Estates: Creating a modern council

Jessica Kimbell, GovNet
June 16, 2024

Speaker Q&A with North Yorkshire County Council Chief Executive, Richard Flinton.

2020 Modern Council

In 2014, we in North Yorkshire set out our vision for 2020 Modern Council, an ambitious programme to realign the council in the face of reduced funding and far-reaching improvements to efficiency and working practices.

This considered what people want from the council, the priorities the public expects us to protect and the different ways we could work to modernise the council through to 2020. A huge saving was required alongside a need to change the way we engage with the public and work with communities. All these elements were brought together in an overall change programme.

North Yorkshire has many strengths and we needed to play to them to gain maximum advantage. We have developed strong, effective partnerships by working with the NHS, police, district councils and others. Co-location with the NHS and police has increased collaborative working. For instance, reablement staff can now work from Whitby Hospital where their patients are while NHS staff utilise county council offices across the county. We have a committed workforce, but we knew we needed to build on that by continuing to invest in their development and to empower staff. With that, our expectation was for staff to be innovative and free to contribute their ideas and abilities.

This is where our Modern Council programme came in.  We developed Modern Council principles that translated what we wanted to achieve and enabled application of these across our workforce. They bring together culture, trust, performance, collaboration, flexible working, technology, locations, being agile and responsive, and continually challenging the way we do things.

Tell me a little about your Modern Council Initiative – what are the best results which you have seen?

With Modern Council, we’ve looked at technology, property and organisational development together to drive smarter working.

As a result, we’re saving between 30 and 50 per cent of the space across our property and redesigning our working environment. Most recently, we have worked with more than 800 employees on our main County Hall campus to relocate to temporary workspaces to allow essential improvement and modernisation that will provide flexible workspaces and revenue savings of £239,000.

Technology has enabled us to carry on working during adverse weather. Remember the Beast from the East? Roads were closed and safety warnings issued, but more of our staff than ever before connected remotely using various types of technology to carry on working.  This was a superb example of staff making the best use of technology and using alternative office locations and illustrated the changing mind-set within the workforce, to provide uninterrupted levels of performance and service.

The weather was awful, but it really gave us an opportunity to test our approach, challenge the connectivity and find out whether our workforce is truly agile.

Cultural change is often cited as one of the biggest barriers to transformation – how did you begin to embed change within the council’s culture?

Cultural change needs to be given equal importance to delivery of structural or tangible change. That’s what sets Modern Council apart from other property or IT-led changes. In fact, as we look forward the cultural programme is now clearly the leading driver of our property and IT changes.  We need to encourage discussion, listen to the challenges and explore the solutions directly with staff; often the people involved are best placed to identify the most effective way forward.

Have you had any push-back from staff on any of the changes which you implemented? How did you approach this?

Absolutely, especially in the early days.  We were challenging long-standing working practices as well as moving to a lower desk ratio.  New investment in technology and offering alternative workspaces has really helped, but we have also worked directly with teams to understand their challenges and develop team-focused solutions.  We know there is a lot more to do. We have to be in this for the long haul and acknowledge that cultural change does not happen overnight.

What kind of technologies do you believe are worth investing in to enable modernization?

It may sound flippant, but the simple answer is the right equipment to deliver that role, each role is different. We have found a number of different combinations work best for our range of service delivery.

Investment that creates the right environment is important. For North Yorkshire, that was an about increasing mobility and partnership working to enable staff to work anywhere and have the right information to hand.

You have to get the balance right between cyber security and flexibility. We shifted our focus from designing things to manage the 1 per cent, which was restrictive for the 99 per cent, to enabling them. You always have to be mindful that the 1 per cent can bring it all down.

What is your vision for the future of working practices at the council?

Beyond 2020, Modern Council will continue as a main theme in our work to drive change forward.

What would be your advice to other councils who are hoping to modernize their working practices?

  • Have clear objectives – and have the resource in place to deliver the objective
  • Develop close working with colleagues in IT, property, human resources, organisational development and those services you will be working with
  • Listen to staff, encourage staff to contribute to the programme
  • Be clear that not everything will work and iterate to make it fit for purpose
  • Deliver a consistent message, but don’t be afraid to change
  • Keep the conversation going, keep talking