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A new approach to training

Source: PSE Feb/March 2018

Acting chief executive of Cheshire East Council, Kath O’Dwyer, reflects on how a simple change in approach has begun to reap real dividends for the organisation.

Training and developing your staff is a principle that should be at the core of every organisation. But maintaining the momentum and seizing the opportunities can be tough and can lose its priority amidst other competing demands.

Our staff are our greatest asset and we are fortunate to have valued colleagues at Cheshire East, many of whom are proud ambassadors for the council. It is very important to us that staff are working in an environment where they are valued, supported and developed. When we get that right, greater levels of productivity and value are the positive by-products.

We are an ambitious council that delivers more than 500 services to our residents. We strive to provide high-quality services while meeting budget challenges and maximising the real economic opportunities that are on the horizon, like the regional benefits of HS2 coming to Crewe. Underpinning all our efforts, every day, is our information, communications and technology (ICT) service.

Our ICT service provides support and change services to two councils, Cheshire West and Chester Council and Cheshire East Council, along with their associated companies, schools and academies. The service includes strategy, account management, digital, architecture, operations and service management teams.

Short-term pain, long-term gain

In December 2015, our ICT service was reliant on roughly 40-45% of its workforce coming from agencies. While this gave the organisation the ability to bring in specialist resources on a flexible basis, the model was difficult to sustain and came with a far greater cost burden. With local authorities having to look towards financial self-reliance, it was obvious that a more sustainable model was required.

Faced with a difficult decision two years ago between taking a short-term, piecemeal approach or a more long-term view, which would involve a combination of upskilling existing staff and training new recruits, we took the long-term investment view and made a clear commitment to invest in our workforce.

Short-term pain for long-term gain is an overused expression, but that was the reality of what we needed to do to really invest in the future and truly address a resourcing issue in our ICT workforce that had been around for too long. We had a huge ambition to transform what we do and we developed a plan for how we would do it.

The service engaged with its staff through stakeholder events and workshops, working together to identify a different approach. As staff engagement and morale continued to head in an upward direction, so did our ICT service’s ambitions for training.

Once we’d taken that initial step we knew there was no turning back, and we went into the change programme confidently ‒ with the full backing of both our colleagues in training and development, and across both councils at a political and an executive level.

Library discussion for PSE edit

Gains from the apprenticeship levy

The government’s introduction of the apprenticeship levy last year was another big boost to our colleagues in ICT. We recognised this as a real opportunity to introduce ‘digital natives’ into the organisation and so we seized upon the opportunity immediately.

The ICT team now has digital apprentices on degree programmes at Manchester Metropolitan University, and they are all easing into our own working environment, while sharing latest industry developments with a workforce who are now far more open to learn.

We also have a digital degree apprentice, who is already working as an IT manager in one of our local high schools. It really is a win/win situation.

The next steps for ICT are to see how we can further maximise the benefit from the apprenticeship levy to improve the skills and capabilities throughout the organisation, not just at entry level.

While our ICT team has led the way with a fresh attitude towards training and staff development, the introduction of the apprenticeship levy is having a positive knock-on effect right across the council.

We are putting three new apprentices who are existing staff members in our legal team through schemes via the apprenticeship levy, and a further role in our procurement team.

The number of apprenticeships have risen significantly across all service areas up to 86 people, some completely new to the council, others valued colleagues who are increasing their skills, since the introduction of the programme in May 2017. New planning degrees may well see apprentices taken on in the very near future in our development management team, while we also have plans to introduce apprentices in social work from September 2018.

And it doesn’t stop with our direct council services. The apprenticeship levy has the potential to have a tremendous impact upon our schools.

We have already had some very positive discussions with headteachers about the support we can offer them in introducing colleagues to the new graduate teaching apprenticeships, as well as schemes which will bring new standards for school business managers and teaching assistants.

We also want to develop plans for apprenticeships linked to our cared-for children strategy and to further diversify the range of apprenticeships we offer to include a programme for colleagues in revenue and benefits, data analysts and community enforcement staff, to name but a few.

This is all over and above the structured management development programme we introduced in April last year which offers management qualifications at A-level, foundation degree, degree and masters level for managers and those who aspire to management roles.

The possibilities of the apprenticeship levy are very exciting. We’re reviewing this all the time with our workforce development team, and we’re now developing talent management programmes to ensure that our whole workforce accesses the benefit of our commitment to training and development.

As an authority, something like the apprenticeship levy can open doors to learning across so many disciplines, especially areas where we have traditionally struggled to retain and recruit staff.

It certainly came at the right time for us and complemented our vision and ambition, and our commitment to invest in our workforce. We will continue to make the most of the opportunities that it creates.

Our ability to recognise a problem area of service provision and turn it into an opportunity has enabled us to maximise the benefits that the apprenticeship levy provides. It has certainly helped to direct our approach in both this last financial year and into the future. I’m sure that it will continue to be a valuable resource to many other authorities too.




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