So… Redbridge.

I’m really aware that I first blogged with great fanfare four or five months ago then went silent. I’ve been down amongst the weeds of team restructures, the detail of organisational change projects and the mechanics of helping to sort out a stretched local authority budget. All important, but not really what I came here to do.

There are two really big challenges I’ve experienced as an outsider in local government. The first is that you start to go native. All the rules that you know are stupid start to seem normal. I recently found myself thanking a colleague for being so flexible with me, but actually the only reason they needed to be flexible was because our internal process was ridiculous. They were helping me work around the fact that we were filling in eight forms where frankly none were necessary. So commitment one in this blog is that I’m going to redouble my efforts to call bullshit when I see it.

The second danger is that you start trying to play the system at its own rules. I’ve run into difficulty recently trying to establish a business intelligence function, and it’s incredibly easy to try and use the bureaucracy and play politics to get your own way. Easy, but dumb. I came into local government because I believe our organisations can be more human, engaging, intuitive and authentic. Becoming a bureaucratic warrior wasn’t on my list. Commitment two is that I’m going to be a good whatever-I-am rather than a bad bureaucrat.

So what is it I’ve actually been doing? Well the first part of the story is probably to talk about where we want to take Redbridge as a council. One of the problems with focusing so much on structures and budgets is that they can come to seem like an end in themselves. We’re starting to pivot back towards talking about a) why we’re here and b) what kind of organisation we want to be. The first of those issues is being addressed through our borough planning process, so I’ll leave that for another blog.

Andy (our chief exec) has written a paper about the future shape of the council. There’s loads of good stuff in it, but the big idea is essentially not to have a big idea. We want to create an agile and responsive council that constantly changes to reflect the needs of our residents. We’re going to design for flexibility not efficiency (and all those other agile organisation cliches).

These are the values I’m taking from it (full disclosure — these only currently exist on my laptop and a Yammer post — no official buy-in yet):

· Residents come first — everything we do should be built around their needs and capabilities.

· Change is everyone’s job — we will support, reward and hold people to account for this.

· Everyone can make change happen — we will grow the skills and capability of our staff, residents and communities to meet future needs.

· We value experimentation — we will always support our staff when they want to try something new.

Now we just have to actually build an organisation that reflects these values. Like a lot of councils, we suffer from what I’ve called a ‘cycle of despair’ in which pressure on managers to change actually reduces the organisation’s capacity to make anything happen. Senior managers ask everyone else to change. Everyone else lacks capacity, time and sometimes skills, so they just produce leaner versions of the old service. Senior management gets frustrated by the lack of pace and imposes a top down change programme. Everyone else gets pissed off with the top down programme and the cycle repeats.

Our job is to break the cycle — which means, among other things, clearly communicating what we expect from staff, giving them good information and analysis to base their decisions on, and providing them with the time, space and skills they need to own the process of change. How do we ensure every manager in the council knows how to really, deeply understand resident demand?

A key factor in all of this is understanding the role the corporate centre — where I sit — might be able to play. As the cycle of despair suggests, we haven’t been getting this right. I’ve recently replaced my 16 bullet point explanation of what Strategy does with one line: ‘creating a culture of experimentation to better serve the people of Redbridge’. Yeah it’s a work in progress, but I reckon you’ll get the idea.

This is going to be the subject of lots of workshops over the next few weeks as we plan our transition into a new way of operating. We need to work out how to get a load of dull but important business-as-usual off our plate, ideally through automation. Then we can focus on adding value. We have loads of good stuff already on the stocks — revolutionising our data capacity and building a new customer services team in the directorate. We’re also deeply embedded in service directorates, helping them set direction and building their capacity for change.

The big new idea might be a neighbourhood service model approach, which will create the space we need to experiment. Watch this space.

Oh, and if you want to be part of what we’re doing at Redbridge, we’re in the market for some new staff. I’ll get a proper link up later, but if you just can’t wait you could click here and select the Strategy and Communications tab.

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