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June 2019
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Engineering the right kind of change with transformational steering groups

During these difficult and challenging times, when central Government policy requires local authorities to get more than ever done for customers while simultaneously achieving significant cost cuts, transformational steering groups or boards play a vital role in the crucial re-engineering process.

STEPHEN HEWETT suggests how to make the best use of them

No local authority can hope to comply with central government requirements for improved service to customers and cost cuts without effecting not just change but transformation. Today, in response to this pressing and urgent need, more and more local authorities have set up, or are in the process of setting up, transformational steering groups (TSGs).

Some TSGs will cover the entire range of the local authority’s transformational activities; others will specialise in specific areas. For local authorities keen not only to embrace the potential of transformation but to be front-runners in flexing their transformational muscles, TSGs are simultaneously catalysts, powerhouses, think-tanks and centres of ambitious, blue-sky thinking. The challenge is clear: the way ahead perhaps less certain, but TSGs will play a vital role in uncovering it.

In particular, there are vital opportunities right now for local authorities to re-engineer and even reinvent processes that may often have seemed enshrined in stone. But the twin needs of greater efficiency and reduced costs are unlikely to be met without this re-engineering and reinvention. The processes simply must be made to focus more decisively and less expensively on customers; the processes must be made more customer-centric. A powerful argument could be made that the entire rationale of the new strategies of Common Area Assessment (CAA) and Total Place involve boosting a local authority’s level of Customer Centricity, ideally in a dramatic way.

So the challenge facing TSGs is tough but exciting. TSGs have the opportunity to put into action an entire spectrum of change, including all projects that have the core objective of becoming more customer-centric.

In this scenario, the TSG is the catalyst of change as well as the dynamo, the mould-breaker as well as the artist who creates the new mould. The formation of TSGs is consequently a task of great importance for any local authority, and giving careful thought to their formation is vital if local authorities are going to meet central government requirements and expectations.

Essential decisions, including of course who exactly is going to be on the TSGs, need to be made at the very earliest stage. There is a strong case for introducing diversity of interest into the TSG; such diversity of interest can itself be a powerful way for the group to have inherent checks and balances acting upon it.

Inevitably, there’ll be people on TSGs who will have a vested interest in the projects being considered and implemented, and indeed it’s essential there are such people, as they’ll be especially committed to the projects reaching a successful conclusion. But TSGs also need to have people on them who will be able to bring distance and impartiality to the discussions. Union members will be important TSG members, and of course they will have their own vested interests in relation to the workforce. People from the shop floor may also be considered for TSG membership as they will be in touch with matters that may even have eluded union members.

TSGs will also benefit considerably from having people on board who are experts at cultural change. Indeed, why not consider appointing someone from another local authority who has already proved his or her worth in engineering transformation at local authority level? After all, TSGs should be geared toward running hands-on projects.

There is a particularly strong case for the chairperson of any given TSG to be someone who can bring extensive successful past experience of successful transformation at local authority level, plus a fairly impartial overall viewpoint, to the task.

One of the chairperson’s jobs will be to ensure that the TSG’s purpose remains visionary yet pragmatic, ambitious yet realistic, inspired and also inspiring. Overall, the chairperson must be someone who has a truly clear vision of what transformation means for the council while also being someone with a sufficiently strong and decisive purpose not to be blown off course.

TSGs have to focus on high-level issues such as the need to maximise Customer Centricity while reducing costs, yet TSGs must also maintain constant vigilance to ensure that their initiatives are feasible in a practical way. TSGs must in essence be the guardian of the local authority’s vision of transforming itself into a different kind of entity. The new kind of entity will be one that is meeting central government’s objectives and also being true to its own potential for being all it can be to the people who use its services.

Of course there are pitfalls of running TSGs, just as there are when any group of people work together. There seems to be something in the human psyche that makes it all too easy, when people are gathered together, for the gathering to deteriorate into less visionary matters such as discussions of practical difficulties. These will of course need discussing, but it is all too easy for these nitty-gritty matters to dominate the entire discussions, especially if the people on the TSG are not used to working together and may even be starting out with some suspicion of one another’s motivations.

All the more reason for a TSG to be able to make strong and firm decisions about matters central to its remit and to be able to cultivate a pride in its own capability for making decisive and big decisions and never allow itself to become merely a discussion forum.

TSGs must in particular become quickly adept at addressing key questions such as is this particular project really going to advance our objectives? and is this particular project the best use of the money we have available?

Other vital guidelines for the operation of successful TSGs are:

the TSG should at an early stage formulate a statement of its own purpose and objectives. This should be stated in clear, non-jargonistic language, and as briefly and concisely as feasible

the TSG needs to be run with focus and discipline in order to maintain a spotlight on the projects that will bring the most immediate benefit to customers. It is indeed vital to avoid the danger of becoming bogged down in details and letting key projects lose momentum. There are always likely to be interdependencies between some projects and so an emphasis must be placed on clearing a way for the most customer-benefiting projects to be advanced and pushed forward

there needs to be a constant focus on meetings on ensuring that the local authority’s overall culture remains a customer-focused one

one of the TSG’s first tasks should be to identify and document five or six very clear design principles that can be applied to all the projects with which the TSG concerns itself. These design principles should include all the specific requirements that each project will need to meet. By applying them from the beginning, the danger of wasting time pursuing projects that will not advance the overall directive of the TSG will be considerably reduced, if not avoided altogether. Time requirements are especially important when the design principles are being formulated. Projects need to be bringing benefits within, at most, six months

meetings of the TSG should be arranged when the need for guidance is most acute rather than a slavish time frame being adhered to such as, say, meetings being held on a fixed day every month

a clear record should be kept of the key outcomes and decisions of meetings and these should be referred to in detail when monitoring progress with implementations

the TSG needs to steer projects decisively and without flinching from implementing radical solutions where necessary. If a project isn’t sufficiently on track, measures must be taken without delay to get it back to being so

the TSG must decide early on about how it will assess success. In particular, where Customer Centricity is the goal, and it so often is, the TSG needs a workable methodology to allow it to assess the overall progress of its projects towards the twin goals of greater Customer Centricity and reduced costs.

Stephen Hewett is head of Customer-Centricity Business Change at business and information technology consultancy Charteris plc. Tel: 020 7600 9199. www.

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