The 28th US President Woodrow Wilson once said ‘if you want to make enemies, try to change something’ – a truth which anyone who has ever undertaken organisational change will hold to be self-evident. Yet faced with the perpetual requirement to drive organisational improvements and respond to changing government priorities, change is also a necessary evil.
So it is of little surprise that the task of driving successful and seemingly continuous transformation remains, to some extent, the holy grail of leadership in the sector as we collectively look at ways of operating on ever decreasing budgets, while continuing to provide more localised services to the public we serve.
Imagine, if you will, embarking on the biggest transformational programme, in one of the largest councils in the country; and then three months into the programme being hit with a worldwide pandemic. Surely the only sensible option in such circumstances would be to abandon the programme and bunker down for the storm ahead? Yet in Lancashire we decided to grasp the opportunity even tighter and take our lead from the 44th US President Barack Obama in that we ‘didn’t want to fear the future – we wanted now more than ever to shape it’.
In January, in what with hindsight was the lull before the storm, the council committed to a bold large scale improvement journey. We were bolstered by progress made in the past three years in moving what was a fragile organisation to one with a fair amount of confidence, demonstrated not least by the move from a position of severe financial challenges to a period when we were able to not only balance the budget but even grow healthy reserves.
The plan was simple in its conception, if challenging in its delivery, beginning with an initial 12-week sprint through which we would dissect and understand the organisation and the customers who use it like never before. What makes us tick, what holds us back and what differentiates us from being best in class as an organisation would be laid bare. Following this, we would take stock and plan the next phase, making sure our staff, members and customers still sat alongside us throughout the journey.
The outcome of the sprint phase was a comprehensive programme of improvement based on two key areas – firstly our staff experience, and secondly our customer experience. The vision encompasses an agile workforce, putting the customer at the heart of what we do, transformed systems and new ways of working. Put simply, we aspire to be best in class.
However as winter gave way to spring and the true extent of COVID-19 gripped the UK, our plans faced their first major challenge. When many would have lost their nerve and pulled back we took the brave decision to push on. Given the progress made around stakeholder engagement and the by-product of lockdown bringing agile working in over the space of a weekend, as well as the organisation redesigning itself organically around the challenges this new working norm presented, we felt it was an opportunity too good to miss.
Over the past six months we’ve not only responded to the pandemic and all the challenges that this brought, but we have taken advantage of what in my mind is a once in a lifetime opportunity to create a whole series of new working practices and customer experiences from scratch.
It is the uniqueness of this situation that much of the baggage and cultural history that surrounds all organisations has been put aside in order to fight the pandemic and it is this opportunity which we have seized upon. We have continued to introduce changes at a pace no-one would have considered possible previously – moving thousands of office-based staff to homeworking, adopting highly innovative approaches to care provision with our most vulnerable families, introducing new ICT platforms and delivering services in new and improved ways.
Obviously this new norm brings with it challenges we never envisaged when we set out on this journey, such as engaging with a workforce that is largely now working from home and trying to plan the customer journey in a way we had never imagined previously. However if we have learnt anything from this experience it is to be brave – as another famous US President once said ‘we have nothing to fear but fear itself’.
Stephen Young is executive director of growth, environment, transport and community services at Lancashire CC