Balancing a Merger with a Crisis

Leaders at Councils. Leadership Through the First Wave of the Coronavirus Crisis

Leaders are facing the greatest challenge of their careers. As stated by McKinsey & Co: 

“The goal for…leaders is to emerge from this not having just “managed” the crisis but being stronger because of it. 

For this reason, it’s important…to keep a steady hand on initiatives and programs that can help the business become tech forward.”

In the first of our councils Futr Spotlight, we caught up with Peter Holt, Assistant Chief Executive at South Northants Council, to share his thoughts on the crisis and how his teams are navigating the needs of their residents and juggling existing priorities.

Please could you give a brief intro to yourself and South Northants?

“South Northants is one of 7 district / borough councils in the county of Northamptonshire, with around 250 staff.

Whilst we’re currently responsible for resident services within our area, the 7 district councils, along with the upper tier authority of the county council, are being replaced with two new unified councils from 1st April 2021.

My role, as assistant Chief Exec, spans a range of things, but predominantly I’m responsible for project managing the abolition of the council and unification with our neighbours.”

How has the merger process been going so far, putting aside COVID for a moment?

“The main challenge has been in planning the unification of hundreds of services, whilst maintaining BAU.

A number of my colleagues, who’ve been here far longer than the 1.5 years I have, have spent a lot of time building up the council into one of the top performing authorities in the country across a range of services, from a resident satisfaction perspective.

Take the example of bin collection. Here we have a resident satisfaction rating of over 90%. Maintaining this, and our top 10 position in recycling, alongside unifying the differences between all local authorities’ bin collection timetables, in-house vs. outsourced teams, resident habits around what can and can’t be put in different bins in different areas etc., takes some planning!

We’re using the MoSCoW methodology to distill the lawfulness of different services in different areas, and manage our overall unification & prioritisation process.”

How has the first wave of the pandemic affected BAU for staff?

“Thankfully, c.80% of our desk-based staff were already on laptops, and our IT team were awesome in procuring laptops for the remaining 20% swiftly.

We didn’t get a chance to do our planned staged test of working remotely, as it all happened faster than most expected, but we’ve had pretty much no issues – other than the single point of failure of domestic internet connections.”

And what about the impact on residents and their service needs?

“We process housing benefits & council tax benefits, which saw a huge spike early on – on the peak Friday, we had the volume we’d normally see over a 10 week period!

Business grants – either £10k or £25k that certain businesses could claim during this period – also saw huge traffic, understandably.

We all like to think that in times of pressure, we can work smarter, remove unnecessary steps in processes etc. but sometimes there’s no substitute for getting in earlier, staying later, and working over the weekend – here, our staff stepped up to the challenge amazingly.”

How has the council worked with the local community to support those in need?

“Particularly in more rural areas around us, parish councils and local communities have long supported one another in various situations.

We setup the county-wide volunteering network, where we swiftly signed up 5,000 volunteers out of a total of 90,000 residents.

Yet we only had around 100 people come forward who needed the help of these volunteers – because so many people in need were already being catered for, thanks to the community’s cohesion – perhaps 95% had already been solved before any formal network could be set up.

It’s that kind of community spirit that really helps support the most vulnerable through this tough time.”

Looking to the future, what are the implications for the ongoing merger?

“We had to pull away so many people who were working on this massively complex merger task, to focus on our COVID response.

We’ve collectively worked out that the scale of ambition we have won’t be deliverable by the unwavering deadline.

As such, we’ve had to focus on the hideously jargonistic ‘Safe & Legal’ – getting the two new authorities that’ll replace the 8 integrated sufficiently to be legal and operational.

Our other ambitious integration and service level goals will still be achieved, but over the 12-24 months following the merger.

There have been some tough decisions, that have left some people disappointed given our excitement and ambition. I’m confident we’ll get there in the end, we’ve just got to balance priorities right now!”

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