The road to improvement
Halton Borough Council acquired unitary status in 1998 and took the opportunity to reassess the services it provided, how they were delivered and who received them. When the Towards an Excellent Service (TAES) improvement tool was launched, it was adopted by the borough’s culture and leisure department to help evaluate, develop and improve its cultural services. Here some of the people involved tell The Leisure Review about the process and the impact it had on services
Halton: seizing opportunities for improvement
Facilities to meet the needs of the local community
Howard Cockcroft, Halton’s operational director for culture and leisure services, quickly recognised that the move to unitary status presented new challenges for the team but also offered new opportunities. “The reason for Halton becoming a unitary authority was predominantly that it was significantly different in its socio-economic profile from the rest of Cheshire. It has a population of 118,000, which is very small. It was a case of looking at what made Halton different and looking at how to deliver services to the people of Halton. I think it is fair to say that previously the library service had been delivered to the people of Cheshire, not really to the people of Halton, and that is probably true of services right across the board.”
Within the context of Halton’s new status, the culture and leisure team was able to plan and create a structure that reflected the service they felt they needed to deliver. With the arts and library services added to the mix, the new department was able to work with an integrated approach which had previously been inhibited by district and county boundaries. They also worked hard to make sure that the profile of culture and leisure was high throughout the authority. This meant getting the work of the department on the agenda of as many other departments as possible. Positioning and emphasising culture and leisure as a key partner was essential for a range of existing services and new initiatives.
For John Hatton, Halton’s leisure and community services manager, the Towards An Excellent Service process was a god-send: "We saw TAES as an opportunity to have a long, hard look at our services but to do it across culture rather than to do it in silos of sport, art, libraries, and so on. TAES was sold to us as an improvement tool and I think that was important. It wasn’t sold to us as an inspection or an external assessment: it was sold to us as an improvement tool and that is really what excited us to want to take part.”
Although a number of authorities have expressed a degree of scepticism regarding the proposals for the development of TAES, Halton were interested from the outset. “It was about how you handled it,” said Richard Rout, Halton’s corporate performance management officer. “It was floated here and accepted at all levels. It wasn’t seen as a stick but a carrot.”
The outcome for Halton was a colour-coded master document that clearly showed the areas of good performance and the areas in which the borough needed to improve. From the detail of the process emerged action plans for each element of the service and an over-arching action plan for the service as a whole. While the process involved a lot of work, Rout recalls that the methodology they had adopted made the task of compiling the action plan comparatively simple.
“The key improvement themes just naturally fell out of the discussion as we went through the benchmarks,” Rout said. “These then fed upwards from the more detailed improvement actions into a more generic action plan for the directorate and that’s all part of the service plan for the year we’re in now.”
Cockcroft acknowledges that the TAES process took a lot of time and commitment from his staff. He also concedes that the size of Halton helped make the task easier than it might have been for a larger authority but he is very clear that the impact on Halton’s performance made the investment worthwhile.
“That’s the reason we put the time in,” Cockcroft said. “We were taking it seriously because we thought there was something tangible to come out of it. We didn’t feel we were throwing time at something in which there was no value.”
Cockcroft is pleased that the CPA rating for Halton’s culture service went from a score of two to four. However, he is adamant that the score reflects Halton’s long-term commitment to culture rather than just a more skilled approach to the CPA process. “This has been a process and the process really goes from 1997/98 up to now,” he said. “The Brindley was a long time coming. We were planning it in 1998 and it has been open just three years now. It takes time to get there and then for the effect to kick in. You can look at all the all improvement across all the services.
"Kingsway library was a £5.3m project, of which the council contributed £112,000 and the rest was generated from external funding. A new library with doubled opening hours: that takes time to put together. You can see the improvements in the parks, including three all-weather pitches, and the improvements for the leisure centres; it all takes time to kick in. One of the reasons for doing TAES is to measure whether it’s had the effect it should have, and then where do we take it next.”
Getting close to the service user is a crucial part of the equation and Cockcroft again stressed the role of consultation. Hatton agreed.
“It’s a question of what should be the driver,” Hatton said. “I think the answer is go out and consult the public and then to try and work with them, engage them, try to deliver what they really want. Unless you have an understanding of what people really want, what they really need, it is difficult to deliver improvement.
"I think for Halton, because we are a small authority, we are close to everybody. Because of our size it is probably easier for us than it is for a huge, diverse authority. We’re quite homogeneous.”
Being positive about the value of culture and promoting the contribution of leisure in the context of local services has also paid dividends in Halton. Engaging partners, creating a high profile for leisure has been part of the long-term strategy for the Halton culture and leisure team. “On that theme we would say that one of the things is actually being ‘culture and leisure’,” Cockcroft said. “If you look around at what’s happened in a lot of authorities, how their departments have been dismantled and split to all corners of the authority, I think our department is a huge strength. We would make an impassioned argument for the maintenance and continuance of culture and leisure services departments.”
There is also, Hatton suggested, an argument in favour of leisure’s much-debated non-statutory status.
“Non-statutory services are not as highly regulated or don’t see the central government direction that other services do,” he said. “So you have more freedom to adapt your services to the local public and to the local needs.
"I know that the government has said that it has now woken up to this and it is going to give local councils more authority to get on and deliver services as they see fit. We wait to see if that is actually acted upon but I think we do benefit from that.”
For Rout, the ability to understand the need to challenge accepted practice is central to the success of any improvement programme. The TAES project has helped Halton appreciate this.
“I think it has focused on doing the right thing,” he said. “I’ve worked in authorities before where they have focused on doing the wrong things right, if you know what I mean. They have not looked at the outcome: they have looked at the process, saying, ‘This is what we do day in, day out to achieve what we want to achieve.’
"They focus too much on what they are doing every day and get that right, only to get to the end and find out that what they are delivering is not what the community or the politicians or the service users want. That’s not the case here.”
Cockcroft agreed that the challenge is an important part of the improvement journey and that everyone involved has to recognise it as a positive place to begin.
“It’s dead easy, I think, for the staff to be fearful of the process,” he said. “You put yourself up for scrutiny in all sorts of ways – public scrutiny and scrutiny with your partners – and you have got to go in with a positive frame of mind, and be mature enough to accept the outcomes. Not that you’ve got to be fearful of the outcomes. Criticism can be very positive if you genuinely embrace all these kinds of feelings.”
Would you do it again? “Oh yes,” said Cockcroft, “if only to make Martyn Allison smile.”
This article has been reproduced with the permission of the IDeA. An extended version of this case study can be found on the IDeA website, along with details of the work of the IDeA Culture and Sport Improvement Unit.
The Leisure Review, August 2008
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