How Swansea Council undertook a scrutiny inquiry into their culture

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The Wellbeing of Future Generations Act requires organisations to go beyond tinkering at the edge of services into wider cultural change. Dyfrig Williams looks at what can we learn from the City and County of Swansea’s Scrutiny Inquiry into their corporate culture.

Culture is one of those intractable topics. When a problem is cultural, it means there’s no quick fix, no one process to tweak that will automatically help organisations to improve their work.

The good side of this is that it means that organisations tend to go beyond tick box solutions when they identify cultural issues in order to deliver real and lasting change. The bad side of it is that sometimes cultural change is seen as being so difficult that it doesn’t get done at all – the problem is too big to get to grips with.

So when I heard about the City and County of Swansea’s Scrutiny Inquiry into their Corporate Culture, I was immediately interested.

So why did they set up the inquiry?

Councillor Andrew Jones, the Convener of Corporate Culture Scrutiny Inquiry Panel said that:

‘The topic was chosen because, as a Council our corporate culture underpins everything we do, from how we engage with our citizens and provide services to how we treat our staff and grow and develop as an organisation. The challenges faced by the reductions to council budgets pose a threat to that notion of a shared culture. We therefore as Councillors, management and staff have a shared responsibility to respond to these challenges by developing a can do culture that ensures the citizens of Swansea continue to receive the best Council service possible.’

Getting things right at the start

So what can we learn from the pro-active steps that the council have taken to identify ways of improving their culture?

When I spoke to Michelle Roberts from the City and County of Swansea’s Scrutiny team, she emphasised the importance of getting the parameters of the inquiry right at the outset in order to focus on the right areas. The rationale of the review was to ensure that:

  • The council has the right corporate culture to tackle the challenges it faces
  • They create a can do culture to help turn the city around
  • Staff culture is focused on empowerment, personal responsibility, innovation and collaboration.

It’s great to see how the council have ensured that the inquiry has an ongoing legacy by linking it to the work of Leanne Cutts, who’s their Innovation Co-ordinator. As the Wellbeing of Future Generations Act requires, they’ve looked at their long term goals, whilst also identifying quick wins and medium term objectives.

There are some eye-catching proposals that focus on the organisation’s people. They cover the whole staff journey from corporate inductions, mainstreaming innovation into appraisals and developing personal skills to avoid buying in expertise.

Failure

We’ve done a fair bit of work around failure over the last couple of years through our Manager Chris Bolton. This work has underpinned a lot of our information sharing and our focus on improvement. So it’s great to see that the council are looking at how they can move away from a blame culture, whilst recognising the external issues that make it difficult (I’ve previously blogged on complex environments and failure). If we’re going to meet the expectations of the Wellbeing of Future Generations Act, we have to be able to take well managed risks and build upon the lessons from failure, as Huw Vaughan Thomas, the Auditor General for Wales, discusses in the video below.

Where to start?

If you want to examine the culture of your organisation, it’s well worth taking a look at this Culture Mapping Tool that’s been developed by Dave Gray, and which The Satori Lab have been using in their work. The stated and unstated levers of the tool are really useful in terms of thinking about what drives the behaviour of public service staff and organisations.

At the Wales Audit Office, we’re working on our approach to auditing the Wellbeing of Future Generations Act. For us as an audit body and for public services generally, it means that we have to change. If organisations try to deliver the seven wellbeing goals through the five ways of working without changing what they do, they’re likely to fail.

The Act gives us the chance to do things a bit differently in Wales. In a time of austerity, we can’t deliver the aspirations of the act whilst tinkering around the edges and adapting what we currently do. For the people of Wales to get the public services that they deserve, we need wholesale cultural change.

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