Corporate Peer Challenge feedback report: Bolsover District Council

Bolsover District Council received an LGA Corporate Peer Challenge (CPC) in November 2019. The purpose of the CPC follow-up in November 2021 was to help the council take stock of progress made against the recommendations identified in the peer team’s November 2019 report. This follow-up report therefore provides a written summary of the key observations and suggestions made by the peer team as part of its visit in November 2021.

1. Executive summary

Bolsover District Council received an LGA Corporate Peer Challenge (CPC) in November 2019. The purpose of the CPC follow-up in November 2021 was to help the council take stock of progress made against the recommendations identified in the peer team’s November 2019 report. This follow-up report therefore provides a written summary of the key observations and suggestions made by the peer team as part of its visit in November 2021.

The overall key messages and observations from this follow-up are that:

The council has clearly made significant progress since the peer team’s previous CPC visit in November 2019. Through their background reading and discussions with council colleagues onsite as part of this follow-up, the peer team particularly noted:

  • the council’s clear vision for the district through its prospectus, Vision Bolsover
  • significant progress in developing the council’s Medium Term Financial Plan
  • how much clearer Strategic Alliance arrangements are in terms of senior management structure, and consequently how the council can and is now focussing specifically on Bolsover’s residents, other customers and the district
  • the completion of a fundamental review of the council’s environmental health service - a significant amount of work bringing evidenced benefits
  • that all this and other work relating to the peer team’s recommendations from November 2019 has been delivered alongside ‘business as usual’ and additional work undertaken in light of Covid-19.

Given all these improvements and the momentum built up from undertaking all this work, the council now has the opportunity to further clarify member/officer roles and responsibilities to assist their respective work.

As all this work continues, as a learning organisation, the council will benefit from developing a culture of welcoming and considering constructive challenge from members, officers, external advisers and stakeholders to enable the very best decision making and widest buy in from all council colleagues. Such challenge is healthy, positive, valuable and necessary to help avoid potential pitfalls and to make the most of everyone’s ideas.

2. Summary of the peer challenge approach

The follow-up review approach

Peer challenges and their follow-ups are focused on improvement and tailored to meet individual council’s needs. They are designed to complement and add value to a council’s own performance and improvement focus. It is important to stress that this was not an inspection. The process is not designed to provide an in-depth or technical assessment of plans and proposals. The peer team used their experience and knowledge of local government to reflect on the information presented to them by people they met, things they saw and material they read.

The peer team prepared by reviewing a range of documents and information provided by Bolsover District Council to ensure the team were familiar with the council, its context, its plans for the future and the progress it has made. Peer team members also spoke to a number of members and officers in advance of the peer team’s full day onsite visit on Tuesday 30 November 2021. During the onsite visit itself, the peer team:

  • gathered information and views from the timetabled workshop and 17 meetings, in addition to further research and reading
  • spoke to more than 50 people including a range of council staff and members.

This report provides a summary of the peer team’s collated and triangulated findings. In presenting feedback, they have done so as fellow local government officers and members as supportive, constructive critical friends, not as assessors, consultants nor inspectors.

The peer team

Peer challenges and their follow-ups are delivered by experienced elected member and officer peers. Peers from Bolsover District Council’s November 2019 CPC peer team took part in this-follow up with LGA officers:

  • Cllr Marianne Overton MBE, Vice-Chair of the LGA, Leader of the Independent Group at North Kesteven District Council, Lincolnshire County Council
  • Sophie Hosking, Strategic Director - Neighbourhoods, Cornwall Council
  • Rachel Prance, Communications Manager, Buckinghamshire Council 
  • Richard Block, Assistant Director – Corporate and Improvement, Colchester Borough Council
  • Vicki Goddard, Review Manager, LGA
  • Suraiya Khatun, Programme Support Officer, LGA.

Scope and focus

The peer team considered all nine recommendations from its November 2019 CPC report:

  1. Build on your vision – once it is further developed and agreed, ensure the Strategic Alliance Management Team plan how to implement the vision throughout the council – what to achieve, why, how, by whom and by when.
  2. Be clear about the Strategic Alliance – agree what it will ultimately look like, why and how it will work. Communicate the agreement to all staff across both councils. This will clarify the structure and which services are joint and council specific, set the Alliance’s direction, and help answer staff’s related concerns.
  3. Consider staff capacity and vacancy management as part of clarifying the Strategic Alliance’s structure, to confirm related savings and budgets, and to address the workload, pressure and morale of existing staff.
  4. Be rigorous in ‘planning your plans’ through programme management – many of your plans and strategies are coming to an end. They therefore need urgent reviewing to confirm future direction, the work and resources involved. Identify and address your potential weaknesses through your strategic risk register as part of this. All this work needs programme managing to deliver the work efficiently and effectively.
  5. Develop a meaningful Medium Term Financial Strategy – you have a financial position statement but you need a comprehensive five-year strategy, identifying how you will manage the various components of your income and finances to meet your expenditure forecasts and pressures. This strategy and ensuing action plan will require active monitoring to ensure your financial path is clear and that you are sustainable. Make the most of your members from the outset to steer and set the strategy.
  6. Trust your statutory appointees, other staff and members so they can best protect your decision makers and reputation – staff are concerned that due process may not always be followed consistently. This poses potential reputational and financial risk. In some cases, this may be down to perception, eg where decisions haven’t been made openly, or may reflect poor process and governance. The council should therefore trust and make maximum use of its statutory appointees, other staff and members who can protect and support decision makers.
  7. Review external and internal communication so key messages are regularly communicated to members, staff, partners and local people. This will help ensure they know what is happening, can best engage and feel involved. The Local Government Association (LGA) offers a range of on-site communications support via its website.
  8. Further train, develop and support your members (including scrutiny) to best carry out their roles – this will enable the council to really challenge and drive its work forward, maximising your potential. Involve members at all stages of work and support them with external and internal training.
  9. Exercise a corporate grip on the environmental health service’s recovery – the service cannot recover by itself and needs members’ and Management Team’s support to steer its recovery as part of the council’s wider, refreshed vision.

3. More Detailed Feedback

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3.1. Build on your vision

Through the council’s Vision Bolsover prospectus, an ambitious, clear and positive plan has been outlined for the district relating to priorities around customers, the economy and environment. This vision has been widely communicated with stakeholders, is appreciated by council colleagues, and is setting the agreed direction for Bolsover District Council’s work programme.

As this vision is delivered, there should be an enhanced focus on scrutiny, costings, performance management and benefits realisation. This will not only show and reassure the public what difference you are making, and evidence that you are doing what you promised, but will also enable you to best manage performance and progress across all the vision’s 16 projects and avoid unnecessary problems, eg:

  • many of the 16 projects do not yet have any indicative costs. Further such work will be crucial to commencing and managing them from the outset, and clarifying what will be delivered with the identified funding
  • performance reports about the council’s progress generally, including this vision, are presented to and received by the Audit & Corporate Overview Scrutiny Committee to keep it informed of and to note progress. The peer team also noted examples whereby overview and scrutiny committees’ comments on such reports had been noted, sometimes leading to minor amendments. There is significant opportunity however for overview and scrutiny committees to maximise their roles by continually exploring and constructively challenging and influencing the council’s progress and performance, to help identify any potential issues and provide the best direction in taking the work forward. The peer team heard for example from various sources about the need for more oversight and transparency of decision making regarding the location of key projects. This would help ensure the projects reflect, address and benefit the needs of the whole district, and clearly outline how these decisions were made.

3.2. Be clear about the Strategic Alliance

The council has agreed and reorganised its senior management structure so it solely serves its own council rather than the wider Strategic Alliance with North East Derbyshire District Council. This change has provided clarity of accountability and has been welcomed by Bolsover District Council’s members and officers. It is also enabling the council to specifically focus on delivering services within the Bolsover district and addressing its communities’ needs and aspirations.

The peer team heard throughout its visit that an understandable consequence of separating the joint leadership arrangements and finalising the senior management structure is that some service teams are now unsure who they and others should report and be accountable to, whether certain services should be working as a single council or shared service across the Strategic Alliance, and how services within the council and the Strategic Alliance will align with each other. Whilst staff have been regularly updated on these issues in various ways, communicating that senior management structure yet further across the council will help provide that top level clarity, enabling questions such as these to be discussed, resolved and also communicated widely.

Systematic service reviews being undertaken for joint services are also a sensible approach, which will help address some of these questions. Any resulting service level agreements will need to have clear specifications, clarified budgets, commissioning arrangements and workforce numbers, including clear lines of management and reporting. This will ensure both councils’ roles and expectations, whether as the client or the provider, are fully understood by and aligned with one another. All this will also help confirm and reassure staff of their posts and roles.

3.3. Consider staff capacity and vacancy management

Staff have responded well to Covid-19 pressures and continue to deliver good services to local residents and other customers. This is due in part to the significant progress that the council has made to agile working in many respects, enabling significantly more staff to work productively from home.

The council has recruited to hard-to-fill environmental health and other services’ posts by addressing market forces issues as well as adopting a ‘grow your own’ approach, to assist the longer-term staffing of the service.

Regular review of vacancies and refresh of the council’s workforce numbers by members, finance and HR are welcomed. These are resolving a number of outstanding posts and are helping to clarify the total workforce figure. Succession and career planning could assist this further, wherever possible. The council has many excellent and committed staff at all levels. Offering further opportunities to staff so they can gain skills and promotion into vacant posts on an ongoing basis would further their loyalty to, and benefit, the council.

3.4. Be rigorous in ‘planning your plans’ through programme management

The closure of the council’s Transformation Plan, the redistribution of key projects and the council’s ‘planning of plans’ are all positive developments against this recommendation. There is also a recognised programme management system in use to assist all this work with a clear RAG (red, amber, green) rating system to identify progress and any issues.

The Executive is clear on strategic risks as identified in their risk management strategy, which also includes operational, partnership and governance risks.

The peer team also recognised the council’s work on climate change by the related working group and scrutiny. Given the importance of climate change, both internationally as well as locally, and therefore the council’s work on this, Bolsover District Council should consider adding climate change to its project and risk registers and performance management framework, so that the council’s work on this and the associated risks can be best addressed.

3.5. Develop a meaningful medium-term financial strategy

The peer team was impressed with the significant, positive work undertaken by the council to produce a Medium Term Financial Plan since the peer team’s last visit.

The Section 151 Officer and the Portfolio Holder for Finance are clearly experienced and knowledgeable to deliver this work, and the Portfolio Holder is comfortable in his role, including critiquing reports and providing challenge in meetings.

Given that the council is already considering new income streams, eg via a new crematorium, it should also further consider adopting a default income policy as part of its approach. Generating income can be difficult, especially politically, but such a policy whereby every service by default considers an income target, even a target of £0, enables maximum consideration of generating income across the council, rather than potentially just within certain services.

3.6. Trust your statutory appointees, other staff and members so they can best protect your decision makers and reputation

The new Employment and Personnel Committee is giving members a clear role in making decisions on Assistant Director level appointments and above, and elsewhere throughout the council where there are key costs and growth to the establishment. Members have also appointed a strong, new senior management team. This includes confirming the role of one of the two former managerial Joint Strategic Leaders of the council, who is now an Executive Director.

Given these changes and the momentum that has built up through this and other work since the peer team’s previous recommendations, the council now has the opportunity to further clarify member/officer roles and responsibilities, in areas where the distinction between them is not always clear, and accordingly refresh the council’s member/officer protocol. The review of the council’s constitution in May 2021, including member/officer relations protocols, roles, responsibilities and codes of conduct is a good basis on which to develop this work further. This would assist members’ and officers’ work by providing additional clarity, ie the distinction that the Executive and other members make strategic and critical decisions that are informed and supported by officers, whereas officers deliver operational and transactional matters.

As a learning organisation, the council would further benefit from and should therefore continue to develop a culture of welcoming and actively considering constructive challenge, internally and externally, from members, officers, other advisers and stakeholders. The council has a variety of mechanisms that invite challenge, eg surveys, public consultations, audit and scrutiny reports and projects, access to senior management, and invitations to provide feedback. The peer team heard how some people felt they could challenge decisions through such mechanisms and that their challenge was accepted well. The team also however heard from various people who feel their and other’s well-meant, constructive challenges have been dismissed or ignored, or they do not feel confident to put such challenge forward. There therefore needs to be universal, consistent welcoming of such challenge, which is healthy, positive, valuable and necessary, and benefits council decision making processes and work programmes in a variety of ways. Challenge provides, for example, members and staff with opportunities to strengthen council decisions and work programmes. It enables everyone to consider, identify and prevent potential serious problems and further challenge. In doing so, it also creates the widest buy-in from members and officers who feel comfortable offering such comments and are encouraged and empowered to do so. Constructive challenge is therefore essential to ensure all well-meant comments and ideas are at least fully considered, if not acted upon. The council should therefore consider developing such a culture to enhance all the council’s work.

3.7. Review external and internal communication

The communications service has a service plan and undertakes lots of communication activity, from online to hardcopy materials and documents. Internal and external communication strategies would however help to identify which audiences need to receive what communications and who from, including residents, other customers and staff. This also relates to the points raised in the previous section about member/officer roles and responsibilities, so that audiences are clear through the communications they receive who is responsible for what and whom to approach if required.

Communication strategies should also enable the measurement of performance against the strategies’ objectives to evaluate success and further develop communications. The peer team heard for example from different sources that the council does not yet measure where different communications are going to and how many people are receiving or searching them. Opportunities are however there to identify the effectiveness of different types communications and therefore where best to focus and/or reduce efforts and resources. The peer team also heard differing views on staff and resident surveys. Some people thought there were regular surveys and others did not. There are therefore further opportunities to develop and communicate internally and externally a plan for staff and resident surveys to ensure the effectiveness and targeting of council services and communications can be measured, evidenced and adjusted to deliver the very best services to residents and other customers.

3.8. Further train, develop and support your members (including scrutiny) to best carry out their roles

A member development group and plan are in place with various training being delivered and on offer. The peer team heard differing views on member engagement and effectiveness of training, such has finance and scrutiny. Whilst for example various training has been delivered and is on offer, members are not always attending mandatory training, and are not asking as many questions or providing constructive challenge as much as they could to demonstrate their understanding and enhance decision making.

A particular example was given however where scrutiny had been really effective in changing lives in the community, and it is this sort of proactive scrutiny work that should be built on to include and improve a wider range of issues and witnesses.

It is not always easy to persuade people to attend training that is mandatory but publishing member training records, ie which members have attended training, on council’s websites is a good, easy way of letting the public know how informed members are through the training they have taken up. Additionally, some training is mandatory across the country for particular committee members, eg those on planning committees, which can be another way to encourage attendance.  

3.9. Exercise a corporate grip on the environmental health service’s recovery

The peer team was impressed with the portfolio holder, executive director and the assistant director for the environmental health service’s clear corporate grip and leadership on this service’s recovery since the peer team’s November 2019 visit. All this work, including that within the environmental health team itself, is a credit to the council.

The fundamental review undertaken of the service, which was completed within a year, and investment in the service, are already paying clear dividends, for example regarding Food Standards Agency related inspections, other enforcement activities, with further improvements planned.  

The peer team particularly noted that this review and improvement work had been undertaken by the council and the service throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, making it even more of an achievement.

There is also a positive and committed desire within the service to further improve, eg by turning innovative ideas around income and business generation into action.    

The next step, which the council has confirmed and supports, is for the service’s commissioning arrangements with North East Derbyshire District Council to be confirmed, eg as the client or the provider, in any agreed service level agreement at part of the Strategic Alliance. Without that clear commissioning, direction and clarity of roles, it will be difficult to consider and take maximum further improvements forward.

4. Next steps

The LGA would like to thank the council for undertaking this follow-up. The peer team appreciate that senior officers and political leaders will want to reflect on the findings within this report to determine how the council wishes to take things forward.

Under the umbrella of LGA sector-led improvement, there is an on-going offer of support to councils. The LGA is well placed to provide additional support, advice, and guidance for development and improvement.

Mark Edgell (Principal Adviser) is a main point of contact between the council and the LGA at The four political group offices of the LGA also provide continued support of councillors using accredited peers. These political group offices can be accessed through the LGA’s website.