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How can councils transform their cultures?
Angie Ridgwell, Chief Executive, Lancashire County Council, 6 November, 2019

This October, I had the pleasure of participating in an NLGN Innovation Exchange for the first time. These intense, day-long sessions are an opportunity to meet with others working in the same area and explore, in-depth, some of the challenges we face.

This event was tailored to Chief Executives who are interested in transforming working cultures. It was particularly relevant for me because we are about to embark on a significant piece of work at Lancashire County Council to change up what we are already doing, so we can provide even better services for our local residents and businesses. This is designed to be a strength-based approach that resets the relationship between us, our residents and our partners. We want to empower our staff to make good quality, timely decisions and ensure the enablers within the organisations make it easy for them to do so. One of the issues really playing on my mind is how, in an area as large and diverse as Lancashire, we get the balance right between consistency and a one-county culture, whilst recognising the diversity of our residents and workforce. To what degree and when is warranted variation appropriate?

It was incredibly useful to be able to speak to other people embarking on similar journeys, and to hear about their visions for positive culture change. All of those in attendance on the day agreed on one core point: that what they wanted to see was a council where officers are more autonomous and outward facing in their work.

It was great to be able to share how we were approaching this in Lancashire, and interesting to hear about the challenges others were facing. For some, the challenge was tackling institutional risk-aversion. For others, the sheer size of a council workforce added complexity to coordinating change.

For me, the day had three major takeaways:

  • The importance of building on strengths: Individuals and teams who are exemplars for innovation and good practice inspire the rest of us to look for opportunities to make changes. In Lancashire, we highlight good work through our weekly key messages and my fortnightly blog. A recent example I shared was from our single handed care team. With one of our Occupational Therapists I met a lady, Joyce, who was confined to a wheelchair and had the sharpest mind ever. By making some simple changes to her bed linen and personal equipment, we could improve her independence. This means that Joyce’s family can help her more often without worry of injuring her or themselves, and when Joyce is with her carer, the one-on one relationship fosters a bond of companionship and trust. Equally importantly, this frees up resources to help others like Joyce.

  • The importance of continuing to listen to all staff: It’s essential to give staff a real say in shaping the organisation – helping them to keep a vested interest in making the change a success. Of course, there is a need for specialist knowledge to understand how some of the levers of behavioural change need to be exerted within the organisation, helping make the vision relevant and real to every team, no matter what their role, and that needs to be blended with detailed local knowledge from those within the organisation. Wherever possible specialist knowledge needs to be captured and transferred to staff so we can sustain and evolve the changes long after our partners move on.

  • How crucial it is to ‘get out there’: There’s immense value in seeing what other councils are doing and hearing what they think of us. We, as an organisation, are doing great work in so many areas, but there’s huge scope for learning from others that are grappling with the same challenges or are ahead of us in certain ways. My experience in Lancashire is that staff love being able to see and learn from the best and are great at adapting models to address local complexity. Of course it’s just as important, and we love it, when we can showcase our own innovations too.

For myself, and I know for others, the day represented a very rare chance to take a step back from day- to day work, and to reflect openly on the challenges councils face. The chance to learn from each other’s experiences, and to hear about what is and isn’t working for other people was incredibly refreshing. I’d like to continue to build this into our future plans in Lancashire, ensuring that we are outward looking in everything we do.