Agenda item

21st Century Council

To consider an update on the Council’s 21st Century Council change programme and evidence from the following witnesses:


·           Heather Thwaites – Programme Director, 21st Century Council

·           Oliver Whittle – Executive Member for Finance, 21st Century Council, Internal Services and Human Resources

·           Councillor Gary Cowan – in relation to the Scrutiny request on improving communications between Members, Officers and residents (considered at the previous meeting of the Committee)

·           Hilary Rothery and Joe Donnelly – UNISON.


One hour is allocated for this item


The Committee considered a report, set out at Agenda pages 15 to 35, which provided an update on the 21st Century Council programme.


The report reminded Members of the projected benefits arising out of the programme, viz:


·           improved availability of, and access to, Council services through digital channels;

·           swifter resolution of issues and queries;

·           ability for residents to track the progress of issues;

·           greater focus on problem solving and customer responsiveness;

·           a leaner, more efficient Council costing significantly less to run.


Appended to the report at Annex A was the most recent progress report to the Executive (May 2017) and a submission from UNISON (Annex B). Annex C contained a number of key lines of enquiry approved by the Chairman in advance of the meeting.


In addition to the written submissions the Committee received evidence from the following witnesses:


Oliver Whittle (Executive Member for Finance, 21st Century Council, Internal Services and Human Resources); Charles Margetts (Deputy Executive Member for Finance, 21st Century Council, Internal Services and Human Resources); Heather Thwaites (21st Century Council Programme Director) and Andy Couldrick (Chief Executive)


Heather Thwaites addressed the Committee and gave details of progress relating to the 21st Century Council programme to date. Heather outlined the defined outcomes of the programme which were to change the way in which the Council was organised, supported by modern IT, in order to understand customers better and meet their needs. The programme would deliver savings of £4m per annum and would ensure that vulnerable residents were supported and protected.


Phase 1 of the programme had been completed, going live on 3 July 2017. The go live process had been successful with few problems reported. Phase 1 involved 244 staff, 100 of whom had been placed “at risk”, with 80 eventually being redeployed. Of the 80 redeployed staff, 31 had been promoted and 41 remained on the same grade.


Heather stated that there had been a high level of understanding amongst staff about the proposed changes and the reasons behind them. Staff morale was felt to be as good as could be expected in an organisation undergoing such major changes. The implementation of Phase 1 was on budget and would deliver savings of £2.1m. All significant risks had been identified and mitigated.


Phase 2 of the programme would focus on the Council’s outward-facing services and would involve greater emphasis on the role of Members and communications between Officers, Members and residents.


Hilary Rothery and Joe Donnelly, UNISON


Hilary Rothery addressed the Committee and set out a number of concerns identified by UNISON relating to the development and implementation of the 21st Century Council programme. These related to the Council’s strategic approach, the way it complied with its statutory duties and policies and the treatment of staff.


UNISON’s concerns were based on feedback from other Councils which had adopted the consultant’s (Ignite) operating model. UNISON noted that the Council was the first unitary authority to adopt this operating model and, as such faced higher level risks.


Hilary highlighted a number of questions in its paper in the Agenda, including:


·           Why had the Council embarked on this major savings initiative before updating its priorities?

·           Why did the Council make commitments relating to consultation and equalities only to ignore them in delivering major projects?

·           Why had no other unitary Council adopted the Ignite operating model?

·           Were Members confident that all key risks relating to the project were being managed effectively?


UNISON recognised the financial challenges facing the Council with the likely impact on jobs. However, the Union reserved the right to raise concerns in a constructive manner.


Gary Cowan, Member for Arborfield


Gary Cowan addressed the Committee and referred to the discussion at its previous meeting about potential measures to improve communication between Members, Officers and residents. Gary noted the potential opportunities from the 21st Century Council programme for better quality information and improved methods of communication which would assist elected Members in their roles.


The Committee put questions to the witnesses using the framework provided by the key lines of enquiry set out on Page 31 of the Agenda:


Key Line of Enquiry 1 – Update on Concept


Members noted that the witnesses’ introductory remarks had provided an update on the implementation of 21st Century Council to date;


Key Line of Enquiry 2 – Staff Morale


Members raised the following points:


·           What evidence was there relating to the current levels of morale in the organisation? Heather Thwaites stated that in any change programme there would be peaks and troughs relating to morale. Feedback from staff, change agents and managers indicated that staff were positive about their new roles.


·           Hilary Rothery commented that feedback from UNISON members and other staff indicated that morale was generally poor. Hilary felt that staff had found it easier to talk openly to UNISON during Phase 1 of the programme and many of them had highlighted concerns about the paucity of information, for example, in relation to new job roles.


·           How could Members develop an accurate picture relating to staff morale? Heather Thwaites reported that a new Change Readiness Survey was being carried out and staff were able to feed back to the change agents who were supporting the programme.


·           What was the role of Ignite in implementing the programme? Andy Couldrick commented that 21st Century Council was a Council programme with support from Ignite. The Council could have worked with one of the larger consultancies, but working with Ignite gave the Council much greater scope to shape the process. Ignite had been retained following a procurement framework process.


·           Members recognised that both sides of the argument could be correct in that major reorganisations such as 21st Century Council would always produce winners and losers. Joe Donnelly commented that UNISON felt that the HR process in Phase 1 of the programme had caused increased uncertainty and anxiety rather than visa-versa.


·           Were lessons learnt from Phase 1 of the programme being collated and used to improve the delivery of Phase 2? Heather Thwaites confirmed that this process was ongoing and that information from the latest Change Readiness Survey would be fed into the process. Both management and UNISON agreed that a key outcome of the programme was a successful Council with highly motivated staff.


·           Councillor Charles Margetts reported on the work of the Member Working Group overseeing 21st Century Council. A major aim of the working group was to retain key members of staff.


·           How would the 21st Century Council programme team work with UNISON as the programme moved into Phase 2? Heather Thwaites reported that regular meetings had been held during Phase 1 and these would continue as the programme progressed.


Key Line of Enquiry 3 – IT


Heather Thwaites confirmed that Phase 1 of the programme was now live and that the new supporting IT had worked successfully with very few problems.


Key Line of Enquiry 4 – Finances


Members noted that Phase 1 of the programme had been delivered on budget and would achieve a saving of £2.1m.


Key Line of Enquiry 5 – Councillor Interactions


Gary Cowan referred to the opportunities afforded by 21st Century Council to develop Member roles and improve lines of communication. Members felt that there was still a lack of clarity about the changing roles of Members as a result of the programme. Oliver Whittle confirmed that contact with Members was now stepping up in order to address this issue. Andy Couldrick confirmed that Phase 2 would include more discussions with Town and Parish Councils about the delivery of locality services. This may be a useful subject for further scrutiny by the Committee.


Key Line of Enquiry 6 – Risk Mitigation


Members sought clarification on the management of key risks following developments such as the imminent departure of the Chief Executive and changes to the Council’s Executive. Andy Couldrick confirmed that the programme would continue to run smoothly following his departures as the change programme had been co-owned and co-created by a team of people.


New processes and systems would be rigorously tested before going live. It was essential to develop suitable feedback mechanisms to ensure that residents could feed back on what worked and what didn’t. All parties agreed that major changes such as 21st Century Council would encounter teething problems, but that these would be overcome.


In relation to the number of interim and agency staff being used, Heather Thwaites reported that these staff filled a number of roles. For example, when services were under review it was sensible retain interim staff rather than incur redundancy costs as a result of service changes. Exit strategies were developed to ensure that the costs relating to interim staff were minimised.


The Chairman confirmed that final decisions had not yet been taken on an interim replacement for the Chief Executive.




1)     the witnesses be thanked for attending the meeting and answering Member questions on the 21st Century Council programme;


2)     copies of the additional witness submissions and follow-up information be circulated to Members;


3)     a summary of the lessons learnt from Phase 1 of the programme be circulated to Members;


4)     the development of locality services and improved methods of communication between Members, Officers and residents be the subject of a further scrutiny session;


5)     an update on the development of “21st Century Councillor” roles be circulated to Members.

Supporting documents: