Breaking down the barriers to change

By Heather Jameson | 04 December 2018

Local government has seen unprecedented change in the past decade and there is no sign it will end soon. From service redesign to digital disruption, the ongoing pace of change is rapidly increasing.

In a recent exclusive survey by The MJ and BT (see The MJ, 1 Nov), organisational culture was seen as the key issue to get right when it comes to implementing digital transformation – and middle managers were seen as the biggest block. At a joint round table dinner in the Midlands, The MJ and BT asked local government chief executives and directors about their experiences of implementing change.

What was clear from our debaters was just how much transformation – digital or otherwise – has already taken place amid the shrinking resources and expanding issues facing local authorities.

As one of our guests says, there has been on-going change for a long time, and staff are now asking ‘what next?’ It has become the new normal, but the constant churn of ideas can be counterproductive.

‘The amount of change we have gone through has made us receptive to change but there’s a bit of fatigue now. Part of my concern is how do we keep the pace of change going?’ asks one debater.

But for another, more change is not always the answer. ‘We all get into this cycle that we need to keep changing. When do you as an organisation say “let’s embed what we have got”?’ The answer is clearly not another short-term transformation plan. One of our guests explains they have moved away from two-to-three year plans to five year plans – and banned the word transformation as it has become ‘toxic’ adding: ‘We are not going to mention transformation anymore. It’s going to be a constant evolution.’

We hear about one council where the cabinet members are keen to get things moving and suggest there needs to be another big idea, only to be told by the chief executive that they didn’t need another idea, just to finish what has already been started. ‘It’s like that old joke,’ one senior officer says, ‘don’t talk to me about change, I’m too busy.’

While our senior staff are ‘passionate about change’, it is not always as readily accepted among staff. As our survey shows, middle managers are often the biggest block to digital transformation. One debate participant says: ‘A former colleague of mine used to refer to middle managers as “permafrost”…but they can be defrosted,’ we hear. Someone agrees: ‘In my experience of involving middle managers, they are resisters.’ Another participant says middle managers are often from a specialist service background and unused to a corporate approach.

But there is some sympathy around the table for middle managers. ‘It is the hardest job in the organisation. If you impose things on them without engagement, of course they will rail against it.’ Another says: ‘It is up to the senior team to make sure middle management are on board.’

They are caught between the demands of the senior managers and the needs of frontline staff, squeezed in between and expected to deliver the impossible. We agree that the resistance of middle managers is, in reality, a failure of senior leadership to bring them on board.

Not all negativity is resistance to change, either. For senior managers, coming up against barriers may feel like a block but it is often just asking the hard questions that will need to be answered. That doesn’t mean they are resisting change, it may just be striving to understand how the new world will work.

It’s clear that all staff need to understand what is changing and why in order to have buy-in. They need to be involved in the decision making and they need a simple question answered ‘what does it mean for me’.

The real path of least resistance is to engage staff at all levels. ‘If we don’t enable and we don’t involve people in change, you can forget it.’ It is about taking people on a journey. And if digital technology makes it easier for people to do their job, they will embrace it.

Part of the issue of digital transformation is that not everyone will have a place on the journey. One council round the table accepts some roles will disappear and is engaging with staff to find a route out – and looking at apprenticeships spanning all ages, not just for young people.

For another, it is about working with the unions, not against them. They have found it is often about protecting the terms and conditions of staff who are staying, rather than hanging on to jobs.

With all this change to frontline jobs and middle managers, the senior teams don’t get away with it either. Everyone’s job has altered with the change in technology and austerity, even those at the top of the organisation.

Culling the senior management teams was a financial imperative, but the cuts have gone too far and some senior teams are now ‘too small to function’ and there is no capacity. Bringing in consultants may be a quick fix but we hear stories about consultants using off-the-shelf solutions that they assume will work because it has been tried and tested elsewhere. As we all know, different solutions work in different places, and not all local authorities are the same.

And with the large amount of churn in senior staff that is becoming more common, there is an impact on change programmes. Staff are asking ‘why should be bother when everyone moves on in two-three years’, it is suggested.

One debater says their council has given senior officers ‘reverse mentors’, staff from lower down in the organisation to help them understand what all this change feels like. But beware.

‘The worst thing to do is bring groups together and ask them what they think and then you ignore it. If people think they are being listened to, they will be more open to change.’

The conversation turns to branding, with councils often using labels like ‘commissioning council’ or ‘co-operative council’ to explain what they are trying to achieve.

One of our senior officers tells the round table of a council where the chief described his authority as a ‘horses for courses council’ that commissioned where it needed to, and enabled where it needed to. When asked if there was a strategy for that he said: ‘No, we just do it.’ Another debater commented: ‘If you are running an organisation with different offshoots, what brands keep them together? That’s when culture comes in. It is all about embedding a culture to which staff can relate. If you get that right people will sometimes understand difficult decisions, even if these impact on them.’

One of the cultural changes in recent years has been smart working and allowing people to work from home – or remotely elsewhere. It has been a success, cutting desk space and costs and making it easier to hire for some of the harder to recruit roles where the Midlands competes with London-based jobs.

But for one authority, there has been a shift. Staff don’t always want to work in the isolation of their own home, so they are providing desks in libraries and other buildings as a result – all part of the digital revolution.

There are some easy answers for bringing staff on board – even the elusive middle managers – but what about elected members? One debater says: ‘I’m finding members really resistant to change. They are very anti.’

For the politicians, it needs to be related back to what citizens need – and they need to see results. They work differently, and as one guest puts it: ‘The officers are rational. We deal with statistics. Members deal with stories.’

With all this digital change, we are reminded of a key fact: ‘You don’t save a penny on digital until you switch off the analogue.’ There is always a risk when you opt into a new system: ‘The danger is you get a great idea just after you have refreshed your system.’

With the technology moving forward so quickly, when is the optimum time to buy? ‘Part of this agenda is about risk appetite. Do you wait until you have the full picture before you make a decision?’ someone asks. The answer that comes back is simple: ‘You can’t wait.’

Round table participants

Jennifer Brake - Service director of strategy and change, City of Wolverhampton Council

John Henderson - Chief executive, Staffordshire CC

Angela Probert - Chief operating officer, Birmingham City Council

Ricky Ricketts - Regional director, BT, Midlands and East of England

Adam Truelove - Account director, BT, Midlands and East of England

Michael White - Partnership director, local government and health, BT

Michael Burton - Editorial director, The MJ (chair)

Heather Jameson - Editor, The MJ

Key findings from The MJ/BT survey into organisational change

79% of senior council directors think organisational culture is critical to implementing digital transformation

86% have experienced some or a lot of cultural resistance to change

69% say cultural resistance has disrupted their transformation plans

71% say their staff don’t see the need for change

62% say their staff don’t understand technology

88% say resistance to change comes from middle management

71% believe it is up to the chief executive to manage the problem

Commentary on the round table by Ricky Ricketts, regional director, BT, Midlands and East of England

I was delighted to share an evening discussing opinions with such influential and inspirational people. No surprises that whatever the barriers to growth we identified were, the answer was simple – consistent leadership. Sustainable change will only happen if all stakeholders truly believe in a shared purpose. At BT it is our purpose to deliver measurable value to public sector organisations in the Midlands and the East of England so we can help to make lives better for their citizens.

The panel also vehemently agreed that technology does not alone bring change – it enables the change you want to achieve. Nobody wakes up saying I wish I had an app and then designs it, but they do say ‘I wish a had a quicker and more convenient way for our citizens to communicate with us and book services.’ We have a goal to be the public sector communications partner of choice for the region by the end of 2023 and look forward to turning those change projects into reality, utilising the technologies that are available today and those we will jointly develop for tomorrow.

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