It’s not often you go to place and feel a sense of wellbeing and community spirit the moment you enter the building, but that is exactly how I felt a couple of weeks ago when I was privileged enough to visit Wiltshire Council as they hosted an ITW Networks event.
An Ipsos-MORI survey earlier this year revealed that 79 per cent of people trust their council to make the right decisions about services. People are also happy with the services provided; an LGA survey said 70 per cent of residents are satisfied with how their council is running things. However, it would probably still be fair to say that the traditional stereotype of a faceless, unwelcoming town hall full of bureaucrats who have little or no link with the local community does surface sometimes.
What Wiltshire Council is doing, seemingly successfully, flies in the face of such stereotypes. Walking into county hall in Trowbridge is a very pleasant experience. It is a bright airy atrium with mezzanine floors housing completely open plan council offices on upper levels, a friendly reception desk as you enter, the library just to your left, glass fronted meeting rooms and a lovely, large community space boasting a coffee shop, tables and chairs, comfy sofas and even a diner serving low cost lunches.
The building says to you as you walk in, “you’re welcome, come in” and the atmosphere is immediately one of mutual respect, approachability and friendliness. Whatever you might be there for, whether you’re seeking advice about housing benefit, visiting the library or meeting friends for coffee, no one makes a judgement about what you might be doing there, everyone is welcome.
But it’s not just about the building. It’s about a way of working, a change in culture and an approach to service delivery that embraces working with and in local communities.
Wiltshire Council is part way through a major transformation in the way it works. It plans to house all staff in three main office hubs, ensuring everyone is mobile and can work flexibly. Desk space will eventually reduce to a ratio of two people to one desk, but with everyone enabled through a decent investment in IT, mobile working will be easier and the need for less office space will save a lot of money. Likewise, the expectation that employees will often be working with communities, directly in communities, means that there will be no clock watching about when they are in the office and a culture of honesty, openness and personal accountability.
In fact, working closely in and with communities is part of the ethos at Wiltshire. It’s what is driving the whole transformation programme. In addition to saving £8 million through the workforce transformation programme, the council aims to fulfil its vision of creating stronger and more resilient communities, by delivering 18 community campuses across the county. These campuses will be buildings in a community area where people can access local services. They will help deliver value for money services tailored to local needs and influenced by local people and partners.
Wiltshire’s plans are ambitious and innovative, but when you’re there, you get the feeling that they’ll make them work. Why? I think there are three key reasons:
Strong leadership – this comes right from the top. The Leader of the Council herself, Cllr Jane Scott OBE, has championed the change agenda and has enabled key staff to carry out the organisational transformation required. There is a clear message about the changes – they are essential in order to make savings and making the savings is non-negotiable.
Clear vision – local communities are at the heart of what Wiltshire Council stands for. The way the council is starting to operate and will operate in the future aims to put local communities and their needs right at the centre of service delivery. The welcoming new look county hall, more staff working out in the community and the new community campuses are proof of this vision starting to work its way out in practice.
Accountability – there is an emphasis within the organisation on personal accountability. The new working environment encourages staff to take responsibility for embedding the changes themselves. Likewise, the focus on building more resilient communities gives local people the opportunity to make their own choices about what is right for their communities, with the council becoming less a provider and much more an enabler.
The people I spoke to at Wiltshire Council are all naturally modest and will tell anyone who asks that it’s not all plain sailing and they certainly don’t have everything right. But it seemed to me like they’d made a great start and I wish them the best of luck as they continue on their journey. I’d like to thank all involved in the event a couple of weeks ago for generously giving up their time to answer so many questions!