People and processesChange ManagementDriving transformation the Monmouthshire Way

Driving transformation the Monmouthshire Way

Councillor Peter Fox, Leader of Monmouthshire County Council shares his thoughts how a local authority can become truly innovative.

Monmouthshire County Council continues to enhance service delivery through the use of digital tools. How and why is the council leading the way when it comes to innovation?

I’ve been told that Monmouthshire is unique in the way we look at solving problems and in how we embrace change, which has really been driven by austerity. Monmouthshire is one of the lowest funded authorities so we’ve always had to strive to find different ways of doing things and embracing technology is one way to find effective solutions to some of the bigger problems and dilemmas that we face.

Also, we’re blessed with some key staff who have massive strengths in some of the areas we’ve been developing and they certainly have foresight. When they go out to try to bid for things, more often than not they’re successful – as we’ve seen with our bid for funding from the GovTech Challenge that will see five tech companies have been awarded contracts to use cutting-edge technology to tackle the problem of rural isolation and loneliness.

Those projects are moving ahead well and we’re hoping all of the five shortlisted companies will find some solutions to some of the rural isolation loneliness issues we have, alongside access to rural transport. In a larger authority like Monmouthshire, which covers a thousand square kilometres, there’s a huge amount of rural isolation and deprivation, which is just as important as the problems in urban areas, which I think get more media coverage. It will be interesting to see how the five solutions develop. Hopefully, we’ll solve some of our issues and, importantly, be able to scale and solve others.

Are you hopeful that by solving problems around rural isolation you’ll see a positive knock-on effect on other social and economic issues?

I certainly hope so, but we need to focus on the main issue first. Monmouthshire has created a new cabinet portfolio focusing specifically on social Justice and community development. I think we’re one of the only councils in the UK – certainly in Wales anyway – that has a specific portfolio for this and it means I have one new cabinet member – Councillor Sara Jones – whose specific role is to take forward the social justice and community development agenda.

Sara has already pulled together her strategy to deal with some of the big issues we’ve not really got to grips with previously. These include some of the inequality across the authority. Too often we talk of deprivation from the an urban perspective, but we know there is so much rural isolation. Somebody may live in a big farmhouse but they may be starved of cash. They may be starved of access to services. They could be subject to a whole range of mental health issues driven through social isolation. People within these communities could be subject to domestic abuse. There could be a whole range of things that we don’t get to see.

We’re hoping that through addressing some of these key issues around loneliness and social isolation that we might begin to be in a position to improve lives in many ways. The whole wellbeing agenda leads us to think about all parts of the communities, not just the obvious parts which we can address quite easily.

Coming back to a point you made earlier, one of the issues we often hear from local authorities is that there’s often not the political buy-in to innovation. Then there’s the cultural side of bringing staff along with you along the journey, which can often be a problem. How are you overcoming those issues?

Firstly, there has been a stable political scene in Monmouthshire for some time. I’ve been leader for 11 years, not that that’s necessarily a good thing, but it does demonstrate stability! Yes, we’ve had a turnover of members, but we’ve been able to corral everybody around a common goal, which is a little bit different to many traditional authorities.

Secondly, we know that we haven’t got all of the solutions to all of our problems, but we do know that a county like Monmouthshire is full of social capital. There are people out there who just want to get involved and help us, so embracing volunteering and enabling people to get involved is really important to us. Our staff get that as well, because we strongly believe in protecting locally accessible services. If you want to do that, you’ve got to find ways to mobilise the social capital you have around you.

Over the years we’ve also been blessed by having a fantastic cadre of senior officers who really get this, driven by the Chief Executive. When you get a team of senior officers and the political leaders with the same vision, and you move in the same direction, you can make things happen.

I think usually, in many authorities where it’s less stable, you tend to have new administrations coming in who have to establish themselves. At the same time, the chief officers are responsible for making sure the council still moves in the right direction. You can get this pushing and pull between views and lose ground accordingly. Relationships, trust, credibility and stability are what I believe to be the key ingredients to achieving your goals and making a difference. Too many councils spend too much time arguing within themselves and lose time.

We’ve never had a problem with being innovative here but one of the first things that really changed our culture was the appointment of our Chief Executive, who really wanted us to move toward a deeper agile working scenario. So, we knocked all the walls down! There are now only two offices in the whole of Monmouthshire county council. There are no obstacles between people. The Chief Executive sits with the rest of the staff.

Over the last eight or nine years, we’ve developed a very levelling culture, so the closed doors, silo mentality have become a thing of the past. Everybody has sight of the corporate mission, if you like, and combine it to our corporate plan.

Does that help overcome the fear factor many people have when it comes to innovation? Are people allowed to be bold and take risks and be allowed to fail?

I have a fundamental belief that people are extremely capable. They deal with a multitude of things in their lives every day, from managing money to bringing up families to achieving success with their hobbies. They have loads of skills. Yet, when they get to work, they do the one thing they’ve been trained to do. That’s why Monmouthshire adopted a culture of entrepreneurship. We were enabling people to think outside of their own area and actually consider how they could input into other areas of the council.

That strengthened and broadened the remit of a lot of staff who generally wouldn’t have come out of their shell. We empowered people to step outside of their comfort zone. If people wanted to take risks, we were happy, as long as they were well thought out. We encouraged people to take risks with the caveat that that if they fell down they fell forward, fell fast and didn’t dwell on it. Nobody gets anywhere without making a mistake or two.

That’s a philosophy which we still try to maintain and embed in our corporate culture, including at management level. Trying to get people to release their grip on their teams and allow people to come forward with ideas can be a little bit more challenging. But to make all the things happen that we are at Monmouthshire, you’ve got to have a strong leadership that’s capable of driving a culture change. That takes a little while to achieve but is well wort the effort.

Is it fair to say then that technology is just one tool in the toolbox and what you’re actually getting right at Monmouthshire is the culture, the structure and an air of positivity?

Exactly right. The same applies to innovation too. You can’t ignore any new tool that comes along but I hate the term. Any progressive organisation that’s driving to do things differently and better, will be innovative.

All too often people talk about digital when they’re actually still talking about tech, about new machines. Print is a good example. We lost that years ago. I don’t use any paper at all. When we talk about digital we’re actually talking cloud-based stuff, we’re talking five key test beds, we’re talking about how can we actually create a smart county, not just a smart city, smart towns and things like that. How do you enable a smart rural community? What can we do? Where are the opportunities for helping agriculture through AgriTech. It’s all very exciting.

If we can maintain the correct culture and leadership, there are masses of opportunities out there for the council.

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