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Can council jobs keep up with service reforms?

Source: PSE Jun/Jul 16

Carolyn Wilkins, the head of leadership development at Greater Manchester Combined Authority (GMCA) and CEO of Oldham Council, tells PSE’s Luana Salles what councils can do to ensure staff remain healthy, productive and motivated as their job roles adapt to service changes.

We’ve all seen the headlines: public sector recruitment is waning, agency bills are hitting new highs, and jobs are facing the axe due to steep budget cuts. At the same time, councils are increasingly having to find new ways to deliver services more efficiently with fewer staff, all while ensuring current employees remain happy and productive. This dichotomy is even more glaring in regions facing more extensive public service reforms through devolution. 

While countless devo packages have been signed in the last year, perhaps the frontrunner of these changes is still Greater Manchester (GM), the first region to sign a deal. As well as agreeing a more ‘standard’ deal in 2014, the region, which comprises 10 local authorities, also took control of its £6bn health and care budget in April this year.

Responsible for council staff development during these changes is Carolyn Wilkins, GMCA’s lead on leadership development – who, despite her job to ensure employees can juggle all these fast-paced reforms at once, remains fervently positive about the future. 

Staff engagement and management 

Wilkins, who is also the chief executive of Oldham Council, told PSE that a “range of things” can be done to ensure staff are happy, healthy and productive even as their job roles begin to shift and adapt. At the top of the list, she said, is staff engagement: “Do staff genuinely feel they have a voice in terms of their role and responsibility? Certainly, talking to some of the frontline staff – I do regular visits to teams to speak to people about how things are – I find morale in Oldham is genuinely pretty good. 

“That’s not to say there aren’t any issues, but I’m really blown away sometimes when I go and meet staff, with all the challenges they’re facing – the energy and optimism that’s still there is really impressive.” 

An issue often raised by her staff in Oldham is the need to adapt supervision: in social care, for example, employees back person-centred supervision. According to Wilkins, it’s not just about asking them if they’ve completed all their tasks and are performing well – it’s about focusing on them as individuals, and asking if they have any support issues they need addressing.

Asked if there are any leadership styles that managers should adopt to more effectively motivate and support staff, she said it must be one that “recognises and values engagement and voice”. 

“What we’re not trying to do here [in GM], for example, is come up with a plan and say: ‘that’s it’. It’s actually saying: ‘here’s our ambition and here are some ideas that we’re starting with, but what do you think? What would you like to see? What would work for you?’” she explained. 

“It’s about the real value in being connected as a workforce; the stronger our relationships are within the council, the more able we are to thrive. It’s really about not just saying teamwork is important, but to really mean that.” 

Promoting health and wellbeing 

Beyond professional engagement, Oldham has also started to focus intensely on staff health and wellbeing – and is even looking to make that a part of regular performance meetings. The authority will be launching a health and wellbeing programme at the end of June that underlines the need to focus on physical and mental health, as a way to reduce absences and improve productivity at work.

“But also, over 70% of my workforce lives in Oldham – so actually, if people are positive and have good health literacy, they can take that back into their own families and wider networks, which helps us deliver on our broader ambitions across GM as well. It’s a ripple effect,” Wilkins added. 

Pilot versions of this programme are already being carried out: staff have kicked off a ‘Fitbit challenge’, for example, where they compete in groups to see who can walk the furthest – with one team recently walking the equivalent distance to Luxemburg. 

The council’s catering team for schools across the borough recently won a BOOM award recognising its good use of high-quality organic food, picking up first place in the Corporate and Public Sector Catering category. 

“And it’s not just about schools either: we have our leisure facilities, run by Oldham Community Leisure. We have fantastic parks. We have a staff volunteering programme, so you can do three days a year of volunteering in Oldham – a time the council supports – and people get loads back from that, whether it’s doing a community clean-up day or helping paint the food bank,” Wilkins said. 

They are also looking at creating lunchtime or morning activities, such as playing football, supporting the council choir and encouraging meetings in parks rather than at desks. At the same time, the whole authority has committed to signing the ‘Time to Change’ mental health campaign pledge and is in talks with a Manchester charity, 42nd Street, to host a session for staff who want to open up about parental issues.

Speaking from a GMCA perspective, Wilkins said these changes are also taking place elsewhere. “We’re all recognising that as part of the Taking Charge of Health and Social Care campaign,” she noted. “I know the GM Fire and Rescue Service (GMFRS) has done quite a lot of work on this agenda, and GM Police has as well. And Transport for Greater Manchester (TfGM) is running walking festivals and promoting walking – it all fits into the health agenda.” 

Adapting and rising up the ranks 

GM has recently launched a graduate exchange programme that it hopes to maintain and eventually extend to apprenticeships. As part of the scheme, young people working in local government were able to spend a week in health, fire, police or voluntary sector bodies to build awareness across the board and develop a better understanding of service integration. 

But for existing staff wanting to move up the ranks, Oldham Council has developed coaching programmes both internally and externally. And while many people’s professional development ambitions have to be self-funded, such as doing a Master’s degree, the council is becoming more flexible about working patterns and even considers supporting internal research projects. 

Through its Leadership Academy, Oldham has also been internally training staff to prepare for ongoing service changes, particularly with regards to health and care. People have been trained right across the council to have conversations about public health and wellbeing as part of the council’s early intervention plans. 

“This shift in model across public services is about how, the earlier we can intervene or get into prevention, then actually, the better for people it is – and the less cost there is, so it’s a double win,” Wilkins said. 

She added that councils believe “there will be significant changes” in professions as they look towards a “much more integrated system”. 

The GMFRS has been a major example of this: its workforce is increasingly focusing on preventing fires rather than putting them out, and has come together with ambulance and police staff to expand its role in the community. 

“It’s really changed, over the years, what it means to work for the GMFRS,” the Oldham boss said. “We’re seeing similar shifts in roles like social work or policing, and I think that will continue to evolve. 

“The label may stay the same, but what’s underneath it might be really, really different.”

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