Hackney Council’s woes are well known to many. The London authority seems to lurch from one financial crisis to another and languishes at the ‘poor’ end of the Comprehensive Performance Assessment (CPA) spectrum. The area’s problems with crime and drugs are, it seems, never far from the headlines.
So it might come as a surprise that on 23 September Hackney Council will receive organisational Investors in People (IIP) accreditation – putting it a step ahead of many of its ‘excellent’ CPA colleagues.
As recently as June 2000, when chief executive Max Caller was recruited, the process took place in secret because no one wanted to admit they were going to put their career on the line and offer their services to Hackney.
“It was against that backdrop that Max arrived,” recalled Terry McDougall, assistant chief executive, Human Resources.
“From an HR point of view, levels of sickness were very high, there were key positions, recruitment vacancies we were unable to fill. There had been a matrix structure that meant it was difficult to see who was accountable and where responsibilities lay. It was even difficult for the public to work out where they needed to go for their services.
“We set about creating a no-frills, solid management structure, going back to basics.
“One of the things that was quite clear to me was that while we had to get the basics right we had to bring our finances back into place,” McDougall says. “We had to make clear service improvements. The level of service we were delivering for our residents was not acceptable.
“The only way we were going to turn this around was through our staff. At every layer – whether it was the manager being accountable for the budget or frontline workers delivering a service – there had to be a sense of everybody knowing what they had to do and where their role fitted in,” she said.
At this point, the council didn’t even have an accurate figure of how many people worked for it.
This left the HR team with the unenviable task of addressing any normal staff issues while simultaneously fixing the budget, adjusting the managerial hierarchy, bringing the outsourced waste management back under its control and farming out the education department.
McDougall refutes suggestions that doing all this at once meant putting staff considerations on the backburner.
“The one thing we never lost sight of was the investment in our staff,” she said. “No matter how dire our financial position, we did not cut our training budget.
“Instead we focused it on big issues like financial management, financial accountability and understanding what the rules were for going from a matrix structure to where people could identify with the directorate they are in.”
The decision to go for corporate IIP was instrumental, as it forced the council to create a new regime of appraising, supervising and valuing staff while putting in a proper performance management regime.
“Also, we promised and kept our commitments to invest in our black and ethnic minority staff. They were under-developed in terms of whatever training was being dished out,” McDougall explained.
The council developed the Phoenix Programme to provide minority employees with the skills, knowledge and attitudes they require to do their job effectively as well as to acquire lifelong skills to enhance their capacity to operate at a higher level.
When staff sign up for the course, their manager also has to do the same, thereby providing the employee with ‘a champion and a mentor’.
To find the content it could use to further staff careers and battle discrimination, the council consulted its ‘Black and Visible Minorities Group’ as well as external consultants and lecturers from the London Metropolitan University and Kingston College.
Since it began, a total of 150 employees have gained a recognised management qualification through the programme, and another 58 will sign up to the programme in the 2004-05 academic year.
The council has also created the ‘University of Hackney’, offering training masterclasses to 150 first-tier to third-tier managers. McDougall said it provided the opportunity for managers to support one another.
It is difficult to see how such a cash-strapped council can be in a position to pay for all these innovations, but McDougall revealed that a lot of creativity makes up for a lack of money.
“Sometimes things are not that costly. For example, we have gone for a workshop approach for our HR standard.
“When the law changes and you have to update one of your HR procedures, you can do it through the ‘Rolls-Royce’ bit and do great big training programmes, or you can take a group of managers who are working with these rules already and just have to be briefed on the amendments, she said.
“I hate to use the phrase ‘quick and dirty’, but it is an effective way of doing it – a workshop, 20-odd people and you do it yourself. A lot of my HR people run our own workshop training,” she explained.
“We are increasingly getting managers involved who have been through problems such as a disciplinary or sickness management issues. Then we use them as role models.”
Hackney has tried to reorganise before and failed. So why should this attempt be any different? McDougall said IIP accreditation was a testament to the council’s “undaunting” focus – not only on the goals, but on the systems that make for good HR and management.
“The difference is that there has been a cultural shift, which said IIP status was not just the goal, it meant embedding these practices because they are of value and they will deliver improved services at end of the day,” she said.