It was a slightly surreal experience switching from riding some of the toughest cols in the Alps over the last weekend, to exhibiting, networking and listening at the AELP conference. Some reflections as we wait for the train North.

The Institute for Apprenticeships (IfA) appears institutionally immune to the feedback and insight of both its customers and service providers. Millwall’s ‘everyone hates us and we don’t care’ springs to mind. I’m struggling to think of another public service market in which the notional commissioner treats the key market actors with an attitude bordering on contempt. One wonder’s if Boris Johnson’s F*** Business was not a slip of the tongue, but unwritten government policy.

To be honest, it’s only a surprise that Chris Grayling hasn’t got something to do with the botched reforms, given the blunderbust nature of the changes; the lack of informed reasoning; the poor engagement with the market; and the frustration of every major stakeholder in the room. It is something when Ofsted is being hailed as a voice of reason in the chaos – although credit where it’s due as Paul Joyce of Ofsted did deliver probably the most well-thought-through presentation of the two days.

Some positives are the progress in devolved areas – with AEB being tendered in the Autumn (probably October); that creative new providers are emerging with different delivery models (LearnBox are a great example); that the new inspection framework will be evolution not revolution. There is also impressive advocacy and leadership being shown by AELP itself, with Mark Dawe providing a strong voice for the sector, and also through innovative membership services like the recently launched online assessor course.

As with Brexit, one can’t help thinking that sense must prevail – but sense and today’s skills commissioning overlords appear to be strangers in need of an introduction. Let us hope that next year’s AELP conference reflects on a year of progress rather than frustration.

The ‪@SheffCityRegion ‪#SCRMayor elections take place today. Here are our final 10 ‘quick thoughts’ on the Top 10 do’s and don’ts for the incoming Metro Mayor in the Sheffield City Region.

  1. Please don’t talk about buses. Whilst it’s one of the few devolved powers, it’s a bit of a joke compared to the major investment needed in rail and road infrastructure.
  2. Take the fight to Chris Grayling. His Ministerial career has been a litany of failed reforms (Work Programme? Probation Service?) – don’t let this happen to transport.
  3. Build on the ‪@theoutdoorcity brand – a main differentiator between ‪@SheffCityRegion & neighbouring city regions. A city in a national park! Rotherham is 70% rural! Attract international adventure events (build on ‪@ShefAdvFilmFest) – promote economic impact of outdoor sports.
  4. Build consensus with LA partners in Yorks behind closed doors. We need to inject maturity & considered thought into ‪@SheffCityRegion & One Yorkshire proposals – presenting a strong and united front with government. This is how Greater Manchester delivered devolution.
  5. Push ‪@educationgovuk and ‪@DWP to secure the funding and powers ALREADY agreed as part of the 2015 Devo Deal, working with other Metro Mayors.
  6. Don’t build a competing bureaucracy. Work with the existing ‪@SheffCityRegion team, LA teams and the wider public service infrastructure. Yes, things may take longer, but you will build consensus, trust and understand the reality of what does and doesn’t work locally.
  7. Avoid the temptation to use the big four consulting firms. Circling like vultures, they have got fat off the back of Greater Manchester’s devolution, particularly in health and social care.
  8. Deep seated poverty is a problem in ‪@SheffCityRegion. The disability employment gap is a persistent stain on otherwise strong economic ESA claimant levels are basically static, despite national programmes. Focus on local action to improve disability employment rate.
  9. Make increasing productivity the Mayor’s legacy. Use the Mayor’s office to promote investment in skills; use the Apprenticeship Levy; invest in R&D – create a forward thinking, aspirational city region able to compete with world competitors.
  10. Give ‪@SheffCityRegion a voice – that isn’t ‘me too’. We must stop being the quiet city and looking north and west for inspiration. The Mayor’s office can build confidence, establish a clear case for further devolution and create something more than the sum of our ‘competing parts’

We’re delighted to announce that we have agreed a new partnership with Parkhouse Bell that will enable their clients to access management consultancy services, directed and delivered by 50 Degrees.

Parkhouse Bell has always delivered added value to its clients, in addition to a market-leading recruitment service, providing insight into international best practice models, and delivering a range of consultancy services.

This new partnership enables Parkhouse Bell to connect its clients to services from our delivery portfolio, including:

  • Strategy and Policy Development
  • Business Development
  • Transformation
  • Service Design
  • Commercial and Performance
  • Communications and Engagement

Parkhouse Bell is an international executive search, recruitment and consultancy organisation, operating in the UK, Middle East and Australia. They specialise in the Education and Skills, Employment Services and Healthcare sectors and provide world-class solutions that enable employers to flourish and candidates to maximise their career potential.

Matt Wells, former Parkhouse Bell CEO, has moved into a new Senior Associate role at 50 Degrees and will be responsible for overseeing all consultancy projects delivered through the partnership. Matt will also remain a member of the Parkhouse Bell team, acting as an Advisor to their senior management team and Board.

50 Degrees has worked with Matt Wells, and Parkhouse Bell, on a range of projects over the last decade. They are rightly respected for their sector insight and knowledge and we are delighted to be working in partnership with them. We will certainly be recommending their services to our clients.

Commenting on our new partnership, Parkhouse Bell founder Helen McAnally said, “This partnership will enable us to offer an even broader range of services to our clients. We thought very carefully about the right organization to partner with, and are excited to be working with 50 Degrees. They are an organization that not only delivers results, but also share our single-minded focus for delivering an outstanding customer experience.”

In the second in our comment series on the Sheffield City Region (SCR) mayoral elections, we’re going to focus on one particular theme, skills and employment, and consider what the Mayor’s big skills and employment priorities should be.

Over the last few days households across SCR have received the mayoral election guide. It details the runners and riders and their big pitch to voters. Understandably light on any detail, the candidates express their high-level priorities – the what, not the how. A number of the candidates highlight the importance of delivering growth and building a 21st century workforce, but beyond the soundbite, what should the new mayor prioritise when they come into power?

Their start point should be the Devolution Agreement, which sets out in (very) high level terms the agreement made between the local authorities in the SCR and Government in 2015. To summarise, it describes a phased approach to the devolution of some elements of the skills budget, not including Apprenticeships or European Social Fund (ESF) provision, and a co-design approach to employment programmes with DWP.

Secondly, the SCR policy team has produced a detailed strategic economic plan, which sets out the challenges facing the region – particularly productivity, job creation and skills development – and the priorities needed to address them, outlining a number of programmes already in place (such as Skills Bank, and a health-led employment trial). This has been further supplemented by additional analysis into particular issues such as skills shortages. Collectively, it’s clear that there is no shortage of understanding of the issues and potential solutions.

So, the Mayor has a formal agreement with the government setting out skills and employment actions and a detailed plan, with analysis, of the issues and priorities; and a mandate to deliver. So… what then should the Mayor focus on?

1) Preparation for a long and tortuous fight with the Whitehall leviathans of DfE and DWP to deliver the existing devolution agreement, let alone additional powers.

Our view is that the Whitehall departments responsible for skills and employment do not want devolution. They do not trust local authorities or city regions, and will use every trick in the book to delay, stifle and prevent devolution.

The Work and Health Programme commissioned in 2017, written into the devolution agreement as a co-design approach, was a classic case study in DWP obfuscation, confrontation, and false promises. SCR was treated as an arms-length stakeholder. And DWP have used the SCR/One Yorkshire political context as a reason to suspend an employment pilot designed to get more SCR residents into work – again written into the devolution agreement. The Mayor must:

  • Unlock the funding from DWP to enable the city region to commission the employment pilot
  • Collaborate with other metro Mayors – regardless of political colour – to present a united front with Whitehall so devolution is seen as a positive, rather than an irritating distraction

2) Capitalise on the delayed devolution of skills funding to the city region, and work with other metro Mayors to push for more devolved powers

If DWP is bad, DfE is worse. It is with no surprise that the devolution of Adult Education Budget (the funding which covers post 19 provision, excluding Apprenticeships and ESF programmes) was delayed, not just for SCR but across other metro regions. Thrown into the ‘too difficult’ box for another year and now due to start in 2019 and, whilst badged devolution, the reality is that the majority of the budget will need to be spent on delivering pre-agreed, national skills entitlements. This gives very limited scope to shape provision to meet local needs (detailed further in IPPR North’s excellent report into devolving technical education to cities).

Attempts by other city regions to propose ring-fencing levy spend on a geographic basis, or using apprenticeship levy underspend to fund other locally defined projects (e.g. advice and guidance) have been met with short thrift by Government. Our sense is that the apprenticeship boat is one that has sailed – albeit in the wrong direction and with a big hole beneath the water line – with a belligerent focus on quantity not quality. Reform’s recent skewering of the Apprenticeship Levy is well worth a read.

Given this difficult context, what should the Mayor’s skills priorities be?

  • Use the Mayor’s office’s influence to drive up apprenticeships in the public sector – a large employer in SCR and so far demonstrating woeful take up of new apprenticeships.
  • Promote a stronger collaborative approach between employers, the city region and providers, so that despite the national restrictions, provision is better tailored to local skills demands. We advocate the New York Career Pathways model, which seeks to build a sustainable and robust pipeline of local talent to meet local job needs through industry specific collaborations between schools, providers, commissioners and employers. It is a replicable model, ideal for SCR.

3) Continue to target the most vulnerable groups living in deprivation in SCR

Whilst employment rates are strong, and economic growth is positive (Rotherham is the fastest growing area in Yorkshire and in the Top 10 nationally), too many of SCR’s residents remain economically inactive. Latest ONS figures (December 2016) highlight that there are 111,500 workless households in SCR (18.7% compared to GB average of 15.1%), with 55,000 children growing up in workless households. The number of people in SCR on the main sickness related benefits (Employment Support Allowance / Incapacity Benefit) is also significantly higher than the GB average, 86,280 (7.4% compared to 6.1%). The Mayor should:

  • Use the influence of the Mayor’s Office to ensure that nationally commissioned programmes such as the Work and Health Programme are working for the region, ensuring that resources are deployed in SCR to support local residents into sustainable and meaningful work that pays
  • Develop proposals for the successor programme for ESF provision – the Shared Prosperity Fund – devolved to meet the specific challenges facing the most vulnerable in SCR

4) Work with the Schools Commissioner and local authorities to apply consistent pressure on schools to increase education attainment

The rate of improvement in attainment at both 16 and 19 in SCR has not kept pace with either national averages or international competitors. 44% of SCR’s young people still leave school without the requisite five good GCSE’s, including English and Maths. A fifth of these young people have still not achieved this level by age 19. Only just over half of 19 year olds achieve level 3 and this is seven points below the national average. The recent Northern Powerhouse Partnership report into the North-South divide in education is well worth reviewing. It must be a ‘non-negotiable’ that education attainment in the region improves and that the Mayor is a figurehead for raising aspiration in schools – particularly in the most deprived areas of SCR.

We could go on, but we’ll leave the comment there for now. Over the next few days we will share further thoughts on the wider themes emerging from the candidates, and consider some of the longer-term priorities and considerations for the Mayor.

A few weeks ago we posted an article about Northamptonshire County Council and its decision to outsource its entire service offer. We suggested that new models of delivery are not a silver bullet for the challenges facing local government. This has been borne out by the Best Value Inspection undertaken by Max Caller CBE. The report undoubtedly makes salutary reading for local government.

In terms of the numbers – the report highlights the unsustainable use of reserves and the dark arts of local government finance jiggery-pokery to mask, rather than address, the underlying causes of demand in children’s and adults services and an assumption that grand structural changes will make the difference. The most alarming point here is that Northamptonshire is not alone in this approach. The recent NAO report Financial sustainability of local authorities 2018 highlights how many authorities have been forced to go down this route.

One line from the report, “there is no substitute for doing boring really well – only when you have a solid foundation can you innovate”, particularly stands out. It reflects the importance of some of the grunt work we do with local government. It may not be sexy, but it’s essential work for putting the structures in place that are needed to ensure new proposals are properly scrutinised; putting the rigour into developing business cases so that officers and members can make informed decisions, aware of both the upside and risks; and monitoring the delivery of savings by asking the difficult questions when things are off track.

While we pride ourselves on our innovation – we are equally proud of doing boring really well.

Mayoral elections for the Sheffield City Region (SCR) will take place on 3rd May 2018.  In the run-up to the elections we’ll be sharing our insights into the opportunities and challenges of devolution, the role of a city region Mayor, and the considerations – beyond the party-political lines – for local residents (and that includes us here at 50 Degrees ‘Towers’).

By way of a bit of background, we were heavily involved (working will brilliant local public service leaders including James Binks, Geoff Little, James Farr, Matt Ainsworth et al) in the Greater Manchester devolution proposals for welfare, employment and skills. This work included the design of Working Well, now the largest devolved employment programme in the UK… in its latest guise as the Work and Health Programme.

Now the context this side of the Pennines is, as ever, different. There’s the stop-start nature of the implementation of the Devolution Agreement; the ‘will we won’t we?’ One Yorkshire devolution agreement; and competing Local Authorities challenging the scope of the city region. All these things, alongside a national focus on Brexit and a much more lukewarm response to devolution under May’s government, mean that there is – certainly from our perspective – a ‘so what?’ factor and a definite feeling of election fatigue.

So, what are some of the early things to consider as potential candidates start to float their manifesto ideas?

Firstly, the extent to which candidates propose commitments which are outside of their remit. In Greater Manchester the Mayor, Andy Burnham, placed a significant focus on homelessness as part of his campaign. Yet, the Mayor’s Office has no statutory responsibility for homelessness and therefore came into direct conflict with Local Authorities’ responsibilities, resulting in some difficult and testing negotiations!

Secondly, the relationship between the Mayor’s Office, the Combined Authority and each Local Authority in the city region.  Does the candidate have the interpersonal skills to develop consensus, negotiate, and engage in the hard slog of grown-up public service reform? Yes, SCR needs a strong and visible leader than can more effectively put it on the map, but, the Mayor’s Office is not an island, and it will need to work collaboratively if it is to deliver on its mandate.

And third, can the candidate bring the ‘warring factions’ in South Yorkshire together and present a more mature organisation that government can do business with? Or, at least – and this was the secret to Greater Manchester’s success – hide the arguments and disagreements behind closed doors to present a united front to government and wider stakeholders?

We’ll be watching with interest to see how these issues play out in the run up to the election, and we’ll provide further updates on what developments will mean for SCR’s residents.

This is a question that we’re frequently asked, and it’s a question with a very simple answer. It’s the ability to write clearly and succinctly and in a way that compels the reader to engage. The importance of arguing a case for change that is readily understandable cannot be understated.

This sounds simple enough to achieve. After all, with the possible exception of lawyers (!), what profession attempts to present information that is difficult to understand? So, why is this an issue that we keep seeing?

Here are just a few thoughts on how organisations can get the basics right.

1) Talk to your audiences – conducting research and gaining customer insight will help you understand more about how the message should be presented… what will sound authentic and what will ring hollow?

2) Tailor the message – different audiences are motivated by different things, so the message must be presented in the right context for the audience you’re talking to… what will motivate them to engage with your message?

3) Ditch the ‘policy/business speak’ – it’s an easy trap to fall into, to transpose the language used in policy documents into your communications… most audiences aren’t interested in ‘solutions’, ‘target operating models’ and the like… speak to them in terms they understand

4) Focus on the baby, not the labour – change programmes are complex and problematic and it can be easy to get bogged down in process (and describing that process) … make sure you focus on the benefits of the change programme – what will that look like for the audience you’re talking to?

5) Create a communications plan – make sure your key core messages, and your messages for particular audiences, are front and centre and understood (and agreed) by all… consistency of messaging is key

We’re currently involved in a wide range of different projects, from launching a large scale transformation programme, bidding into Whitehall, to supporting the integration of public services – but the essence of good communications and clear messaging cuts across each of our engagement.

If as much time was spent thinking about the customer experience as the quality of a business case, local government services would be in a much better place. Why is service design, particularly in adult’s and children’s services, always an afterthought? Our experience shows that the drivers for this behaviour are usually three fold.

  1. The lack of culture/incentives/reward for placing the customer experience at the heart of an Authority’s priority list.
  2. Capacity/capability – service design is just another skills set demanded of managers, without any real investment in understanding the best way of designing services to meet customer needs.
  3. Accountability – where does service design sit within an authority? Is it commissioners? Or heads of service? Or a corporate function?

Too often, we see a heavy focus on desktop research and analysis, with an absence of investment in a deeper understanding of customer/service user needs. Sufficiency Strategies in children’s services and preventative services in adult social care are good case studies that demonstrate this point. Similarly, there is often a gaping chasm between what an Authority wants to do, and the detailed thinking needed on how something will be done. A list of bullet points in a strategy or plan has to somehow be developed (by non-designers) into a service that meets complex customer needs… and to compound matters further within often impossible timescales to reflect budget sign off/spend commitments.

The solution? We suggest there are five things for Authorities to consider.

  1. Detailed customer insight should be a pre-requisite for any sign off. Do we really understand what customers want and need?
  2. Elevate customer experience within the Authority’s priority list. Make good customer experience something to celebrate, not an afterthought.
  3. Build capacity/capability – as well as brilliant opportunities with the Design Council to build internal capacity, there are specialist organisations, such as FutureGov, that can be commissioned to work collaboratively with local teams to develop new services in new ways.
  4. Adopt a different methodology – using an agile approach, that is iterative, that responds to a deeper understanding of need, that quickly prototypes, tests and develops, rather than a rigid business case/approvals process.
  5. Get the fun back in. Use a new design process to inject some optimism, some creativity, some ambition – the process of design can be used to re-ignite public service passion that has too often been crushed over recent years.

A number of recent media articles have focused on the issues foster carers are currently facing, particularly with regard to changes in registration practices and issues with levels of pay.

Our discussions with a range of local government organisations has provided us with some insight into these issues, and we wanted to share our thoughts on the wider range of measures that council’s children’s services should consider to increase in-house fostering levels.

1) Be more ambitious – and invest in the skills and resources needed.
2) Make it easier to become a foster carer through improved engagement and customer service.
3) Provide wraparound emotional support for foster carers, alongside CPD.
4) Make pay more competitive.
5) Ensure foster carers are part of the solution, alongside social workers and providers.
6) Explore social investment models, such as multi-systemic therapy

For anyone interested in the broader issues affecting fostering, then we’d recommend a very insightful Blog that can be found on the excellent FutureGov website.

We attended a bidders’ event recently where a provider challenged the commissioner a number of times on incumbent advantage – suggesting that that the nature of the specification and the questions asked of bidders unfairly favoured incumbent operators.

Our experience suggests that incumbency is just as tough. It’s just that the nature of the sales challenge is different.

Our work, across different markets and responding to the requirements of a range commissioners, often focuses on helping organisations to address the following ‘five challenges of incumbency’:

1) Complacency – the belief that no other organisation could run the contract/service as well.

2) Assumed knowledge – both of the operational realities of running a contract/service and also the operating assumptions that drive a commercial model.

3) Authenticity – speaking with a coherent voice that reflects the nature of the relationship and service delivered.

4) Focus – ensuring that commissioner intentions (rather than ‘what they really want is…’) are prioritised.

5) The ‘shiny shiny’ – layering in additional innovation, which operational teams may perceive as unnecessary cost.

Yes, a good performing incumbent operator does have some advantages, but a disruptive bid, from a new market entrant, with a compelling alternative offer, clearly articulated, will make commissioners think twice.

Different challenges, different sales strategies, but no difference between the chances of an incumbent and a new bidder winning the business. That’s our opinion.