Local Government Transformation Masterclass: Transformation lessons from local government reorganisation

5 March 2024

Spotlight Presentation: Roger Goodes, Policy & Communications Service Director, Buckinghamshire Council

This summary captures the critical elements of Buckinghamshire’s experience challenges, strategies, and outcomes related to local government reorganisation transitioning to a unitary authority.

Buckinghamshire overview

  • Transitioned to a unitary authority with one county and four districts, including mixed rural and urban areas. 
  • High Wycombe is the largest town, with no major cities, making it the fifth largest county unitary, including 236 schools and 171 parish/town councils.
  • The journey towards unitary status in Buckinghamshire began in the 1970s, with significant steps taken in 2007 alongside other regions. 
  • A formal proposal was submitted in September 2016, leading to approval in November 2018 after an extended period of uncertainty.
  • Emphasises the importance of being prepared for sudden changes, as seen in the rapid announcement of Buckinghamshire’s unitary status, requiring immediate action and communication.

Key deliverables and challenges

  • Recruitment of a chief executive, senior management team setup, and navigating the COVID-19 pandemic, which delayed the first elections and imposed a shift to virtual operations.

Programme structure

  • Extensive involvement across various teams and the use of both internal and external resources to facilitate the transition, focusing on 129 "must-have" items for legal and operational readiness.

Communication and engagement

  • The critical role of effectively communicating with staff and the public, ensuring everyone understands the changes and feels part of the new organisation.

Post-Unitary transformation

  • Although the initial focus was on organisational structure, the substantial transformation efforts, including service management and policy updates, began post-unitary, highlighted by the Better Buckinghamshire Programme.

Financial overview

  • A budget of £22 million was allocated for implementation, with initial savings estimated at £18 million. 
  • The actual savings and efficiencies achieved exceeded expectations, demonstrating the potential for further financial benefits.

Lessons learned and recommendations

  • Necessity of addressing perceptions of takeover, the importance of a clear and inclusive transition strategy, and the challenges of baselining and due diligence in financial and operational planning.

Benefits and future outlook

Highlights the advantages of unitary status, such as improved service coordination, easier engagement with partners, and enhanced community response, as demonstrated during the COVID-19 pandemic and other initiatives.

Spotlight Presentation: Alyn Jones, Executive Director for Strategy, Workforce and Localities, Somerset Council

This summary captures the critical elements of Somerset's experience with local government reorganisation, including the context, challenges, strategic approaches, and lessons learned from the process.

Introduction to Somerset's context

  • Rural county meeting government reorganisation criteria.
  • Hosts Hinkley Point C, highlighting growth in manufacturing and construction.
  • Faces significant rural deprivation despite pockets of high growth.

Feedback from LGA Peer Review

  • Leadership changes post-2022 election from Conservative to Liberal Democrat, challenging due to differing views on local government reorganisation (LGR).
  • The LGA peer review was conducted in December, despite initial concerns, resulted in a positive outcome for the LGR programme.

Programme management and achievements

  • Emphasis on sound programme management and learning from others' experiences, such as Buckinghamshire's LGR.
  • Focus on making the transition seamless to the public, with no complaints received related to LGR.
  • Challenges included losing a chief executive during the process and ensuring readiness for vesting day.

Budget and finances

  • Initial success in achieving savings targets but faced a significant financial gap with the emergence of cost increases in adult’s and children's services.
  • Necessitated for a reposition of the council-wide transformation programme to address deeper financial issues.

Structural principles and programme design

  • Implementation of corporate centres and focus on high-volume repetitive tasks for potential outsourcing or devolution.
  • Establishment of a rigorous programme to address potential workforce reduction and embed transformation across the organisation.

Lessons learned

  • Finances can disrupt any transformation programme; it is crucial to embed financial planning and management from the outset.
  • The importance of tracking benefits, involving external auditors early, and focusing on big ticket items for savings rather than insignificant low cost saving areas.
  • Data is critical for informed decision-making, and external challenge from critical friends should be continually sought for improvement.
  • Scrutiny has a valuable role in transformation, and clear communication about the realities of transformation is essential. Incremental decision-making helps manage organisational change effectively.

Spotlight Q&A

How do you ensure ongoing tracking of benefits after a project ends?

Ensuring the ongoing tracking of benefits post-project involves service managers reporting back on their progress six months after implementation. This involves revisiting the original business case and discussing the actual outcomes with a steering group. This approach not only maintains oversight but also reinforces accountability, ensuring that the original promises are met. Monthly reviews are also conducted, especially under financial pressure, to ensure commitments are tracked thoroughly. Education on the necessary pre-work and precursor steps for benefit realisation is provided to service departments to better prepare and plan for outcomes.

What impact does workforce reduction have on staff performance and satisfaction?

Workforce reduction inevitably affects morale. Addressing this involves integrating redundancies within a broader approach, offering voluntary redundancy options, and addressing high numbers of vacancies and interim positions. Establishing a new organisational culture and ensuring tangible actions for staff to buy into the new direction have been shown to positively impact staff response. However, acknowledging that transformations and redundancies will affect staff is crucial, with efforts made to mitigate these impacts as much as possible.

How do you approach stopping services with politicians?

Approaching the cessation of services with politicians involves finding collaborative partners to ease the decision-making process. By developing strong relationships with city, town, and parish councils, decisions to cease funding or activities become more palatable. Service blueprinting and risk mitigation plans also play essential roles in managing transitions, providing politicians with alternative solutions, and ensuring the community's needs are still met through different means.

How do you communicate with frontline colleagues, ensuring they are engaged and understand the organisation's culture?

Communicating effectively with frontline colleagues involves senior management committing to visit hard-to-reach groups personally, encouraging more face-to-face interactions, and understanding the unique challenges these groups face. Additionally, organising regular physical meetings for senior managers allows for a direct flow of information and feedback. Engaging frontline staff in culture workshops and roadshows to address specific challenges is a crucial step to ensure all employees feel included and valued in the organisation's culture.

Roundtable Discussion: Notable Practice Highlights

During the roundtable discussion on local government reorganisation and transformation, participants shared their experiences, challenges, and insights. Robert Ling initiated the conversation, prompting attendees to discuss their interests or challenges in local government reorganisation and transformation.

Brighton & Hove Council

They highlighted work to foster positive cultural change and collaboration within the council. Despite facing workplace pressures around the volume of work and capacity in the workforce, they have sought to implement effective strategies to inspire a unified, can-do attitude across departments.

Nottingham City Council

Shared the innovative approach of forming a Change Academy within the organisation. Through intense training in project management and BA skills provided by PwC, selected individuals from diverse departments became responsible for driving transformational change. This initiative not only developed internal talent but also fostered a network of change agents promoting innovation and collaboration.

St Helens Council 

Discussed a prioritisation process based on objective scoring across various risks, including technology, financial, and outcome benefits. This approach helped identify top transformation programmes, allowing for focused allocation of dedicated resources.

Throughout the discussion, participants exchanged ideas on securing senior leadership buy-in, managing resource constraints, engaging frontline practitioners, and identifying internal change agents. The conversation underscored the importance of prioritisation, culture change, and effective communication in driving transformational initiatives within local government settings.