Essex County Council is one of the largest local authorities in the UK, looking after around 1.4 million residents. Like many public-sector employers, it faced huge cuts to its budget after the Government’s spending review in 2010.
Despite this, it wanted to improve levels of engagement among employees. As it admits in its winning submission for Personnel Today’s Award for Public Service Excellence in 2013, this would be “challenging even when your audience isn’t facing an uncertain future due to a massive transformation programme, and some would say almost impossible in a political landscape that sees public-sector pay frozen and pensions under threat”.
Undeterred, the council launched a council-wide initiative known as “Your Voice”, where two full-time equivalent employees steer engagement in the council. They work within the HR function, aiming to make managers more accountable for empowering and engaging their teams, so they can develop employees to embrace change and collaborate, and ensure that leaders made meaningful connections with council employees.
One of the highlights of the initiative was the Your Voice engagement day. The idea was that, on a given day, 48 separate but simultaneous conversations would be hosted by senior leaders. This event was delivered on zero budget, using in-house venues across the county and providing refreshments funded through sponsorship.
The council also adopted a novel approach to focus groups. Using the well-known Carlsberg advertising slogan, it asked employees to apply this theory to problem areas in their workplace – for example: “If Carlsberg did communication at Essex, it would be the best in the world, so what would it look and feel like?”
In addition, it developed a council employee panel to shape policies and projects, and created an informal network of “Essex engagers”, which now includes 500 employees. Line managers are welcome to attend a bite-size learning session known as “Engage Space”, which helps them to understand their role in employee engagement.
In order to improve communication with, and visibility of, senior leaders, the council launched a series of speed networking events hosted by the deputy chief executive and executive director of transformation. It also deployed “Thank God it’s Monday” employee focus groups and “Go Mad about Employee Engagement” workshops for line managers.
Response rates to the Your Voice engagement survey have increased to 77% in 2012. The average local government benchmark is just over 50%. Essex’ employee engagement index has increased by 3% across the organisation, and in some teams exceeds the 80%+ target.
One of the awards judges, Richard Crouch, praised Essex County Council for the effect that this improved engagement will have on the people that the organisation serves, saying this was “the only entry to make a community link in the challenge”.