Working in local government has never been so tough. The economic, political and social context means more and more services are feeling the strain. The outlook is a bit on the bleak side, with damning reports from the UN on UK austerity highlighting a disconnect between policy and reality. For many leaders of councils, this is a worrying time – knowing that services need to change to meet need, but also balancing that demand with the fact that fewer resources are available means making some hard calls. This is going to need transformational change, and new approaches – not just cost-cutting. But such change is also going to need specialist skills, new insights and new ways of working.
Wealden District Council are doing just that. The leadership team decided that meeting such challenges required a fresh approach – and they met those challenges by putting in place a team of specialists to act as internal consultants. Their mission – to assess and find new ways of working for cross-team, specialist, and unique projects. How did they do it? By adopting a partnership approach and applying specialist skills and learning to make change happen.
In the following interview, Yvette Gyles – Director at =mc talks to Gill Cameron-Waller – Policy, Insights and Communications Manager (pictured below) at Wealden District Council about their exciting journey:
Gill, tell me about your role and what it is the Policy, Insights and Communications (PIC) team do at Wealden?
Well, we have lots of strings to our bow – and have our fingers in all the pies! The short explanation is that we lead on cross-organisational projects and communications, in order to ensure the council is as efficient and as effective as possible. However, it is also much more exciting than that. We look outside, at the external world, and use this to deliver added value to the services the council provides. We do this by influencing the agenda and strategic direction of the council – largely through our work in research, policy development, and external partnerships. Our role is also about looking inside and being innovative – using analysis and insights to drive changes to the way we work within the council. And finally, our role is about communication – using our knowledge of behavioural sciences to shape our services, manage demands, and improve experiences for people who are engaged with the council.
There’s a whole heap of actions behind all of this of course. But in the main, our team is unique in that we both promote change and innovation at the council, whilst supporting other teams to do their important work.
What is an internal consultant and how does that role work within a council?
In our capacity as internal consultants we have a really unique role. We are a team that works across the organisation and this gives us a different perspective to others, including the “bigger picture”. We can see where there is space for collaboration, networking, and shared knowledge. This means we can add real value to our colleagues – both by supporting their projects with insights and communications; and also in leading projects that perhaps others wouldn’t be able to see. Therefore, we work in partnership with our colleagues in other departments. We couldn’t do what we do without their expertise, and we help them harness this to do the really important things that they do.
We do this in a disciplined way – using research, data, insights analysis and rigorous project management to make changes and craft our communications.
How we do this is really important. We don’t just barge in and take over. We instead play the role of “critical friend, and trusted advisor”. We can challenge our colleagues, as well as being creative in looking at new approaches to the work of the council. It’s a partnership.
Sounds like an innovative approach to local government – how did this come about?
Working in local government at the moment is interesting, challenging and frustrating. It is well known we are under a lot of pressure – doing more for less has been the mantra for many years. However, the reality now is that “less” is no longer an option. Many councils are looking hard at their finances and surviving is about “doing what can be done with the resources we have”. We don’t have enough money to do things the way we used to do. So, that’s an interesting challenge – we want to deliver all the services our residents expect, but we can’t deliver them in the same way. We also want to do better than surviving – we want to thrive. Councils need to change, and change fast. Not something they are used to.
But what excites me, and what excited our CEO when we started this approach, is that the extreme challenge also gives us huge scope to look at things differently – to work in completely different ways and challenge our thinking. That is where our team comes in.
As a result of working in this context our work comes in two ways: we either get given a challenge to solve whereby teams will come to us for our skills and insights. Or we will spot an opportunity to make a change, improve a service, work in partnership and achieve better outcomes in doing so.
What success have you and your team had?
We’ve delivered some brilliant pieces of work in the last year, which have had a real impact.
One of our early successes was to reduce workload for our Car Parking team who were inundated with appeals against parking tickets. We were commissioned by the Head of Housing and Property Services to come up with ways to reduce the workload.
Our initial approach was to explore the dimensions of the problem with members of the front line team, listen to what they were telling us and probe what they weren’t. In parallel we did our own desk research to check out practice elsewhere. Two things quickly became evident: the instinctive kindly, helpful customer service approach was inappropriate in this instance – making the rules crystal clear was key. Over the years, the council’s car parking web pages had been tweaked and added to, creating layers of information which was confusing and even out of date. We revised the pages, simplified language and structure, worked with IT to make online payment the norm, with the ‘reward’ being to save £30 by paying within the first 14 days – classic behavioural techniques. We recommended removing the phone number too, to help manage the time pressures. The number was already pre-printed on the offence notices so that is an option for further down the line. But we did succeed in getting calls diverted to the council’s contact centre so that the straightforward cases were kept away from the specialised team.
Our role as Internal Consultants has also allowed us to help other teams within the council receive national recognition and exposure for their work. Previously, it was the responsibility of for each individual department to put their projects up for awards, however this meant the council’s approach was not consistent and Senior Management could not keep track of submissions. Success rates for submissions using this approach was also fairly low.
The Senior Management Team gave us responsibility for submitting award entries on behalf of other departments. This ensured branding for the council was consistent, and awards submissions could be tracked. Performance Management and Communication expertise means we are now able to build stronger arguments and evidence bases for our awards submissions. It is also welcome PR for the council when we gain recognition in this way.
Since the PIC team have been working with other departments on their award entries, Wealden has been shortlisted as finalists for 7 awards. Including most recently, a nomination for a Local Government Chronicle Award in the category of “Driving Efficiency through Technology” through our Drive to Digital Group – the only District Council to be shortlisted in this category. Whilst the officers involved in the council’s Drive to Digital initiative have produced a project worthy of an award nomination, our success as internal consultants can also be attributed to the effective telling of their story. We look good when they do, so it really is win win.
You must have faced some hurdles in getting to this position – how did you overcome those?
You’re right, it hasn’t all been plain sailing. Traditionally, councils are structured along specialist lines – departments with hierarchies. So, you’ll have a housing department, a planning department, a waste management department etc, etc. We have to keep working hard to get across that – to help people to see we are not so much another department, but a team that works across those lines. Sometimes this is relatively straight forward – for example, if the CEO or Senior Management Team gave a direct instruction on a project it would be easy to get our colleagues on board and buy-in to a project. Other times that is much harder – we may be seeing something they can’t see and need to push the agenda; using influence and insights rather than direct challenge.
Another challenge we had was in articulating ourselves. We have such technical skills in our team, that we found it hard to communicate what we were all about to others. Thankfully the training we had from =mc really helped with that. We now have a very clear purpose and can explain that to people: we provide insights, developments and communications that deliver outcomes for the District.
Finally, we had to learn to be a team – and that takes time. We were fortunate to have a team away day, to spend the day working out what we need to focus on and our priorities. We all have different disciplines and technical specialisms to bring to the table – and it has been important to get to know the strengths we can offer each other individually, so that we can provide joined-up solutions and ideas to the council. The two-day training programme we had with =mc helped with that – we all learned about our communication preferences and how to adapt our style in order to get the most from each other and our colleagues.
The team is in such a good place now – confident, enthusiastic, satisfied. The hurdle we are now facing is that, having made a good name for ourselves, we are getting more work and projects in than we can handle! It’s a good thing, and we need to work through our priorities. Being systematic will help with that.
What advice would you give to anyone else wanting to try this approach in their organisation?
Like anything, you need to have a clear purpose. You need to be really honest about why you want this approach, what the benefits will be and most importantly what the limitations are. There can be a tendency for our team to get pulled into lots and lots of things. We are clear on our unique skills and contributions, how we bring that to the table – and therefore, when we don’t need to be involved. Consultancy isn’t about always saying yes – it’s also about saying no. That’s what partnership means too – working collaboratively whilst being clear on roles and boundaries.
If you are going to work in any kind of innovation, improvement or internal collaboration team you need to make sure you have buy-in from all levels, including the top. This will go a long way in influencing colleagues and getting traction with the projects you take on. Being an internal consultant means being objective, and looking at what is best for the organisation, which at times is quite challenging, so you need that support in your corner.
Finally, having a toolkit and agreed process makes consultancy work in a joined-up way. That’s why we really liked the systematic approach from =mc, which we could build on, adapting it to make it our own. It gave us a language and collective understanding, helped us to frame our approach and work better together.
What are your plans now? What can we expect next from the team?
We’ve been working as a team for a while now, and since our =mc training (where we agreed how we need to work together) it’s full steam ahead. Currently our focus is on strengthening our relationships, prioritising our programme of work, and embedding our learning from the last year. Like any team, there are unexpected changes, and the shared approach =mc helped us achieve has made us far more resilient and flexible. We are also much more at ease with uncertainty.
I’m really excited about the work we can do, and the changes we can help bring about. We need to take other people on that journey with us – and that’s now happening.
If you would like to know more about the work of the Policy, Insights and Communication team, or how to use =mc’s approach to internal consultancy to improve your cross-organisational working then get in touch by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.