Posts Tagged ‘Vanguard’

So Long, It Hasn’t Been Good To Know You

09/12/2015

The recent news of the departure Stoke-on-Trent City Council’s controversial chief executive John Van de Laarschot was very welcome and long overdue. It wasn’t a surprise: the council changed hands after the May 2015 elections and new leader Dave Conway was a frequent critic of Van de Laarschot while in opposition.

The departure was a costly one. After several weeks on fully paid gardening leave, he was given a Golden Fuck Off of almost a quarter of a million pounds. And this after a five year tenure that wreaked havoc on the council, ruining successful services and causing staff to leave in unprecedented numbers. This obscenely overpaid and arrogant little man should have been sent packing years ago – there were opportunities, but former leader Mohammed Pervez lacked the balls. Better late than never, I suppose, and good riddance to extremely bad rubbish. A pity it took so long and cost us so much.

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Council Spends Even More of Our Money on Consultants

30/04/2014

It’s not often I agree with The Sentinel when it comes to their coverage of Stoke City Council: last week’s coverage of the Council’s current sickness levels was an especially lazy piece of journalism. However, today it reports that the Council is to spend £35,000 on consultants to report on the city centre’s parking. Given the scale of the cuts the Council is having to implement, the paper not unreasonably asks is this is an appropriate use of resources. Surely there must be someone in the Council’s parking department who could do the work?

This comes on the heels of the millions wasted on Vanguard whose main remit seems to have been to take successful services and ruin them. I worked in one so I know whereof I speak. To add insult to this injury, the councillors then voted themselves a massive increase in allowances: this when their staff have had a four year pay freeze. They really need to get their priorities straight. They are there to serve us, the people of this city, not to enrich themselves or private companies at our expense. What services will have to be cut to pay for this latest waste of money?

Given the scale of the cuts, the Council must stop the use of consultants; senior management should take a pay cut of at least 20%; the councillors should get no further increases in allowances, and the leader’s pay should also be cut. This will at least demonstrate some leadership and set an example. It is patently unfair to expect city residents to stump up the costs of the cuts through significant increases in rents and other charges and the loss of services, and for the Council to waste money in this way.

Stoke Council Concerned Over Inexperienced Benefit Staff

27/03/2014

I understand that the leadership of Stoke-on-Trent City Council (by which I mean the elected ones, not Vanguard’s Representative On Earth) are concerned that the benefits department has so many inexperienced staff. Well, my heart bleeds, I don’t think. This is an entirely self-inflicted wound. People like me who left last year did not do so lightly. Why would so many choose (nay, queue up) to leave what was a good public sector employer during a recession? (It may not officially be a recession any more, but up here it still feels like one). Half the assessment staff (yes half) left because they felt they had no other choice, had been forced into it by a bullying and uncaring management.

The reasons I left were bound up with all this. As a result of the changes to the job – making it largely face-to-face – people like me who preferred to work in the back office were left with a stark choice by management: adapt or fuck off. So a lot of us fucked off, fed up with being badly treated. I didn’t want to leave the council, but the stresses of the changes caused my depression to return and to require a steadily increasing dose of medication to combat it. I made three visits to Occupational Health in my last two years there, and their recommendations were always ignored by management. Adapt or fuck off. Every day, I would wake up and dread going in. I hated it. If I hadn’t left, I would have remained ill and the illness would almost certainly have got worse. Even though the job I went to turned out to be shit, I still managed to kick the medication. This would have been impossible if I had remained at Stoke.

So I would say this to the leaders. While I admit that I don’t envy your having to make savage cuts (who would want to go into public service to do that?) the loss of so many experienced benefit assessors happened on your watch. If you had taken a closer interest in the welfare of your staff and not allowed a bullying management culture to take root, this would probably not have happened.

How consultants ruined a good Benefits service

20/01/2013

Once upon a time, there was a local council benefits service that had a serious backlog of work. Claims took several months to sort, and claimants were understandably angry. There were insufficient staff to deal with the work, and they were demoralised and unappreciated. Eventually, new money was found, more staff recruited and better training provided. Gradually, the backlog was cleared and the department went from being one of the worst in the country to one of the best.

This ticked along well for the next few years. This council went through several chief executives during this time, and in 2010, another one was appointed. He came from another council and prior to that, the private sector. As usual, he had his own ideas about how to run things, so he ordered yet another “restructure” of the council to fit in with them. This chief had friends called Vanguard, and they prided themselves on going into organisations and improving the “customer experience”, using what they grandly called “the systems thinking ethos”. He used them wherever he worked, and this council was no exception. The benefits manager decided to ingratiate herself with the new regime and volunteered benefits for an “intervention”. Staff weren’t worried as the service had a four star rating.

The logical thing, you would think, would have been to look at the existing (successful) system and suggest improvements. But no, Vanguard thought they knew better and had a more brutal solution: scrap the old system en bloc and restart with a blank sheet of paper. Re-invent the wheel, re-discover fire, that’s what it felt like to the staff: their years of hard work and achievement flushed away like so much refuse. It counted for nothing.

For example, under the “old” way, documents given in by a claimant in support of their claim, were scanned onto computer. This meant a staff member could view it on any council PC with the correct software. And what was the new improved method? Nothing was scanned, paper documents were taken and their receipt logged on a spreadsheet. Thus, if a benefit assessor wanted to view the document, they had to phone the back office and request that someone else waded through the mass of paper to find it! Not surprisingly, the incidences of documents going missing increased sharply.

Vanguard’s main idea was instead of assessments being done in the back office, they would be done while the claimant was visiting the front office counter. This meant that most assessors had to be redeployed to front counters, first at the main one stop shop, and then in an increasing number of local housing offices. Now, in theory, this is no bad thing, as it meant that claimants would not have to travel so far to get their claim sorted: local bus fares are not cheap.

It was clear (except to management) that this new way would require more assessment staff, but Vanguard thought it needed less.

In the derided “old” way of working, an assessor in the back office could easily deal with at least 20 pieces of work in a day, which would be a mixture of claims, responses and simpler things like rent increases. Working on the front line, an assessor would be very unlikely to match this performance. Most of the work would be claims or changes of address etc, and even the simplest claims (say a pensioner on pension credit (guarantee) claiming council tax benefit only) can typically take around 30 minutes to complete. Most claims are more complex than that, so take far longer to sort. Assessors had the discretion to take the claim and process it next time they were in the back office.

Vanguard made great play of their ethos being “bottom up”, namely that the improvements would be suggested and delivered by front line staff, i.e. assessors. In this council, this is not how it played out in practice. Management decided early on what they wanted and consistently refused to listen to anything to the contrary. Assessment officers did the work and were thus in the best position to know what worked and what did not. Contrast this with the managers. Most of them had either never assessed or had not done so for several years.

All this went on for months, then for one, then two, years. And very quickly, the department returned to backlog. Management remained in denial about this for several months, until finally, even they had to accept what had been clear to everyone else for months. They even finally accepted some of the changes made had been mistakes (e.g. not scanning documents), but it was too late by then.

Not surprisingly, staff morale sank to an all time low during this time. Under the initial Vanguard proposals, 10 assessor jobs were to be deleted. Six staff were allowed to take voluntary redundancy, then the manager realised this had been a mistake so no more were allowed to leave. Despite this loss of staff, more local centres were opened up to the new way, so assessment staff were spread very thinly indeed.

It was clear from the start that the face to face way of working did not suit everyone. Some staff thrived on it, and were keen advocates of the new way. Many staff, however, were not keen at all. Initially the manager said this would not be a problem as there would always be plenty of back office jobs for such people to do. This did not last long, however. It very quickly changed so that everyone would have to work that way, or else. Several staff in particular had issues over it. Management were aware of this throughout, and although they made great play of trying to be “supportive”, staff concerned felt bullied into doing something they did not want to do. Not surprisingly, stress and sickness levels increased, and this writer knows of several staff who could only cope with it with anti-depressants.

Set all this against the wider picture of severe government cuts and the recession. This council had to endure multi-million pound cuts for several years in a row, with several hundred jobs being lost each time. At the same time, the corporate culture of the council had changed for the worse, with an authoritarian and bullying management style taking root and thriving. It’s no surprise that staff felt scared for their jobs, and management played on this: play ball or your job will be at risk.

I’d like to say this story could be one where everyone lived happily ever after, but that seems more and more unlikely. Two and a half years after Vanguard, several more experienced staff have left the department. The workload hasn’t reduced of course, and seems unlikely to do so. And the managers responsible for the mess are still in post. Across the council, despite high unemployment in its area, staff have been queueing up to leave. To anyone with eyes to see, this suggests that something is seriously wrong with this council.

The benefits service is a vital one, helping as it does people in financial difficulties. Yet the council took a successful service and destroyed it. Worse still, this destruction cost several million pounds of tax payers’ money. In this writer’s opinion, this represents a massive failure by the council. It has failed its staff, and it has failed the people it is supposed to serve. From the chief executive down, the management should be hanging their heads in shame.


Nick Cohen: Writing from London

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