Local government is going through a period of massive change at a fast pace. Consequently workforces need to adapt and become more effective to meet the challenges faced now and in the future.
Case study synopsis:
Local government is going through a period of massive change at a fast pace. Consequently workforces need to adapt and become more effective to meet the challenges faced now and in the future. Councils need to think and behave differently and work in a way that is more relevant to the context in which councils now have to operate. North East Lincolnshire Council have faced that challenge head on and have used the University of Birmingham's research into the changing role of public sector employees in order to start working in a different way now and in the future.
It was evident that the council could not operate in the same way as before and the challenge was to empower employees to think and behave differently. Rob Walsh, our Chief Executive, had seen the research and became passionate about it, seeing it as a vehicle for changing behaviours at the council. The research model, which features roles with intriguing titles such as Storyteller, Municipal Entrepreneur and Resource Weaver among others, was seen as a great starting point to get employees thinking about how the model related to the work they did, what work they might want to be involved with in the future, did they have existing strengths they wanted to build on, and what new skills they might want to develop and share.
Although Rob was clear of the pivotal role the model could play in shaping the workforce and driving change, it would not be unfair to say that the rest of the organisation found it hard to identify and engage with the concept initially due to its academic nature and terminology, and it was perceived to be aimed at leaders. There was also some gentle cynicism that it was another management fad!
There was some confusion that the roles within the model related to job titles and areas of work rather than linking to characteristics within the model. For example that the Storyteller role was describing somebody that worked in our Communications team, and the Commissioner role was aligned to a commissioning job within the council rather than a direction to a set of characteristics and skills.
To aid understanding and broaden out the narrow view of the research we engaged a “coalition of the willing” who understood what the research was trying to achieve, who were enthusiastic that it could challenge the status quo of the way we worked and could identify whether the right mix of skills, attitudes, and knowledge were established across the organisation. This core group became the Project Team and comprised a cross section our workforce.
Rob, who sponsored the project, had complete faith in the team and gave us a free rein to develop something meaningful and impactful for the organisation, to bring it to life – so no pressure! In all honesty, the group took a while to get going, there was a lot of scratching of heads about how to make the research more relatable and understandable to all the diverse parts of the council and how it could uncover potential.
We started with an attempt to localise the eight roles and associated characteristics. We thought we had cracked it, but this proved to be premature. We tested the initial attempt with our Employee Council and with managers – this established that what the team had come up with did not make much sense to a wider audience.
Back to the drawing board. Eventually, we came up with a way of linking the characteristics of a 21st Century Public Servant within a framework of generic terms that made sense to everybody.
For instance, for the role of Navigator we referenced road maps, road blocks, detours, car-sharing – which linked very well to having a plan in place, overcoming barriers and setbacks, keeping things moving, bringing the team with you to the final destination. For the role of Networker we linked the characteristics to social media. Using a pen picture approach brought the research to life in a way that had meaning and relevance to the workforce. It was an approach that was unlike any other corporate initiative which we felt was an important factor in making the work engaging and thought provoking.
Each pen picture had a description and what key skills were needed for each role. A skills matrix was developed which demonstrated what skills was associated with each of the eight roles. Out of this emerged a self-assessment tool which aligned employees to one of the roles and its key characteristics and strengths. The work was launched in November 2016 and was featured in the in-house newsletter.
Initially we thought that we should make the completion of the tool mandatory but Rob was very clear not to do that, it needed to be part of voluntary self-development. Interest in the work was triggered by informal chatter and promotion among colleagues. Lots of talk amongst colleagues “What role did you come out as?” “What were your top skills?”
An area devoted to 21st Century Public Servant is available on our intranet. This became a skills matching area. For example, people who had undertaken the self-assessment were sharing their scores and looking to help others improve in areas where their scores were lower. It provides a mechanism for individuals to imagine themselves in new roles – and how best to acquire the right skills.
The impact (including cost savings/income generated if applicable):
Because of the voluntary nature of the activity, we do not know how many people have completed the self-assessment tool. That is something that we want to find out more about in the future, and whether the tool has impacted on teams as well as individuals.
However, we know it has had an impact on our Learning and Development strategy – it has shaped our Talent and Leadership work. The Talent & Leadership Academy is a 12- 18 month programme designed around the 21st Century Public Servant Framework with the first cohort of 22 students starting the programme in September 2017. Each of the modules is aligned to a role which will further embed the work. The Academy is open to candidates looking ahead to become a leader, and for existing managers too – and they have to demonstrate why they deserve a place on the programme and their understanding and grasp of the principles of the 21st Century Public Servant. Dr Catherine Needham, co-author of the original University of Birmingham research, attended the first session on 28 September and we are grateful for her support. The programme will be evaluated after the first programme and it may be further adapted based on feedback from the first year.
We also want to explore how we can link into recruitment, job descriptions, succession and other strategies and how to link to project work in the council. Like a lot of councils undertaking a vast range of projects we have many project teams! We are always grateful to those who volunteer to be on the teams but we now use the 21st Century Public Servant roles to ensure that we have enough of a particular set of skills at the right time and do they add value to the work in hand? As an example do we have enough Brokers, are they involved in the group at the right time?
How is the new approach being sustained?
The work so far has sparked rich conversations and the train is on the right track but maintaining the momentum after the initial flurry of interest is challenging. We are keen to ramp up the interest again and we will be finding out what is stopping people from participating in the self-assessment.
We regularly link back to the 21st Century Public Servant work in an imaginative way. For instance during National Storytelling Week early in 2017 the staff newsletter featured the Storyteller role which asked readers what stories they had told that week. The other roles are also featured periodically.
We also want to explore a 360 degree tool to keep the momentum going. We are also keen to be involved with work that is taking place across the sector nationally with the LGA and partners.
Maintaining momentum is very important, but not always easy to do.
It is essential to make the work relevant, intriguing and engaging to the key audience and not to over complicate matters, keep it simple.
Having a passionate sponsor in Rob our Chief Executive has been invaluable.
Getting the right mix of people on the project team from the outset is also important. If the Project team do not “get it”, how can we expect our audience to? Getting the right people involved at the right time is also key.
Samantha Crossley Organisational Development Business Partner, email@example.com