for achieving this was given
to its corporate training consultancy three years ago.

Barbara Duckworth, head of the 20-strong CTC, says training had never been
tied to the central aims of the organisation before and, because there was no
systematic way of measuring standards and performance, there was no feeling of
corporate identity.

"The aim has been to provide better services for the people of
Sheffield by raising the skill levels of the people who deliver those services.

"What we are trying to do is make each individual’s performance fit in
with a council that delivers services in a certain way. We are trying to put
corporate standards across the whole organisation," she says.

Last year, the council achieved Investors in People accreditation at the
first attempt, and senior management is now preparing for reassessment in
December.

Andrew Forrest, learning and development director at the Industrial Society,
who chairs the TD2001 judging panel, says IIP was a remarkable achievement for
a council that would probably have been one of the worst in the country when it
suffered a budget crisis in the mid-1990s.

He says training has played a fundamental part in the change. "The
whole senior team is really enthused about developing people and they are all
playing their part in doing that."

One example of this was the way responsibility for IIP accreditation was
handled by the social services director rather than someone from personnel.
"It’s not just for trainers to do training, it’s for everybody," says
Forrest. "The role model that the top people are giving is very important."

Forrest was impressed with the way the objectives of the five-strong
executive management team were translated into a development plan for the
entire 20,000-strong workforce. "Coaching people were using four or five
key priorities over and over again in their training. If an organisation sorts
out its priorities, that gives the cue for training specialists to deliver the
right training."

In the case of Sheffield, the priorities include a systematic process of
setting targets for all areas of its services, a uniform system of appraisal
for all employees, and a clear process of financial delegation.

As part of the Government’s Best Value modernisation agenda for the public
sector, Sheffield is required to publish an annual plan setting out its current
performance levels. It also has to show how these can be improved in the
future.

Mike Campbell, director of the policy research institute at Leeds
Metropolitan University and one of the TD 2001 judges, was impressed at the way
this was being tied in with training. "IIP accreditation and the
application for this award are in line with its clear-minded approach to best
value," he says. "The city council has taken this agenda very
seriously indeed."

Each of the council’s directorates has a small training team of its own to deal
with specialist training and development needs. This allows the CTC to
concentrate on providing guidance to line managers in developing employee
skills and promoting the use of national occupational standards when
identifying training needs. It has also been responsible for organising
360-degree assessment of senior managers by up to a dozen of their colleagues.

"We analyse and feed back the results and then the managers work out
what they need to do," says Duckworth.

Over the next two years, the programme will be rolled out to all middle
managers.

One way a culture of improvement permeates throughout the organisation is
through workforce development planning, which has recently been devolved to
line managers. The CTC drew up a guidance manual to help the managers fulfil
this responsibility without straying from the core objectives of the council.

Another way of spreading the message is through annual roadshows, which
every employee is encouraged to attend.

Annual opinion surveys are used to find out from employees whether they feel
their needs are being met and whether their managers are effective. The
responses have been encouraging, particularly in the way management is
providing employees with helpful feedback on their work performance. Between 1996
and 2000, the managers’ rating in this area rose from minus 38 to plus 42.

Forrest says there are plenty of examples of how the CTC has adopted an
imaginative approach to specific training needs. Under the Government’s New
Deal programme for unemployed school leavers, a group of city centre
"ambassadors" was created earlier this year to provide shoppers with
information and ensure bylaws are kept. Each ambassador undergoes a six-week
training programme.

Forrest says there is a danger that people on New Deal programmes lack pride
in their work because the scheme tends to be for people who have not done very
well in their careers so far.

"Sheffield seems to have used New Deal to give fresh heart to these
youngsters," he says.

Another example was the professional qualification that is being established
for the council’s 35 education welfare officers who are responsible for dealing
with truancy among school pupils. Team leader Davida Howard says that because
of the specialist nature of their work, there is no professional qualification
for them to aim at. "But we wanted to raise their morale and professional
status."

Thanks to the CTC, a Local Vocational Qualification is now being piloted,
which addresses the skills, knowledge and understanding necessary for the job.

For Forrest, one of the most striking ways that training is now integrated
throughout the organisation is through an annual awards ceremony attended by
the Lord Mayor. This year’s winners include a primary school lunchtime
assistant who has trained to provide classroom help for children with special
needs.

"It was rewarding precisely the sort of jobs that often get
overlooked," says Forrest. "It is a sign that development of people
runs right through the organisation.

"It’s a very powerful message that you may be in quite a humble job but
by golly you matter to us."

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