Local Government Transformation Masterclass: How to get the best from working with your strategic transformation partners?

7 December 2023

Event details

7 December 2023

Chair: Sarah-Joy Lewis, Commercial Director, Local Partnerships

Presentation by:

  • Sally Watkins, Chief Operating Officer, Wokingham Borough Council
  • Mark Jupp, Director, Peopletoo


  • Although Wokingham is generally affluent, with high employment and salaries, there are pockets of severe deprivation. The area is also growing quickly, with an increase in population of 15 per cent since the last census period. 
  • Secondary school places and social housing are in short supply, and a higher-than-average number of child and adults have learning disabilities. 
  • Wokingham is the lowest funded unitary authority per head of population in England and has reduced its net expenditure budget by 50 per cent between 2010/11 and 2023/24.
  • The Dedicated Schools Grant and Home to School Transport (H2ST) budgets are under significant pressure. 
  • Actions taken so far include:
    • a dedicated focus on partnership working to support demand
    • becoming part of the Safety Valve Programme.
    • a corporate approach to specialist housing, migration, accommodation, and H2ST.
  • In the past local authorities (LAs) tended to keep to their own unique position but it’s now important to recognise that LAs are more alike than different, although local context can also be important to add nuance to challenges.
  • It’s key for both the council and partners to understand the local context, as this can give steer to strategy. 
  • Engagement with PeopleToo has been constantly evolving, with the partnership operating in an agile fashion. 
  • Often partners will come in with a number of staff, PeopleToo instead offer more bespoke work, which has developed into a partnership based on trust and honesty. This has led to more work being commissioned. 
  • Knowing the local context has allowed for a better knowledge of what is needed. 
  • Partnership working can be used to find out if something is worth doing, a good example of this is Safety Valve. 
  • As the confidence to do work increases internally the reliance on PeopleToo decrease, this is essential to long term success and not relying on consultants.

What makes partnerships successful?

  • The LA has to have a vision and the partner has to be confident the work will succeed.
  • The LA has to be open to challenge and a new way of working, with the partner needing to have the confidence to trust boundaries.
  • The LA has to acknowledge the gaps in capacity and expertise, being clear about where the partner can add value, and the partner needs to focus on the knowledge and skills transfer and building capacity in the LA.
  • Agility and flexibility are key, with the LA not having to commit to a large multi-year investment and the partner needing to be comfortable with uncertainty and being ready to deploy resources.



Q: H2ST is a challenge for councils. What actions have been taken to see if there is anything else that could be done to address this systemic issue?

A: There is no silver bullet for home to school transport, there are levers that can be utilised. Policy review can be hard and political. A real focus can be on arm’s length organisation that does social care and have used this to step up. Only 60 per cent of costs for Wokingham come from children going to schools within the borough so reviewing who is in your sphere of control and influence is important. It's also key to work with parents to find solutions also.

Q: What is the balance between savings and making services more effective?

A: Improvement elements should come first but good services will cost less. Adult Social Care improvement has led to more simplified pathways and better engagement, which has in turn led to savings.

Q: What process did you go through to make the case for investment in the partnership?

A: Partnership business cases should be made on a case by case basis, Wokingham didn’t want a large multi-year programme but a partner that could come in when needed and focus on particular issues. Wokingham also didn’t want to be taken over by those suppliers that are deemed change juggernauts but a real partnership.

Q: How have you managed internal capacity and PeopleToo capacity?

A: A mixed economy model of four programme managers and number of change specialists have been used under a business analysis function. Agency staff will only be bought in when needed in relation to public management. Fundamentally the change function is underpinned by the National Graduate Development Programme, with five to eight graduates working at any one time. PeopleToo varies on what resources it puts in, with Safety Valve being a large piece of work that required a few SEND specialists and a programme manager.

Q: What have you learnt from transitioning improvements to BAU and measuring benefits realisation?

A: Development of a Change Specialist role has been key to embedding change when projects finish. A clear comms narrative to embed and communicate with the workforce on this is also important. If possible you should have a dedicated 'change monitor' and work with them to encourage a successful transition to BAU.

Q: How has it been engaging with DSE and with central government? 

A: Being accepted into Safety Valve was not easy and we have continually been working toward quarterly goals since then. The biggest learning has been that internal team meetings with the top team about Safety Valve have been instrumental in strengthening relations with DSE. Senior leadership buy and sponsorship is key. It’s often easy to see central government as on the other side but seeing them as a partner and working with them to a common goal is very important.

Roundtable discussion

  • Councils are reliant on expensive social care companies with little leverage. Would larger partnerships help with this?
  • What does a sustainable budget for social care look like? 
  • Procuring a partner to do initial diagnostic work and extending the contact if they are good could work. 
  • How do we keep partners honest and ensure correct focus? i.e., doing the right thing and not following money. 
  • Rules of engagement are important; you have to understand why the partner is there and what they’re looking to gain. 
  • Even good partnerships can stumble but that doesn’t mean they’re bad. 
  • There needs to be clarity around who is running the day-to-day relationship, who owns strategic relationships and understanding the outcome. 
  • It’s important to make clear the implementation and BAU aspects of the tender, to prevent partners KPI chasing. 
  • Transitioning good pieces of work into other areas is important, polishing one area can make the others look dull. 
  • Leadership needs to be aligned, even when work is being commissioned by only one area. 
  • You can quickly get a sense of when a contract is going to need to be heavily contract managed and when it’s going to be like a partnership. 
  • Councils should look to ask more about organisational values and culture in the procurement process. 
  • Change can be disrupted and undone by leaders, it’s important to have a change champion and not allow this to happen.
  • Governance structures need to be in place from the start of a partnership.
  • How do councils build confidence to try things and become less risk averse? During the pandemic people where happy to try new things but this has regressed. 
  • Doing nothing has risk, as the world is always changing, it’s important to understand the risk of doing nothing. 
  • Having data to use as evidence is important, the focus should be on data cleansing and looking what you’re trying to prove/disprove. Data will never be perfect, but it needs to be good enough. 
  • Partners can be a good way of holding up a mirror and challenging the organisation. 
  • It’s important to harness technology when you can, AI is looking to be the next big thing.
  • Managers need to be brought together in one room with no hidden agenda, this should then be filtered down. 
  • Commissioning small parts of work can be good to show evidence, a good partner would be interested in this as an initial step.
  • Some partners will struggle to the moving quickly and failing fast approach.