Coventry pushes training to improve performance

Coventry City Council has overhauled its training function with the launch
of a corporate strategy for learning – and a new workforce development team to
carry it out – in response to growing pressure on local authorities to improve

"What we previously had was an organisational development unit that was
essentially self-financing, so if your section could afford training you did
it," said Shokat Lal, head of workforce development. "There was an
uneven distribution of resources."

Councils traditionally took this kind of approach because training is
"easily quantifiable in monetary terms," said Lal, but with all local
authorities now being inspected and rated under the Government’s Comprehensive
Performance Assessment (CPA) process, growing numbers of local authorities are
seeing the benefits of a corporate, strategic approach.

The Audit Commission assessed Coventry in December 2002, giving it a
"poor" rating, the lowest on the scale. The council was re-assessed
this year, jumping one place to "weak" – though it is currently
appealing on the basis it should have gone even higher to "fair".

The new strategy and workforce development team means learning will play a
key role in Coventry’s plan for further improvement. "This year we’re
trying to ensure every employee has three days off-the-job training," said

The council spends more than £1m, excluding grants, each year on training
for its 14,000 staff – from minute-taking and IT, to performance management and
leadership training for senior managers. Learning provision must also span a
diverse workforce, from social workers with "huge legislative
requirements" to frontline customer facing roles such as refuse

The backbone of Coventry’s new strategy is its ‘corporate training
directory’, a range of bread-and-butter courses in areas such as core skills,
management competencies and performance development that are free of charge.
The majority of directory courses will be run by Coventry’s own staff trainers,
said Lal. "At the moment, there is the need for people delivering the
training to know what Coventry is all about," he added.

For more specialised areas of need, however, Coventry is calling in the
consultants. Leadership for senior managers and elected members of the council
were two areas identified as weak in the CPA process. Senior managers are now
working towards diplomas in applied management that are run by Warwick
University and tailored to Coventry’s particular issues and needs, while the
elected leaders of the council have attended a development programme run by the
Improvement and Development Agency.

Coventry is also using more community-based training initiatives for staff,
with the added benefit of helping local charities or voluntary groups, as well
as doing peer support with other local authorities. "It’s easy for one
local authority to invite another," said Lal. "There’s not the same
sense of competition as in the private sector."

Non-traditional methods such as these are the future, explained Lal.
"Within the strategy, we’ve developed a five-year plan. We’re looking at
moving towards coaching and mentoring and away from the corporate directory. We
might go for a much more directorate-based [ie, department-based] approach.
There would be a consistent corporate approach, but we wouldn’t necessarily be
using conventional classroom training as the method," he said.

By Margaret Kubicek

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