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Working for a Brighter Future

Written by: Kath O’Dwyer is acting chief executive of Cheshire East Council
Published on: 15 Nov 2018

When we asked the Local Government Association (LGA) to carry out an independent review of our organisational culture nearly a year ago we knew there were practices that needed to be revised. The LGA’s report confirmed there were inconsistencies in practice in both recruitment and people management across the organisation and made some useful recommendations about how we might address these.

Some of the main learning points we took from that process was there was a need to make important changes to the way we worked and a need to focus on the behaviours of our workforce and how we work with each other. This led to the launch of the Brighter Future Together (Culture) programme, which I have discussed on these pages before.

It’s often said, and of course it absolutely holds true, that staff are any organisation’s greatest asset. Our annual turnover is £740m and, of that figure, £146m is spent on staffing. What the review demonstrated to us though, was there were inconsistencies in how we recruited into the council, the focus of the recruitment process and how we value and retain our staff once recruited.

There were also inconsistencies in the working experience of our staff depending where in the organisation employees worked. Cheshire East Council is a large unitary authority, delivering a wide range of services. We recognised that without a dedicated focus on establishing a unified organisational culture, different cultures and management practices had evolved in different departments and in different locations across the borough. Policies were not always applied consistently and, in some cases, this had a direct impact on employee retention.

As part of our Brighter Future Together programme – that we are undertaking with our strategic partner Sticky Change – we have carried out a review of our recruitment and selection practices to better understand the methods and approaches managers are using to recruit to their teams. The research found that, in general, the approach used was very focused on a competency-based interview, which in itself was perfectly acceptable, as in a lot of cases it enabled us to assess candidates’ skills for the role and justify the choices we made.

However, with our renewed focus on behaviours and our employee deal, what we are now saying to managers – and this training is still very much ongoing – is that by all means use the competency-based approach but also ensure we test out the behaviours we are looking for in or staff: flexibility, innovation, responsibility, service and teamwork. Our behaviour framework focuses on behaviours we want to see but, just as importantly, those that we don’t.

As part of the Brighter Future Together programme, we have consulted and agreed a set of behaviours as part of our employee deal. We are now including these behaviours in our recruitment and selection processes. In real terms, this means we are making a move towards recruiting people who are more likely to exhibit the appropriate behaviours we want all colleagues to live by, instead of purely recruiting on competencies. The focus is on ‘fit’ – not just skills and experience.

In order to deliver all these changes effectively, we realised we also needed to understand the skills of our managers and invest in their development to achieve our desired ‘shift’ in culture. We undertook a comprehensive skills audit and are now in the process of implementing a manager training development programme, including training around recruitment practice and valuing and recognising staff achievements to support our ambitions in relation to retention. This was an area that was also highlighted during the LGA review where improvements could be made.

If managers are more skilled in their approach to managing staff, and people feel they are being dealt with consistently and fairly and also valued and acknowledged for the work they do, then they are more likely to work in our teams for longer. And of course, the knock-on effect is this will improve the experience of our workforce and our overall retention of staff.

In fact we are already making very positive steps in this respect through our Skills for Care graduate management programme, which is showing the opportunities of a professional career in adult social care. We realise none of this is rocket science but being highly disciplined in focusing on recruiting to a behavioural as well as a competency ‘fit’ and training our managers will help us to achieve that overall cultural change, which we know, will reap real dividends in the long term.

We believe Cheshire East Council has a great offer in terms of employee benefits and career progression. However, we have acknowledged and responded to the need to better articulate to potential new recruits our excellent career development offer and employee benefits package. This also applies to existing staff. We are now promoting benefits more consistently and more obviously to everyone.

There is still a lot of ground to cover on this journey but since the findings of the LGA review were published we’ve not wasted a moment in moving forwards.

Kath O’Dwyer is acting chief executive of Cheshire East Council