Corporate Peer Challenge Gloucestershire County Council, 12 -15 June 2018: Feedback Report
Gloucestershire County Council (GCC) has a strong team of political and officer leaders. They work with purpose, overseeing significant changes and improvements and jointly pushing forward the ambitions for the county and council with its partners. Such leadership has specifically helped guide recent progress towards improvements in children’s services, and is now being deployed effectively with partners establishing ambitious plans for the future of the county, through ‘Vision 2050’.
In 2017 Ofsted rated GCC’s children’s services as Inadequate. It has been a difficult time for the council as it responds by improving systems to keep children safe, and addressing the culture within children services which gave rise to such concerns. A year on, Ofsted have recognised progress, but the council knows there is still much to do. The peer team were pleased to see that GCC has sought to improve leadership and practice within the service, but also to develop a more open and transparent culture of reporting and accountability across the council as a whole. It is of course ‘early days’ and our advice is to stay resolutely focused on that improvement within the service but for GCC not be afraid to ‘lift its head’ and encourage a narrative which is more than just about responding to Ofsted, but also embedding sustainable improvement across the council as a whole; that is the next challenge but a real opportunity too.
The process to establish ‘Vision 2050’ is a strength, galvanising the commitment and enthusiasm of partners and residents. It is stimulating a county-wide conversation around ambitions and plans intent on shaping the long-term future of Gloucestershire, including some difficult issues of prioritisation for growth. The council is a key player in this, and the governance of the collective public stakeholders through ‘Leadership Gloucestershire’ is a strong platform on which to build. The development of this future orientated vision is important and partners should coalesce around designing the next steps and building a plan of action which delivers the economic, social and health ambitions for the county. In the view of the peer team, GCC is well placed to utilise its collaborative leadership style and resources to provide the necessary drive to keep that momentum going. We encourage them to take on that role with confidence.
The peer team also encourages GCC to review its organisational operating model as it embarks on the delivery of its new Corporate Strategy, against the backcloth of ‘Vision 2050’. In doing so, it must ensure it is clear, simple and well understood by members, managers, staff and partners, as the current arrangements do not achieve this. People we spoke with were sometimes confused about lines of accountability and responsibility and given the change agenda GCC is committed to, this is a core issue to address and resolve. The council should hold on to what it does well, notably a strong commissioning culture with effective partners, especially in health and social care. Likewise, the move away from a previously strong directorate structure has helped drive out many aspects of ‘silo working’ and any return to that must be avoided. Holding on to such strengths, coupled with clarity of responsibility, accountability and encouraging a culture of challenge across GCC are all key design elements for the updated model.
GCC is clearly a leader of place with a highly experienced leadership team. As is to be expected in a complex and dynamic environment, they have a range of relationships, from excellent to challenging, with partners across politics, business, and the wider public and private sectors. The review of the operating model alongside the influence we suggest GCC should exert in respect of ‘Vision 2050’ will be an excellent opportunity to reassess their external relationships, and to make deliberate efforts to increase their visible leadership.
The council is well served by its finance team and overall it has an impressive track record for financial grip. It has managed its transformation agenda well through its ‘Meeting the Challenge’ programmes. This has evolved and matured from a cost savings programme to one that is aligned strongly to the council’s future ambitions and priorities and is becoming a driving force to enable their design and delivery. The council is predominantly achieving its savings targets and is financially self-aware. It recognises the implications on budget and spend for its children’s services and has made provision for this, but done so in a planned and proportionate way, with a stated ambition to stem spend in the future through effective budget management. The council’s future financial plans are predicated, in large part, on a reliance on stemming demand in key areas such as children’s services and adult social care. It would be wise to keep these plans under constant review.
The council should consider the effectiveness of its political relationships and ensure there is effective challenge and transparency in place and a focus on taking the council forward. GCC moved from no overall control/minority Conservative administration to a strong Conservative majority council in May 2017; this has led to changes in the political dynamic across the council and the coincident publication of the Ofsted report has compounded this and created a strained political climate across the political parties. We believe these matters need addressing. GCC should look afresh at its scrutiny arrangements to ensure that Members use the range of tools and techniques available to challenge and hold to account. Furthermore, the respective political groups and senior officers need to work through the tensions that exist and ensure clarity of understanding about access to information and officers, but also for the political arm of the council to embrace the cultural change, ambitions and practices of the council as a whole.
The council is responding well now to the challenges posed by Ofsted and has sought to embrace a more open, transparent and progressive culture right across the board. It has initiated a significant staff engagement programme and set in place key underpinning processes and procedures to support it. Clearly this is new; it will take time to bed in and the council must give the time to allow that culture to grow, but also to keep firmly on top of it, in order that it prospers, is authentic, and sets the future tone for GCC.