Where Has The Trust Gone in Stoke-on-Trent?

OK, let’s get to it, I’m about to make myself mightily unpopular once again!

You see the thing is, I trust the the Chief Executive of Stoke-on-Trent City Council, John van de Laarschot to deliver for us.

I trust him to do the right thing by the people of our City. I trust him to reduce the size of the workforce of the City Council, considerably.

Yes, I am aware that he has chosen to bring Vanguard in to encourage and to train the existing council staff in the methodology of ‘Lean Thinking’ and to help rid this authority of the huge amount of bureaucracy that prevents Stoke-on-Trent City Council’s customers from getting the best possible service.

We all know that bureaucracy exists, anyone who has had the mis-fortune to be put through to the Stoke On Call call centre and been asked endless amounts of meaningless and unhelpful questions, knows that. On one occasion whilst trying to get through to C&YPS I thought the operator was going to ask for my inside leg measurement, she wanted to know that much!.

John van de Laarschot is aware of many departmental failings. On Stoke on Call he said:

“The call centre is a disaster, but it is actually only one element of the disaster that needs to be sorted out. It is like TV’s The Office. If it wasn’t so terrible it would be laughable.”

He knows that the Council’s marriage to Kier was heading for divorce:

“The joint venture with Kier was not the smartest thing we have ever done. It doesn’t work for us and it doesn’t work for Kier. We had the opportunity of pulling away from the partnership, but we chose to tackle the issues and sort it out once and for all. But, if we can get it to work like a Swiss clock it will really benefit our communities.”

He knows that the Council is top heavy. He seems committed to ridding the City of those not up for the challenge to deliver change:

“I think this organisation is top-heavy with management and I can’t defend that. I will weed out those who are not up for challenge and who don’t have an appetite to serve our customers.”

He had the balls to pull out of the Strategic Partnership even though the Council had spent some £1.5million on it because in a very short time of being here, he knew it was doomed to failure.

So, are our councillors right to be wary of placing their trust in him? Yes – of course they are! Given the amount of senior officers and previous top dogs that have shown hostility to all those who seek to scrutinise, you can hardly blame them.

Previous incumbents of the top office in our city have treated those councillors outside [and some inside] the executive with complete disdain. They have been kept in the dark over many issues, they have been misled and in some cases intimidated.

Even at the call-in on the Vanguard issue on Monday 7th June, the call in councillors priority seemed to be the political direction of the Cabinet and the views of the relevant portfolio holders. They probed them to see if they really knew what the political implications were of the spending of this £400k of public money, or whether they were simply nodding through officers recommendations for the salary that comes with being a Cabinet member.

John van de Laarschot did not duck a single question, even when some rather rude member of the public barracked him as he tried to explain his reasons for wanting to press ahead at speed with his Transformational Change Programme.

When he was appointed a number of our councillors rang me and made comments like: ‘he was the man’, ‘you couldn’t pull the wool over his eyes’, ‘he’s a smart cookie with a sound business background’, ‘he’s capable of thinking out of the box’ and my very favourite ‘he’s a breath of fresh air’.

Well it’s time to back him [there’s that trust thing again] or sack him!

If he is a breath of fresh air then let’s give him the chance of rationalising the council workforce and making the services delivered the best and most efficient that they can be. Let him rid the Civic of the polluting stench of incompetence

The Transformational Change programme needs to be completed as soon as possible. When it is finished the elected members, working in collaboration with committed service driven officers, will be best placed to make the relevant and most sensitive cuts.

Every message that comes out of the national ConDem coalition government screams cut, cut, cut!

Stoke-on-Trent City Council need to be a lean, mean, first class service machine. They need fit for purpose for surely what will be one of the most difficult times that local government is facing for many, many years.

To get there, if they have to spend some £400k on companies like Vanguard who John van de Laarschot has used in the past and obviously trusts and the consultants from the Local Government Partnerships to save up to £60million in the future, then I say let him lead.

He trusts those who have delivered for him in the past and I think we should all put our trust in him to do the right thing for the City of Stoke-on-Trent.

Let’s be honest, if he fails, then we can trust our esteemed elected members of all political persuasions… To kick his ass out of the door! – Can’t we?

Stoke-on-Trent Overview & Scrutiny Committee Re-Affirm Cabinet Decision To Bring Vanguard.

Stoke-on-Trent City Council’s Transformation & Resources Overview & Scrutiny Committee have today [Monday] re-affirmed the Cabinets decision to endorse the overall approach to deliver transformational change.

The cabinet had also approved the appointment of Vanguard Consultants to deliver a programme of planned service interventions based on the “Ëœlean thinking’ methodology.

It was appointment of Vanguard and the lack of a procurement and tendering process that prompted the call in by the Non-Aligned Group supported by Cllr Peter Kent-Baguley.

The Portfolio Holder for Resources Cllr Kieran Clarke briefly outlined the Cabinets decision and the reasons for it. He said that the whole of the Cabinet had endorsed the overall approach to the delivery of transformational change using Vanguard’s Lean Thinking method.

Cllr Clarke said that the programme would be funded through existing budget contingency. Approval had only been given to phase 1 of the programme and that there were several more stages which would have to be approved if they were necessary.

He told the Overview & Scrutiny Committee members that the cabinet had insisted that there was a Transformation Programme Board established to include the Council leader as Chair. The board’s priority was to ensure the appropriate member engagement. The Cabinet was still to agree on the make up of the board however.

He reminded the meeting that full council had approved the need for a root and branch review and that the review had established the urgent need for transformational change.

Cllr Clarke also stated that the City Council expect large cuts in Government funding which is due to be announced at the end of this month. He was anticipating that there would be around 20% cuts following the Conservative/Liberal Democrats coalitions emergency budget.

Front-Line services were to be protected wherever possible he said.

Vanguard would provide the expertise to deliver a customer driven programme and that they would train officers who would then in turn train the the rest of the workforce where necessary.

Chief Executive, John van de Laarschott backed up Kieran Clarke’s submission and added that the authority as it stood was not just “Ëœpoorly’, it was “Ëœcritically ill’, that it had been under performing for years.

He said that transformational change would deliver a massive improvement and would turn the authority into a confident and outward looking organisation.

The Chief Executive said that he believed that the citizens of the city wanted the council to put communities first. They wanted a reliable, efficient council that would raise the aspirations of the city and its people.

He said the council must start asking the public what they want rather than telling them what they are getting and the council must change the media perception of the city.

John van de Laarschott informed the committee that Transformational Change and the use of a Company such as Vanguard would train the council to deliver highly effective services from a lower cost base.

There would be an emphasis on building strong relationships with its partners.

The Chief Executive said that the council are anticipating cuts of between £50-£60million over the next three years which equates to a 20% cut. The Transitional Change Programme, delivered with the expertise brought by Vanguard would benefit the city and help with the required budget savings.

The Committee then heard from the spokesperson for the Call-in members, Cllr Mick Salih.

Cllr Salih informed the committee that he was in agreement with the Chief Executive that there was a need for Transformational Change. He said that the call in was not about what the CE is trying to achieve, it’s about the tendering and procurement process adopted in the matter.

The call-in member felt that the appropriate procedures had been short circuited. He asked why there had not been a tendering process when there were other companies who did what Vanguard do. He reminded the committee that there was cost of around £400k of public money.

He also raised concerns about the report that went to Cabinet and he said that it was too vague to base a judgement on. He said that the report stated that Vanguard were the leaders in this field but he asked where the evidence was for this claim?

He also posed the question of why the authority employs very highly paid officers to run departments if we need to bring in consultants like Vanguard.

Cllr Salih said that the council needed to deliver change in a proper, robust and transparent way in a process that included all elected members and not just the Cabinet.

In responding to the Call-in members concerns the Chief Executive, John van de Laarschott agreed that there had been an attempt to accelerate the process after a decision on the programme was deferred by the Cabinet. He rejected the claim that the process had been short circuited.

He agreed that there are other companies out there who do what Vanguard do and he went on to use an analogy. He said that if you needed open heart surgery, you wouldn’t use the “ËœYellow Pages’ to find a surgeon, you would get a referral by a Doctor to someone that he trusted to do the job properly. He said that he trusts Vanguard to deliver the programme because he has had experience of their services in the past as had many other local authorities.

John van de Laarschott said the there was a need for speed in this matter as delay could impact on the council’s budget for next year. He said that officers had negotiated a competitive rate which ensured value for money for the fees.

He said that the Transformational Change programme would show the authority what they need to do more of and what they need to do less of.

The use of Vanguard and their recommendations would assist the elected members to make the right decisions based on their finding ahead of the need to reduce the council budget.

One example that the Chief Executive gave to the committee was in one instance highlighted by the ongoing Kier/Vanguard initiative where from the first point of contact from the customer, to the solution of the problem, there were 290 steps of which all but 9 could be removed. He described the example of a bureaucratic Spaghetti Bolognese.

He reminded Elected Members that they have an obligation to produce a budget based on fact and that the Transformational Change Programme with the appointment of Vanguard would enable the council to do just that.

Members of the committee then asked the Officers, Portfolio Holder and Chief Executive questions relating to the call in.

Cllr Peter Kent-Baguley gave the Portfolio Holder Kieran Clarke a particularly hard time as he strove to get an insight into the Political Strategy of the Cabinet relating to the Transformation Change Programme.

Cllr Dave Conway also voiced concerns relating to the Procurement and Tendering process.

Eventually the Committee moved to vote on re-affirming the Cabinets decision to move forward with the Programme and the appointment of Vanguard.

The move was proposed by Cllr Tony Fradley [Labour] and seconded by Cllr Mohammed Matloob [Labour], they along with the Chair Cllr Joy Garner [Labour] voted for. Cllr Dave Conway [City Independent] and Cllr Peter Kent-Baguley [Un-Aligned] voted against. The motion was carried by 3 votes to 2.

Cllr Olwyn Hamer left the meeting early way before the vote. She had questioned the Chief Executive extensively on the appointment of Vanguard. She had some previous knowledge of them in another authority and was critical of the fact that they did not produce written reports on their work and findings that could be put before elected members.

Please listen to the Audio Interviews below. The first is with Portfolio Holder for Resources Cllr Kieran Clarke and Chief Executive John van de Laarschott.

The second Audio Interview is with Call-in member Cllr Mick Salih.