Secret Secondment – Blog Series Part 2 (of 6)

Part 2 – Rhetoric, rumour and preparing to share

In Part 1, I wrote about the ‘Change before the Change’ – what brings councils together and needs to be in place before you can even consider sharing a service. Part 2 is about my first few weeks on the project ‘for real’, and the practical challenges I faced to get the project off on the right foot.

My experiences are set out as ‘lessons’. They are more ‘what-you-might-expect’ than ‘how to’ in their nature. They cover the things that I’d like to have been more aware of so that (a) I would have had a bit more confidence in my early approach, and (b) been less put off by those people that every time I spoke, looked at me in that ‘good luck with that’ kind-of-a-way.

Lesson 1 – People won’t be ready to start as quickly as you are

It took me a few days to realise that, for the majority of people, this project existed mainly as set of rhetorical statements fuelled by rumour. Staff had had described to them a project promising efficiency, improvement, and staff involvement, but the talk by the water cooler was about cuts, job losses and the best thing to do was ‘keep your head down’.

This was important to understand. I arrived all excited about delivering a large and ground breaking project, but among those outside the immediate management team, the project was understandably hard to dis-associate from the uncertainty felt due to the job re-appraisals and restructure that was going on.

I realised quickly that my optimistic approach would just antagonise people until there was a clear, common understanding of what the project was about so that people understood what it might mean for them and could begin to engage with it. Unless I did this quickly, people would either be playing to different agendas, or worse still, not playing at all.

Don’t waste hours like I did talking at cross purposes with people who clearly had different ideas about what the project was all about. The neat, single vision and set of objectives I had understood ‘from a distance’ via emails, conference calls and late night reading, existed only on paper shared by a handful of people. My job was to start winning hearts and minds.

Lesson 2 – Getting people on the same page

When you are dealing with two councils you have to realise that, despite the shared chief executive and the shared management team, and the commitment to integrate, there are those that have still not come to terms with the new set up, those that are dead set against it, and those that just don’t really understand what is going on. I realised that until the overall, strategic aim of the project was agreed and understood, I would go round in circles and have little chance of bringing people with me to make it happen.

One of the major issues was that the terms being used to describe what the project had to deliver (‘shared service’ / ‘service integration’ / ‘service transformation’) meant quite different things to different people. Here are just a few of the interpretations:

  • Two councils, continuing to do things their own way, just better
  • Two councils, delivering a *similar* service and sharing *some* resources
  • Two councils, delivering the service in the same way with staff fully integrated
  • One policy / Two policies (ditto committees)
  • …and so on

It needed to quickly get an agreement at managerial and senior political level on this fundamental point. Otherwise I would face a constant battle between two camps – those that wanted to keep things largely as they were (and had an interest in keeping things vague), and those that wanted to bring the whole thing together. People (staff particularly) need to understand where the thing you’re talking about is heading. If you can begin to imagine the final destination, it helps you plan and contribute to the journey.

I needed some way of getting people onto the same page. I wondered what the councils’ had publicly stated about sharing/integrating. My thinking was that anything in the public domain would be ‘non-negotiable’ and would help focus the various interested parties on what the project was fundamentally about.

In short, the councils had a ‘Transformation Programme’ which was documented on their websites as being a ‘commitment to cost reduction and improved efficiency via ‘the integration of services’. The detail behind it wasn’t important; the key for me was that ‘Integrated Service’ was defined as ‘one operational delivery system’. So, I set about using this to get an agreement that, putting aside all of the detail about what it looked and felt like, this project was about the two councils delivering one planning service in the same way sharing resources. There. My premise was that this is what the public are expecting, so can we at least agree on this? It worked.

Lesson 3 – Understand the Corporate Picture.

You have to learn the corporate rules you are playing by, find out where you fit and then ask for help. Councils are busy places, no one comes running to you to tell you about what they’re up to and how you could benefit. So, alongside Lessons 1 and 2, I needed to be clear about the councils’ corporate ‘Transformation Programme’, who was involved, the objectives etc. so that I could align our planning project to it and demonstrate that it was about achieving the same things.

Why was this important? Two reasons. First, the corporate programme had projects that potentially affected everything ours would need to deliver – IT, HR, Legal etc. Understanding this and involving those responsible for delivering them is essential if you are going to make sure that things aren’t bought or contracts signed-up to for ‘solutions’ that are at odds with what you are trying to achieve. The trick, particularly with IT, is to make sure their guys are involved when you are discussing and designing your service and that they look for the IT solutions that will help you achieve your objectives, not the other way around.

Secondly, the corporate programme has a Director. It had to be a good idea to have the Director enthused about our project because practically, you need their sponsorship and support, and cynically you want to make sure you get your share of their budget.

Lesson 4 – Political backing needs to be overt and organised.

You will hear statements like ‘members are fully behind this’ and it is ‘a priority for the Portfolio Holder’. These mean little without an organised way of obtaining political agreement to the direction of the work and ‘sign off’ of key stages and decisions.

Too many projects get derailed because the right politicians aren’t on board or throw spanners into the works because they get jumpy at decision time. The way that this project brought the politicians with it was to create a Members’ Steering Group. Everything goes through it and no further until endorsed.

The steering group is a wonderful little powerhouse for the project when it works well (I’ll write about this another time in more detail), you have cross-party and cross-council backing, input and ownership; a communication and feedback loop into the political groups and a steer to the project team on the key decisions. What can go wrong?! (another blog subject…). Linking back to lesson 3, the steering group also represent us to the politicians overseeing the overall corporate programme.

Lesson 5 – Be honest early with staff

There is a temptation to paint a rosy picture for staff, which is understandable. As well as this project, they are being re-organised, they are unsure about their jobs and are pretty disengaged because ‘it’s been talked about for ages but nothing has happened’. Doing anything other than telling them like it is, will only result in you ‘losing’ them later when the realities of life are exposed as they inevitably will be.

There is no miracle approach that will get everyone fired up and enthused about the project, but I chose to view my role as convincing them to come on a journey with me. I got staff in a room at the first opportunity and asked them for their views. The session was uncomfortable but necessary and my tactic was to be honest and up front on the following things:

a) Being honest (1)- what stage the project is at? Despite months of being talked about the main objectives (still) hadn’t been agreed (see lesson 2). The less enthusiastic accused me of wasting their time (‘why are we here if you can’t tell us what it’s about?’), and the more enthusiastic were frustrated (‘how can we input until we have some idea of what this is about?’).

b) Being honest (2)- Who is driving the project? There is the romantic notion that ‘this isn’t management imposing something on you’; but people aren’t stupid so you need to be clear exactly where the project has come from and how decisions will be made. For this project:

i.        The overall direction has been set at the corporate level (the two councils will be looking at how they can deliver one planning service);

ii.        Politicians will make the major decisions;

iii.        Options for how the service looks, feels, and is delivered will be shaped, costed and tested with customers and staff;

iv.        Who chooses the final ‘solution’ – see ii.


  • Being honest (3). Will this involve people’s jobs?
  • In short yes. The ‘how’ – I couldn’t say. A key driver for this project will be to save money and an obvious way of doing that is to consider whether to same amount of resources are required as at present.  For these councils there is a re-organisation and restructure also going on, so to pretend that issues around headcount won’t be considered would just be insulting people.

d) Being honest (4) about communication

Tell staff that you will communicate regularly, that you will be available to meet and that you will involve them in the design and delivery of what the new service will look like. No sooner than you make these statements, admit that you will also, from time to time fail to do these three things. Communication with the right people at the right time is notoriously difficult and pretending otherwise won’t win you any friends.

Lesson 6 – Don’t forget the Customer

Look for opportunities to get customer input early. For this project the councils were keen that nothing went too far until customers had a chance to make their views known. The challenge was to do something that would get good information in and quickly.

It is difficult getting customers together in any significant numbers so you have to consider whether anything else is happening that you can ‘piggy back’. This is another reason to be tied-in well corporately. Here, there was a community wide survey being put together and we managed to get agreement from the corporate communications team to include some questions about planning in their mass survey of residents.

The other route to customer feedback was to look at where groups of customers normally gather. Both planning services holds regular-ish agent’s forums and good relationships have been established. Because of this, I felt that there would be a good chance of successfully organising a joint (agents working with both councils) meeting to discuss and get views on the future delivery of the service.

To conclude 

  • People. Remember that before it is about process, your project is about people. Don’t under-estimate the broad range of emotions your project will stir up, nor over-estimate how well your project is understood. Realise that it suits some people to be emotional and not understand your project.
  • Common purpose. There are many names for this; strategic direction, vision etc. It is almost clichéd, but without some form of agreement about the fundamental direction this project was heading in, I would have been going round in circles.
  • Honesty. Someone once said, if you are always honest, you don’t have to remember anything.  This may sound naïve, but trying to hide the less well defined parts of this project would have presented problems for me later on. It’s hard but essential to admit that things need work or that you don’t know the answer, but from experience I have found that people are much more willing to engage when they detect a level of honesty.

Next time – Blog 3 – Getting to the heart of the matter

Projects like this need vision, ambition, and a plan.  My next blog will go into some of the detail behind agreeing what the objectives for the service are, what it will look like, and the programme for delivering it.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s