Modernising the fourth largest council of its type in the UK, with a gross turnover of more than £1bn, takes clear vision, and a great sense of purpose.
Chris Trinick is too modest to claim those qualities himself, but what he will own up to is his commitment to people development, and the application of ‘corporate glue’.
Trinick is chief executive of Lancashire County Council (LCC), which ranks after Kent, Essex and Hampshire councils in size. It serves a population of 1.6 million and employs 42,000 staff.
His role and vision have evolved from the demands of the Local Government Act 2000, which obliged the modernisation of the local government agenda. In Lancashire’s case, this meant a shift to a new constitution – a parliamentary-style system – where council members are elected and officer-managed.
At the same time, the authority, like its counterparts, had to change to deal with current and future initiatives, while continuing to improve the quality of the services it delivered.
Trinick was in at the start of the modernisation, as he was seconded to manage change two years before his appointment as CEO in 2002.
“I came to the view that the county council was extremely well-serviced by highly professional officers, but that there was no corporate glue,” says Trinick. “The officers, such as education officers and accountants, tended to look at life from their particular perspective, but didn’t see the bigger picture.”
Trinick was looking for consistency in the way that staff thought and operated. He put in place a corporate planning process linked to business plans in service directorates, a new appraisal system and management competencies, clear accountabilities, and management training and development.
In a private sector context, none of this would have seemed particularly radical, but within the public sector, it involves “melding the old and new systems”, says Trinick.
“For example, there were pockets of appraisal and development going on across the organisation, but they were not coherent in working together. Social workers were receiving what you might call appraisal – which is called supervision – and groups such as lawyers were developing themselves professionally by doing their out-of-hours training for law society membership, but we needed consistency.”
The starting point for consistency across a broad spectrum of jobs within the authority was a behaviour framework developed in consultation with managers and an occupational psychologist over a six-month period.
It is based around five core competencies that apply to manual and non-manual staff alike: personal effective-ness, customer focus, teamwork and co-operation, achievement focus, and equality. All of these answer the core objective that ‘Lancashire has to be a good place to live , work and visit. A place where everybody matters.’
Further, detailed sets of competencies define management positions. “We have started to recruit against them, and to rewrite job descriptions against them as well,” says Trinick.
The third building block in the change programme is a ‘consistent’ corporate management development programme, run by the in-house organisational development department, and external courses with development consultancy Brathay, part of the charity Brathay Hall Trust. It costs £250,000 a year from the £1m training budget, and is expected to run for five years.
He says: “The concept behind the management development programme is we can say to our colleagues: ‘Here are the competencies you require at different levels from middle managers, senior managers and executive managers, and here is the programme running alongside it. If you want to move up this escalator, that’s what you have to do to get there. We’ll give you the facilities to get there, but you need to demonstrate these competencies’.”
Trinick is on a quest to create a learning organisation, as he thinks that best serves the development needs of the authority. His insight comes from his time as a senior education officer.
“It is almost 20 years since the education service began to devolve more powers to school level,” he says. “We moved from a system where the chief education officer was a God-like figure to a system where we operate on the basis of influence, rather than power. The education service is stronger as a result. The lesson was that learning organisations develop if you allow people to develop themselves,” he says.
Trinick goes on to explain how this can be translated into action. “People learn in different ways and, therefore, what needs to be created is a set of managed opportunities that are not open-ended, but do allow plenty of choice within them, so that people can find both the stimulus and the opportunity for personal growth.”
Trinick has a strong belief in the need for personal growth in this context because that’s what the business requires. “We are moving to a position now where the organisation is allowing managers to develop in such a way that they take responsibility for local service delivery,” he says.
LCC covers a disparate area, both culturally and economically. It includes towns with manufacturing backgrounds as well as market towns and farming communities. For Trinick and his staff, the challenge is to deliver the right service to these communities and, as he says, to break out of an inappropriate ‘one-size fits-all’ model.
He is turning his attention to front-line managers such as children’s managers in social services, district engineers and welfare rights advisers, as they are at the sharp end.
“The next stage is to say to front-line managers: ‘Here are the objectives for the year, corroborated through the appraisal process. Here’s the budget to go with it. You know how best to deliver that service at local level, provided its legal and you don’t overspend, do it’.”
He continues: “It’s not for me to second-guess the Burnley Social Service manager’s problems, for example – they know best, not me. We are holding managers to account, but we are also moving to a position where the organisation is allowing managers to take responsibility for local service delivery. At the end of the day, the customer or client is the most important person.”
Trinick applies the classic Peter Drucker definition of leadership about enabling other people to succeed, both to himself and to other people. “Its about giving them the tools to do the job, so we are giving them the accountabilities and the budgets, and saying to them on an annual basis: ‘Show us how that is best applied, and why’.”
Making change happen can be a very amorphous process. Trinick believes the individual, tailored nature of the programme (see box) has helped people to feel the change because it is happening to them, not just around them.
“When we first put together the programme with appraisal, competencies and so on, I think there was a feeling in the organisation that things seemed to be changing, but we had all seen such false dawns before.
“Now, people have an individual session with a tutor after the 360-degree appraisal, and a significant time to work on their contribution to the team and think about what they want for themselves professionally. It is creating a climate of expectation that people will take responsibility for services, push to meet customer needs, push themselves and work better in teams, and will be held accountable for that,” he says.
Measuring the impact of a tailored programme can be difficult when the emphasis is on the development of the individual. But official measurements give LCC a good basis for the future. Using the comprehensive performance assessment (CPA) rating, LCC has been ranked as a good authority. In October, the national inspector of social services will hopefully award a second star for that department.
This could lead to a refreshed and higher CPA assessment, which is scored on use of resources and partnership working – all areas that the development programme has addressed.
This autumn will also see the results of a staff survey on culture change by pollster Mori, and sent to employees’ homes. Trinick forecasts positive feedback from the poll, but admits that more change is inevitable.
“Public service is on the cusp of change – anyone who doesn’t want change had better not join,” he says. “We have to be prepared to be on our toes, and to change according to what the customer wants.”
Senior and middle managers complete 360-degree feedback before they attend a leadership development residential course at consultants Brathay’s residential centre in Ambleside in the Lake District.
The 360-degree feedback is discussed, with coaching, during the course, which includes some experiential interventions.
The development programme, which managers attend in ‘waves’ of around 130 delegates, is intended to enable managers to receive feedback about their professional development objectively in a structured format, and to enable areas that require future develop-ment to be addressed in a supportive and ‘safe’ environment. An in-house team runs a parallel course for junior managers.