Sutton Council: Smaller Bigger Different

In April 2016, Sutton Council initiated a project called Smaller Bigger Different. The aim of the project was to review and refresh our whole approach to organisational development to ensure that everyone working at and for Sutton has the skills necessary to meet the new challenges facing the organisation. Fundamental to this was refreshing our corporate values and launching a new ‘organisational purpose’, and we used the ‘21st century public servant’ characteristics to help begin this conversation with staff.


The challenge
Like all local authorities, Sutton Council faces the challenge of delivering ‘more for less’. Between 2010/11 and 2019/20 the council will have made efficiency savings of £93m, or approximately 6 per cent each year. Given this context - reinforced by regular news headlines about local council cuts - councils need to work hard to recruit to key professions and to ensure that existing staff remain motivated and develop their skills and behaviours.

Sutton Council staff have much to be proud of in the way we have responded to austerity. Although we - like all councils - have had to reduce or stop some of our services, we have also set up shared services with others, spun services out to become new companies, created a property investment portfolio, and set up companies to develop homes and utilities, taking us into a new world of commercial thinking, entrepreneurialism and flexible working.

All of this creates an exciting or uncertain future for all of us, depending on your point of view. Our LGA corporate peer challenge in 2016 provided a useful challenge to the council on this issue: what is our future organisational vision and how can we spell it out to provide more clarity for staff?

The solution
Our project was called Smaller Bigger Different because this captured the paradox we faced in developing and articulating that clear vision. The reality is that we will be a smaller organisation. However, we will also be working as part of a bigger network of other organisations, collaborating to deliver shared ambitions for Sutton the place. To do this successfully, we need a different approach; we need to work in different ways, and be more flexible, agile, outward-looking and enterprising.

We began the Smaller Bigger Different project with a gap analysis against the LGA’s ‘7 steps to a shared purpose and sustainable organisational performance’. This identified that although an earlier project (the People Plan) had modernised our pay and reward system, updated key policies and procedures and refreshed tasks and skills requirements through the creation of job families, further work was required on the cultural and behavioural elements of organisational development. Three areas of activity were identified as requiring attention:

  • Creating and launching a clear statement of our ‘organisational purpose’
  • Reviewing and refreshing our corporate values
  • Creating a council­-wide organisational development (OD) strategy which clearly sets out how we need to change and evolve in order to deliver our ambitions for Sutton.

We created these products through workshops with over 300 staff, and we found the 21st century public servant characteristics helpful as a framework for some of these discussions. In structured interviews, staff were asked to choose the characteristic with which they most identified and, through this, describe what they most valued about working for Sutton.

The impact (including cost savings/income generated if applicable):

As a result of these activities, we now have:

  • A new organisational purpose: “Together, making Sutton a better place to live, learn and work.”
  • Refreshed corporate values: People-focused, Responsible, Innovative, Diverse and Enterprising.
  • An organisational development strategy which sets out how we have to change as an organisation, and a supporting ‘people strategy’ which sets out the HR interventions that will achieve this.
  • A number of activities underway to improve induction, learning and development, leadership development, change management and recruitment and retention.

The overall Smarter Council programme (of which the project was part) aims to help the council operate more efficiently in order to achieve the necessary savings from the council budget by 2020; Smaller Bigger Different is a key enabler of the changes we need.

How is the new approach being sustained?
We recognise that having a vision and strategy is the easy part: now we need to make them real for colleagues. We are focusing on:

  • Refreshing our appraisal process, with our values directly incorporated so that we assess not only what we do but how we do it;
  • Revitalising our learning and development offer, including a week long ‘staff conference’ of different bite-sized events based on the new values. This is called ‘Take PRIDE’ week, to reflect our five corporate values which together spell the acronym PRIDE.
  • Agreeing a new definition of leadership with our neighbours in the Royal Borough of Kingston upon Thames, as well as other local public sector partners via the Sutton Plan;
  • Refreshing our employer brand from recruitment and advertisement right through to ‘onboarding’ and induction, to attract, welcome and retain the very best.

Lessons learned
One of the key successes of the project was the level of meaningful engagement with staff across a number of complex project outputs.

A strong collaboration between HR and the Commissioning & Governance team (in the corporate centre) was also fundamental in aligning operational changes with strategic imperatives, and arrangements are in place to ensure that this continues as we transition to ‘business as usual’.

Our biggest challenges organisationally now are:

  • To get the values and purpose ‘into the organisation’s DNA’, ensuring that they have as much priority and salience for staff as the standards of their professional disciplines.
  • To ensure that the OD strategy is visible and understood across the wider organisation so that Smaller Bigger Different is understood to be more than a project.
  • To ensure that the OD strategy is understood outside the organisation, and that it is clear to prospective employees and partners what the council stands for.


  • Jessica Crowe (Assistant Director of Customers, Commissioning & Governance - Project Sponsor for Smaller Bigger Different) -
  • Madeleine Neill (Project Manager: Smarter Council - Project Manager for Smaller Bigger Different) -

Additional information