Council employees describe what it is like to work at local authority during ‘culture change’ review

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Loxley House, home to Nottingham City Council
By Matt Jarram, Local Democracy Reporter

A report on what council staff think it is like to work for Nottingham City Council has laid bare what needs to change as part of a major review.

The Labour-run authority is working on creating a culture change across the whole organisation following the demise of Robin Hood Energy (RHE).

The energy company, which collapsed in January 2020, left taxpayers to pick up an anticipated £38m bill, prompting government action.

It revealed significant failures in the council’s governance of RHE, including a need to improve the council’s strategic financial management, overall corporate governance, and organisational culture.

An improvement and assurance board, chaired by Sir Tony Redmond, was set up, reporting back to the government quarterly on the council’s progress.

A review into the working environment at the city council – which included surveys and focus groups – was completed in April 2021.

It found many positives including “people know and like each other” and “a strong focus on goal achievement”.

But it also found negatives which included “too much focus on friendships/relationships leading to a lack of challenge and creation of political cliques”. It also said there were long meetings with little action.

One of the reports – due to be discussed at an Overview and Scrutiny Committee on February 9  – found: “Much evidence pointed to an organisation and workforce committed to public service and ‘making a difference’.

“There is high value placed on being part of an organisation that is ‘values’ driven.

“Evidence suggests power, influence and engagement between colleagues and leadership were out of balance.

“The perception of ‘how things get done’ differed between senior leadership and colleagues.”

It was also found performance appraisals were not undertaken consistently throughout the organisation or consistently well.

Colleagues felt that their appraisals were tokenistic and a ‘tick box’ exercise.

The council is now setting up a ‘clear and updated performance management review process’ starting at the chief executive and cascading down across the council.

It is also simplifying the officer structure and creating and delivering “an extensive culture and workforce development programme” to ensure that changes are made.

This includes the creation of a ‘Change Academy’ at the council – with up to 20 ‘change agents’ recruited to support the transformation programme.

The change agents will be recruited based on attitude and behaviours and provide formal training in business analysis and project management.

Once trained, they will be seconded over to the programme to support services and deliver change.

In partnership with Nottingham Trent University, a programme has also been designed to recruit, support and train a number of staff to become future ‘transformational leaders’.

The report says: “For the Recovery and Improvement Plan to be successful, we recognise that the wider culture at Nottingham City Council needs to change, and that behaviour change underpins any successful transformation.

“While a new constitution can be written and adopted, plans can be created, process automated and systems put in place, the people at the heart of those changes will determine if real change is embedded and sustained.”

Further surveys and focus groups will be undertaken and gathered towards the end of 2022/23 in order to measure progress.

The scrutiny committee will consider the effectiveness of the work being undertaken when it meets on Wednesday, February 9.

This is what the report into the workforce found:

Positives:

People know and like each other. Can be like a family to its people.
• Informality and flexibility
• Rapid exchange of information
• High trust and willingness to help
• No hidden agendas
• Fun, laughter
• Loyalty, caring, empathy, relaxed

Values both relationships and performance.
Feeling of belonging with a strong focus on goal achievement.
• Passionate, committed, high energy.
• Creative, loyal, stimulating.
• Able to sustain teams over long periods.
• Equitable, fair and just.
• Close tie between espoused values and embedded practices

Negatives

Too much focus on friendships/relationships leading to a lack of
challenge and creation of political cliques.
• Gossip and rumour. Negative politics.
• Endless debate, long meetings with little action
• Manipulation of communication, e.g. Copying emails
• Risk averse. Keep your head down.
• Change roles. Minimise performance measurement.
• Manage upwards more than manage outcomes

Often life consuming. Charismatic leaders frequently look to create
loyalty rather than compliance, resulting in a work climate of
‘believers’.
• Sense of invulnerability.
• No leadership development, only disciples.
• Confuse belief with performance, carrying underperformers.
• Unwilling to change.
• Reliance on figureheads.

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