Council of the Year Throwbacks - TWBC 2010

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To celebrate the tenth anniversary of the Public Sector Transformation Awards, we are taking a trip down memory lane to look at the past Council of the Year Winners.


2010: Tunbridge Wells Borough Council

Tunbridge Wells Borough Council was the first local authority to receive the iESE Council of the Year award in 2010. The accolade was given in recognition of its rapid turnaround from being a 'weak' council in 2004 to achieving 'excellent' status in 2009. Here we speak to William Benson, Chief Executive at Tunbridge Wells, about being iESE Council of the Year and why the council could strive for the top award again

The turnaround of Tunbridge Wells Borough Council since it was rated one point off 'poor' by the now defunct Audit Commission in 2004 and put into special measures is remarkable. The scale and speed of its improvement made it only the third authority in England at that time to move from 'weak' to 'excellent'.

Benson, who became Chief Executive at Tunbridge Wells in 2010, joined the council in 2006 under Sheila Wheeler (then Chief Executive) and two other newly- appointed directors to turn the local authority around.

Looking back, Benson recalls it as a ‘difficult period’. "My initial assessment was that some of the fundamentals were there. There were fantastic staff but no strategic plan or vision and no performance management system to speak of," says Benson. "The council had no idea whether it was doing well or badly because it did not have the metrics or benchmarks in place. It had a poor reputation locally and with partners. Morale was low because people were coming into work and being told they were part of a 'weak' organisation."

The ensuing work which took the council from ‘the sick man of Kent’ to an excellent authority - and being awarded iESE Council of the Year - was all- encompassing. It started with an analysis of any available data, a fundamental review of the finances and an in-depth engagement with staff. The senior management team, formerly scattered in different locations, were brought together, a new vision was outlined and each service given a service plan. The new management team ensured all the council's policy framework documents were in place and that it had a people strategy. "Having a ‘golden thread’ from the top of the organisation right the way down to service delivery was critical," Benson explains. "There was a ruthless focus on performance," he adds. "We were delivering 57 per cent of our performance indicators in the top quartile. The district average, at the time, was around 33 per cent."

Serving the public

Tunbridge Wells BC also reviewed the way it worked with customers and collaborated with the County Council to buy a former McDonald's restaurant in the town centre to act as a single point of contact for the customer, replacing numerous reception desks that had previously existed in various (sometimes awkward) locations. This new hub also housed a range of partners including the Citizens' Advice Bureau.

Additionally, the council helped set up the Mid- Kent Improvement Partnership, which brought a swath of services under one umbrella. "We started with internal audit and then looked at revenues and benefits and legal services and a significant number of staff are now employed in partnership," Benson adds.

The changes it made helped stand Tunbridge Wells in good stead during the financial downturn. "A lot of authorities only started going into partnership in earnest post the financial crash and the cuts to the public sector. We were working a good four years in advance which means we have been more resilient and staff have greater opportunities to grow and move on," he adds.

In addition to partnering, the council also managed the financial squeeze through general efficiencies and promoting greater use of digital. "We have also made millions though disposing of assets that are surplus to requirements," adds Benson.

In 2008/09 Tunbridge Wells was awarded the maximum level four by the Audit Commission for its value for money assessment, making it then one of only twelve councils in England to have achieved that level. It was also awarded the maximum level four rating for its managing performance assessment - one of only seven district councils in England at that time to have achieved this.

Recognising achievement

Benson says receiving the iESE Council of the Year award in 2010 was a "really important part of our journey and something we remain very proud of". "We needed things to put wind in our sails and cheer staff up. We had a big banner printed and hung it on the balcony outside the town hall for the year. It was an external validation and made staff have greater pride in coming to work in the morning and feeling it was all worth it."

Besides boosting staff morale, Benson feels winning the award brought other benefits, too. "It is one of those things that contributes to your reputation and standing. It meant that whether we were setting up partnerships with other authorities, leading on initiatives or speaking at events, we had a bit more kudos and our voice was heard with more credibility than had previously been the case," he explains.

Such was the effect of winning that Benson is considering putting the council forward again next year. "Since then the way we have managed the cuts has been exemplary. We spotted the downturn early and managed to respond rapidly. We have done a huge amount in partnership and what we have done culturally with staff is incredible. We have a highly- motivated, interconnected group of staff, who work really well together," Benson explains.

Benson adds that the council has clear vision. It has a five-year plan with eight objectives. He is clear that with the nature of the high street changing, Tunbridge Wells - set up 400 years ago as a spa town - should remain a destination. In the next five years, the town has planning consent for a new £90m scheme which includes a new theatre, underground parking, offices and improvements to the public realm. It is also about to build a new £13m cultural and learning hub, integrating and expanding its museum and library, adult education centre and art gallery. "British Land has just bought our town centre shopping centre - we have the freehold and they have bought the leasehold. They are investing in part because of what we are doing," he says.

The council has also set up a programme management office to manage projects, giving a rigour to the way in which projects are initiated, resourced and delivered. Digital is another big focus, led from the top and combined with behavioural insight. "We made it cheaper to park in Tunbridge Wells if you pay by phone than by cash and booking a theatre ticket online is cheaper than at the box office," Benson explains. "That sends messages that the public can help us by dealing with us in ways that are more cost effective. We can still deal with people by phone or in person, it is just being aware that there are costs associated with people, buildings, cash collection contracts and the alike."

With the interview drawing to a close, we ask Benson why other councils should consider applying for an iESE award. Acknowledging that the time and effort involved can be difficult when every pound of tax payers' money is being watched very carefully, he still believes applying for awards is an important process to help local authorities learn from the best. "It is very easy in austere times to batten the hatches and just look internally, but what councils should be doing is looking out. The process by which awards are put in, shared, discussed and judged means best practice is being circulated around the sector. I am a big fan," he adds. 


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