Last week I was lucky enough to spend an entire day shadowing the Assistant Chief Executive of Surrey County Council, the indomitable Susie Kemp. I could (and probably will) write a whole series of blogs based on the day, as the exposure I got to the huge spectrum of issues a senior local government officer deals with on a day to day basis was eye-opening.
I was particularly fascinated by one meeting on Winter Pressures – a group of people from across all parts of the council, both service delivery and back office support, who come together to think about the best ways of being prepared to deal with any severe slow, reducing the impact on service delivery, residents and staff.
As someone who has primarily worked with councils during a period of significant cut backs, where the basic task of even maintaining current service standards over the coming years seems intimidating, it’s easy to fall into the trap of failing to notice the improvements councils are making on a day to day basis, by learning from past experience, reducing siloed working and thinking more creatively and intelligently about problems.
Three years ago when the first heavy snow hit, we were all caught unawares. I vividly remember facing the real risk of being snowed in to Cherwell District Council, and the entire organisation having to shut up shop at 2pm.
The extent of learning and improvement that has taken place since then is quite impressive. Surrey now has procedures in place to enable more home working (maximising on all the arrangements that were in place for the Olympics), alert systems via social media, text and the website to make sure individuals delivering on the front line know which offices are open and where to go, local farmers have been co-opted into helping with local gritting and there are arrangements in place to check on county’s most vulnerable people during extreme weather, to name but a few innovations. Obvious things, like realising staff can’t see the intranet when not logged in mean staff updates are now provided on the public facing website. Firmer guidelines on when schools should and should not be closing, priority gritting of any roads that provide access to schools and clear lines of communication mean parents get clearer information, and schools are better able to stay open, during a period when many senior schools are attempting to maintain vital exam timetables. Even little things, like confirming the HR policy on staff who are unable to make it into work, mean disruption caused by adverse weather is minimised.
If it snows in Surrey tomorrow, the council are ready and (I hope) residents will be impressed by the smooth handling of the challenging circumstances. Snow, while unwelcome, provides all residents with a rare opportunity to see first hand the massive difference the way a local authority handles this kind of situation can impact on day to day life in a real and meaningful way. These improvements have not cost the council thousands of pounds, required a ‘strategic programme of change’ or taken huge amounts of time away from people’s day jobs – but they will have a significant impact.
In tackling the challenges facing local councils over the next few years, we should not lose sight of two things. Firstly the pace of change in these organisations is enormous and exciting and we should take the time to recognise it. Secondly, whilst reconfiguring services, designing new models and innovating, we should remember that sometimes the simplest things make the biggest difference – working closely together, sharing information, and most importantly, learning from past experience.