Corporate Peer Challenge Revisit: 7-8 December 2021, Feedback report
1. Executive summary
For context, Knowsley Council was established in 1974, and is one of 36 Metropolitan Authorities in the United Kingdom. The borough is part of the Liverpool City Region Combined Authority and shares borders with Halton, Lancashire, Liverpool, Sefton and St Helens. The borough covers approximately 33 square miles and serves a population of 152,500 residents with the biggest conurbations in Kirkby, Huyton, Halewood, Prescot and Whiston. The area benefits from strong transport links including the M62 and M57 providing good access to both the Liverpool City Region and across the wider North West.
The political make-up of the council is decided on electoral thirds, with elections scheduled for 2022, 2023 and 2024. The council consists of 45 elected members, with the political balance being: 33 Labour, five Greens, three Liberal Democrats, and three Independents, with the Page Moss constituency currently being a vacant seat. The council operates a cabinet model, with cabinet consisting of the council Leader and six portfolio holders (one of which is deputy leader). The current leader of the council took this post in May 2018, having previously served as a cabinet member.
Knowsley Metropolitan Borough Council last had a Corporate Peer Challenge in November 2017. This report recognised the progress that the council had made most notably the improvement to children’s social services following an inadequate Ofsted inspection in 2014. The 2017 Peer Challenge described Knowsley as a council ‘in transition’, recognising that recent improvement had been driven through a directive management style, and called for the next stage of the council’s development to be underpinned by an ‘enabling’ and ‘empowering’ culture.
The previous Peer Challenge also recognised that a number of initiatives such as “Knowsley Better Together” and delivery of the local plan were at a formative stage and that further work was required to translate them into practice. The peer team of 2021 recognise that there has been significant progress made making “Knowsley Better Together” a reality and delivering the housing and employment plans set out in the local plan. However, they also appreciate that “there is always more to do”. The team also recognises the continued passion of elected members and officers for the people, places and communities that make up Knowsley and a commitment to improving outcomes for them.
The revisit completed in December 2021 has enabled the council to demonstrate progress against the findings and formal recommendations from 2017. This includes the contribution of the Knowsley Better Together Programme towards the council’s organisational culture and their approach to developing new ways of working. The success of this programme was illustrated through the council’s response to COVID-19, and the joint work which took place with a range of partners, community, and voluntary organisations during the pandemic, as well as ongoing positive relations across the wider sub-region.
The council has continued to make significant progress on issues of growth and regeneration. This has included the delivery of 3,000 new homes through the 2016 local plan, the success of the Knowsley Business Park, as well as regeneration initiatives such as Kirkby Town Centre and the Shakespeare North Playhouse. These programmes have contributed to the growth in jobs across the borough from 66,000 in 2015 to 75,000 in 2021, with the inclusive nature of this growth shown in Knowsley’s unemployment rate (3.6 per cent) being below both the national and regional benchmarks of 4.6 per cent and 12.1 per cent respectively.
This report aims to set out the progress made by Knowsley Council against the recommendations of 2017, and to consider how the council can continue their improvement and go further still. This includes, considering how the council’s approach to community development can capitalise on the opportunities and potential presented by regeneration in the borough. The council is also presented with opportunities for further improvement through the development of a new council plan in 2022. This plan will support the delivery of Knowsley 2030 as agreed across partners, whilst also setting out political priorities that are clearly articulated, that resources are aligned to, whilst mitigating the risk of trying to do too much at once.
One clear priority for the council is the improvement of children’s services. The peer team recognise that the council had a full Ofsted inspection in October 2021 shortly before this Peer Challenge. This inspection found that children’s services at the council had not improved since they were last assessed as “Requires Improvement” in 2017. This inspection report highlighted specific issues including domestic abuse service and family assessments. This Peer Challenge has included no further consideration of these specific services. However, considering this assessment, with a requires-improvement judgement three years after the first, the council will need to consider their approach, including the resources required to support this programme, and the visible prioritisation and pace of this issue within the council’s wider transformation and improvement journey.
2. Key recommendations
The main body of this report contains a range of findings, considerations, and recommendations which will support Knowsley council. Many of these may be easy to implement ‘quick-wins’ and practical actions. This report reflects the findings and feedback that were delivered to the council by the peer team on Wednesday 8 December, with the key and substantive recommendations listed below:
2.1 Embed and extend the emerging culture of empowerment across the organisation: The way in which councils, including Knowsley, have had to respond to the pandemic has inevitably resulted in staff and communities feeling more empowered to act and do what they see as the right thing to do. It is important for the council to build on the progress that they had made prior to and during the pandemic, but recognise that this work will be iterative, and will require time, effort, and energy to avoid the risk of reverting to previous approaches. The success of this culture will be dependent upon the continued visible support of councillors and senior officers. This progress was supported by new ways of working developed in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, and these should be carefully considered as the council looks to define their ‘new normal’ as part of the approach towards organisational development.
2.2 Develop, launch, and monitor the delivery of a comprehensive Community Development Plan aligned to Knowsley Better Together: The council has invested in their relationships with staff and partners through the Knowsley Better Together Programme. The ambition to extend these principles to how the council works with residents to integrate new communities, as well as the opportunities presented through economic growth and regeneration in the borough, will require the council to set-out a consistent and structured approach to community development. This includes consideration of the resources required for this work and the monitoring of delivery, impact, and outcomes.
2.3 The council has been presented with the opportunity to play an active role in ‘place leadership’ and can bring together and build relationships directly between voluntary, community and faith organisations to build on their joint responses to COVID-19. The joint work that has taken place in this context has embodied the principles of Knowsley Better Together, and these groups should be supported through a continued enabling rather than transactional relationship with the council. There is a significant opportunity for these groups to contribute towards the development of the Stronger Communities Strategy.
2.4 Use the development of a new council plan to provide clarity on political priorities in a “post-pandemic” Knowsley. This plan will enable the council to provide clarity to staff, partners, and residents on the priorities in the context of available resources and the “recovery” from the pandemic. This plan also presents the opportunity to illustrate the relationship between the values of Knowsley Better Together and the political priorities and principles of the administration. This plan will also enable the council to set out milestones and actions associated with their improvement plans for children’s services.
2.5 Bring together existing performance reports to create a single overview of services for elected members. The council would benefit from increased transparency and accountability by bringing together existing performance reports into a single public place. This should include a proportionate number of measures being selected to reflect the content of the new council plan, the development of challenging and realistic targets for services, as well as any comparator information which will support understanding of relative performance.
2.6 Complete the transition in the approach and methodology to ‘reviewing’ services which builds on the principles of Knowsley Better Together rather than being a financially led exercise. There is still an organisational legacy of the previous approach that was necessary to secure financial resilience. This will support the council to maximise the wider contributions of services towards outcomes beyond traditional costs and output models and will further support and empower middle managers to improve their service offers and develop new ways of working through new approaches.
2.7 Build on and extend the communication channels and tools which have been developed to support managerial leadership to provide more visibility to political leadership. There is an opportunity to implement a leader’s blog or questions and answers session with the leader which mirror those which are in place for the chief executive. This will provide the opportunity for messages regarding political priorities to be delivered directly and will support officers to better understand prioritisation and build more effective relationships with elected members across all tiers of the council.
2.8 Extend engagement processes which have been developed through the council’s response to COVID-19 and as part of the Knowsley Better Together Programme. The success of this programme going forward will be strongly linked to the embedding of consultation and engagement methods, which build on the current pulse surveys completed with staff and members, alongside service specific consultations. The council could consider, as an inclusive employer, if it has sufficient insights into the experience of different groups of staff (for instance working carers, LGBTQ+ staff, and other groups) that will enable it to respond to their specific needs in the future. This will strengthen the “you said, we did” feedback to staff about how they have influenced the organisation.
2.9 The council should work on communicating their progress and success with different audiences, including the development of a wider organisational narrative. It is important for the council to consider how they communicate their vision and progress with different audiences, including external partners, internal staff, and the wider sector. This will help the council to get better at ‘telling their story’. This will bring the benefits of supporting internal coordination, whilst also enabling external audiences to better understand both priorities and progress. There are things that Knowsley are doing that other councils could learn from, and the council should consider how it can tell its story to the sector
3. Summary of the peer challenge approach
Background and Overview
From 2017-2020 the Local Government Association (LGA) delivered 447 Peer Challenges, including 182 Corporate Peer Challenges. This involves officer and councillor peers from across the sector reviewing council services and functions through constructive challenge. This process supports experience and expertise being shared across local councils and is a core element of sector-led-improvement.
These reviews are designed to be locally led, with councils volunteering to take part, and the scope and areas of focus being jointly agreed in advance. In this spirit, the findings of these reviews are locally owned, with councils responsible for the development of their own action plans and response to recommendations.
The benefit of Peer Challenges has been independently validated, and the feedback received from participating councils has included 93 per cent of respondents saying that the process was helpful in providing an external view of the council, and 94 per cent reporting that they had felt a positive impact of their relationship with partners following their review.
The Peer Challenge team
Peer challenges are delivered by experienced councillor and officer peers working elsewhere in the sector. The make-up of the peer team is carefully planned to align with the council’s requirements and the agreed scope. As a revisit, it was important for this peer team to have some continuity with those who supported the original 2017 Challenge. This revisit included two of the original team members. The Team also included a new lead peer and an additional team member as a shadow officer peer to support this work and provide additional capacity.
- Lead Peer: Jim Taylor (Previously Chief Executive of Salford council).
- Labour Member Peer: Cllr Sir Steven Houghton (Leader of Barnsley council).
- Senior Officer Peer: Richard Parry (Director of Commissioning, Public Health and Adult Social Care, Kirklees council).
- Peer Challenge Manager: Matt Dodd (Local Government Association).
- Shadow Officer Peer: Bushra Jamil (Economic Growth Advisor, LGA).
The Peer Challenge Process
Peer challenges are improvement focused; and it is important to stress that this was not an inspection. The process is not designed to provide an in-depth or technical assessment of plans and proposals. Instead, the peer team used their experience and knowledge of local government to reflect on the information presented to them by people they met, things they saw and material that they read.
The peer team prepared for this work by reviewing a range of documents and information to ensure they were familiar with the council, the borough, and the challenges it is facing. This included a self-assessment document which was developed by the council. Alongside the position statement and supporting documents provided by the council, the Team also undertook an independent analysis of the council’s finances and the performance information regarding key services. Beyond this desktop research, the Team also:
- Collectively spent around 90 hours to determine our findings.
- The equivalent of one person spending over two weeks in Knowsley.
- Spoke to approximately 90 individuals, including councillors, officers, and external partners.
- Completed a short tour of the borough to see the impact on the ground.
Immediate feedback was delivered to the council on the afternoon of Wednesday 8 December, and a copy of these slides was provided to Knowsley Council to support communication with those who contributed to the process. This full report was provided in early 2022. The council will meet with members of the Team and the LGA to discuss progress against these findings and recommendations in the summer of 2022.
The Peer Challenge Scope
As part of this Corporate Peer Challenge review, the team explored progress against each of the recommendations from the original challenge, under the themes below. The aim of this work was not to review performance in all service areas in depth (such as adult services, children’s services) or to act as checklist for previous findings, but to review and highlight emerging issues for consideration and support the councils’ approach going forward.
Local priorities and outcomes
Considering the clarity of the council’s priorities and their relationship to local context, specifically:
- Review the visions for the borough and the council, ensuring alignment between the strategy for Knowsley and the corporate plan, with a clearer focus on outcomes.
- Review performance management arrangements, to ensure that these are more focused, and outcome driven and underpin accountability and ownership of performance.
- Ensure that performance reporting to members is appropriately focused, including a regular report to a public meeting of the council’s cabinet.
Organisational and place leadership
Considering the effectiveness of the council’s local leadership, including their relationship with partners and communities, specifically:
- Assist members in developing their key role as ward councillors in encouraging and supporting greater community capacity and engagement as part of ‘Knowsley Better Together’.
- Undertake regular resident and staff surveys and respond to the issues raised.
Governance and culture
Considering the clarity and robustness of the council’s governance arrangements, including a culture of respect, challenge, and scrutiny, specifically:
- Develop a culture and management style which is more enabling and encourages empowerment within a framework of clear accountability.
- Ensure that scrutiny work programmes reflect agreed council priorities and continue to make effective use of task and finish groups to engage members in policy development and review.
- Continue to work with the trades unions to agree and implement new ways of working and more modern terms and conditions that are common in other local authorities.
Financial planning and management
Considering the council’s current financial position, and the council’s strategy and plans to address financial challenges, specifically:
- Ensure that ‘Knowsley Better Together’ is adequately resourced and underpinned by detailed delivery plans, and member and officer development in the new ways of working that will be required.
Capacity for improvement
Considering if the organisation can support delivery of local priorities and has the capacity to improve, specifically:
- Continue to develop and implement the organisational blueprint alongside ‘Knowsley Better Together’ and improved effectiveness and value for money.
4.1 Understanding the local place and priority setting
The council has a good understanding of the communities that it serves, including their strengths and challenges, and has worked hard to develop and maximise opportunities in the borough to address these. However, during our time on site, the peer team heard several different topics and issues presented as the council’s priority for the coming years. This included – but was not limited to, a focus on improvements to children’s services, addressing climate change, delivery of the 2022 Borough of Culture, and addressing wider issues of inequality. In this context, it is important for the council to clearly set out the political priorities for the coming years to avoid the risk of fragmentation and ensure corporate capacity is aligned. The development of a new council plan in 2022 presents the opportunity to set this out clearly in one place.
The creation of a new council plan will also provide the opportunity to refresh and revise the council’s approach to performance reporting, building on the progress made since 2017. Since 2017, the council has developed department plans which include a consistent approach to reporting quarterly performance at a service level, for priority outcomes and aligned to the council’s approach to risk management. The peer team heard practical examples where the council had used this information to take a mature approach to addressing performance. This included recognising that the measurement of speed for completing education, health and care plans had previously been detrimental to their quality, and that key performance indicators linked to timeliness of response in contact centres had become, on occasion, of secondary importance to resolving the issues raised.
It is positive that the council feels comfortable to use performance information in this way and shows progress since 2017 which highlighted the need for the organisation to support staff to “feel comfortable in bringing bad news or reporting adverse performance trends”.
However, there is still more that the council can do to build on this progress. Whilst the council does report progress against the current council plan to cabinet, this tends to focus on milestones and developments rather than performance data and service outcomes. Therefore, the development of a new council plan would support these measures to be brought together in one place for the first-quarter report of 2022-2023. The council will then need to consider the wider performance management framework for the plan, ensuring that measures are both timely and proportionate and that targets are also challenging and robust. This will support decision making at the council as well as increased transparency and is expected to be in place for quarter one of 2022-2023. It is inevitable that these reporting arrangements will become more refined over-time, but it would be better to make an early start, even if the product is not fully refined than to delay in the desire to have a fully finished product, recognising that this is an iterative process.
The team met a range of councillors and staff who demonstrated both knowledge about the local area, and enthusiasm for delivering services and outcomes. This was illustrated with the pride when staff talked about examples of regeneration in Kirkby, high street improvements and a more vibrant night time offer in Huyton, and the forthcoming opening of the Shakespeare North Playhouse in Prescot.
The peer team were also presented with a range of information and evidence which demonstrated the council’s statistical understanding of local needs and demand. This included an understanding of the challenges which had been created through COVID-19, including the borough having the second highest COVID-19 rates nationally, with over 17,300 residents cumulatively testing positive throughout the pandemic (up to December 2021). This extended into wider areas, including wider economic and public health challenges, including 3,737 (per 100,000) residents having contact with mental health services, in comparison to a national average of 2,176 (per 100,000).
The population of Knowsley has been increasing from 2011 to 2021, from 145,000 to approximately 153,000 which follows decades of declining population figures. This represents the highest rate of population growth within the Liverpool City Region and speaks to the council’s approach on issues of housebuilding and their appetite for growth with nearly 5,000 houses being built over the last decade to support this ambition.
Whilst there are undoubtably geographic and social issues within the borough, alongside the financial challenges the council has faced, there is significant growth in housing and employment opportunities and broader positive community developments. This creates a dichotomy within the organisational narrative of the authority as too much focus on “deficit issues” underplays the leadership role and achievements of the council in improving outcomes within the borough. This results in a communication challenge which must balance the real challenges which exist locally, as well as the significant ambition and achievements of the council for the borough. The council should consider how they ‘tell their story’, including the different approaches required for residents, partners, and more widely.
This narrative will present an opportunity to bring together the individual ambitions and plans that exist for each town, into a broader document that communicates these issues across the borough and will support staff to better understand the relationships and interdependencies between these works, doing so through an asset rather than deficit lens. As part of this, the council should reflect on the things that it is doing (such as the “Knowsley Better Together” experience) that other councils could benefit from. The connections made through sharing these things will inevitably bring benefit to both other councils and to Knowsley.
4.2 Organisational and place leadership
The 2017 Peer Review recognised that central to the ambitions of Knowsley Better Together would be the council’s knowledge and relationship with residents: “this would be enhanced if residents’ surveys and other mechanisms were used to more comprehensively understand local perceptions, particularly as the council is looking to shift these toward greater ambition and aspiration. These could also provide a baseline against which to assess the impact of Knowsley Better Together.” Whilst the council has not undertaken a dedicated resident survey, there has been meaningful engagement with residents since 2017, particularly on the development of Knowsley 2030. This has been supplemented by specific consultations on changes to services as well as customer insight from the contact centre.
To build on the insight and knowledge of councillors, the council should consider and set out their desired relationship with residents, recognising that this can range from understanding needs to more transactional elements including informing and consulting, before progressing to involving, empowering, and co-designing. On this scale of engagement, it is fair that the council’s current approach is closer towards these earlier elements of the relationship. Therefore, the council should expand on the methods which have been used to date, including the potential for a resident’s survey (as well as wider engagement processes), which would help to frame this work, and would also provide a robust baseline to these discussions. This would assist the council to also be clearer about when it is the role of the council to address issues that are of importance to the public and when others, such as the voluntary and community sector, or a town council, may be better placed.
This process will support the council to better define the relationship with residents and will provide boundaries for areas of empowerment. The peer team heard from a range of staff and councillors that the organisation is keen to move from a paternalistic to a more empowering model of delivery, as identified in 2017: “The emerging organisational blueprint marks a shift from a paternalistic model, predicated on direct service provision, to a more flexible approach based on a range of alternative service delivery models and social value. This blueprint now needs to be fleshed-out and a transformation plan put in place”. This emerging approach creates a new challenge with the council having to say no to some requests and requires careful communication to set out the rationale for these decisions within the wider context of the council’s changes.
It is important that when this happens and if there are complaints from residents that frontline councillors and staff are empowered to engage on these issues and develop community solutions directly, as any ‘workarounds’ and ‘exceptions’ will undermine progress and create inconsistencies. This will also require clarity in the respective roles of members and officers, but the council can be reassured by the existing strength of these relationships.
The council’s relationship with residents was at the fore during their response to COVID-19. In this context the council has delivered a range of significant achievements, including the establishment of volunteer hubs, testing centres, administering business grants, providing 200 tablets to support remote learning, delivering emergency food parcels, and supporting new infection control measures in care homes and the peer team congratulate this. These examples were delivered alongside the council maintaining the delivery of essential statutory services and reacting to a changeable national context. The emergence of this was shown through staff brokering informal agreements with external organisations to support wider organisational aims. Alongside this communication, the peer team heard an appetite from voluntary organisations to be better sighted and more involved in wider council issues, and how their contributions aligned.
These practical examples have acted as a ‘proof of concept’ for the Knowsley Better Together approach, particularly with relationships with voluntary and community sector organisations. This was positively reported in the feedback which we received from councillors, but there is a recognition that there is a risk of reverting to a more paternalistic relationship, and that there is more to be done to communicate these principles to residents beyond the examples of the pandemic. The council recognises that further work to support this agenda will bring a range of benefits, including reduced demand on services through earlier intervention to prevent escalation, maximising the contribution of residents, and is developing a Stronger Communities Strategy to take this work forward.
This approach to community leadership has been supported though a £250,000 Community Empowerment Fund, and the peer team heard praise for the Community Empowerment Team that has worked on these issues. The team also heard specific praise for the maturity of elected members in recognising that the achievement of outcomes within communities was more important than the organisations which were credited with success, including examples of partnership working with a local housing association, the Livv Housing Group. This approach to partnership working is also reflected in the council’s Growth Hubs which work with local employers to broker relationships and opportunities.
The council is conscious of these issues and recently undertook work with their Health and Wellbeing Board to support improved relationships for partnership working. However, given the importance of ICS reforms which are due to be in place in July 2022, there is a need to ensure that these arrangements can support emerging issues ahead of the vesting of the Merseyside and Cheshire Integrated Care Partnership. This was highlighted as a political priority over the next 12 months, building on the joint committee which has been in place since April 2021 and will have a significant impact on the borough.
It was felt the council’s approach to partnership working has been supported by the behaviours set by the Leader of the council, and the examples from senior politicians in cabinet. This was illustrated by the Leader of the council convening local partners on the issue of community safety. This resulted in the council, alongside Merseyside Police, Fire and Rescue, Livv Housing, as well as community and acute healthcare providers developing a shared action plan which is supported by sizeable joint investment.
The development of Knowsley 2030 has also supported partners to align their Corporate Plans more closely. The progress made through working with partner organisations is illustrated through joint appointments, including a shared role for the Chamber of Commerce and a shared team with Livv Housing. This shows that the council recognises and values the contribution of partner organisations, and it was felt by external partners that there was clear and structured support in place for partnership working. This has brought tangible benefits, such as the borough of culture steering group and Livv Housing bringing forward an investment plan that is timed to coincide with the opening of the Shakespeare North Playhouse, which will open in July 2022 and create 75 jobs, as well as having a significant impact with economic benefits including new shops, cafes, and businesses, as well as exciting opportunities to create links with local schools which the council is taking forward. This is an example of the council taking brave decisions to stimulate the local economy and work to maximise the benefit of this locally.
The next step for building on this work, particularly with voluntary and community sector organisations, is to facilitate co-production of the development of the council’s community development strategy through the stronger communities work, making sure that this builds on the relationships which have been developed between these organisations independently of the council.
4.3 Organisational governance and culture
The previous Peer Report called on the council to move towards an empowering and engaging culture. The 2021 peer team recognise the progress that has been made and were particularly struck by the approach taken to support members, staff and partners to understand the principles and purpose of Knowsley Better Together, through an approach named the ‘Journey’. This was developed in 2019 and sets out the meaning and definition of the programme to staff and how this should carry across to their daily roles and responsibilities.
This staff induction sets out the history of the borough, the aims of the council, and the proposed culture and ways of working through a range of interactive and immersive exercises. The team recognise that this was amongst the best inductions in the sector that they had seen and appreciate that this will have made a significant impact on the council’s culture with all staff taking part, and the team hearing positive feedback for the initiative from those who attended.
The challenge to Knowsley is to now build on this momentum, and to mitigate against the risk of this being seen as a ‘one time’ exercise. This will require the political and managerial leadership of the council to continue to model and encourage the council’s desired behaviours of respect, integrity, communication, and accountability. The long-term support for this programme would be bolstered by all councillors committing to take part in the ‘journey’ as part of their personal development plans as it is currently two-thirds that have engaged. It is also appreciated that the council had planned to support the use of this approach with partners, but that this had to be delayed due to the pandemic.
This emerging culture of the council came to the fore during the council’s response to COVID-19, with staff reporting that they felt empowered to work collectively and quickly in this context, including the council’s redeployment of their reablement service in April 2020 to support rapid response and hospital discharge. The council should give further thought to the appropriate framework to ensure that this aspect of the culture is retained as the organisation moves towards a ‘new normal’.
The peer team heard widespread praise for the new Leader of the council, and the visible support which he has provided to this new culture. It was recognised that this had supported senior officers of the council to engage with these principles, and model them to the wider workforce and other political groups through an inclusive approach. This leadership has included brave decisions in line with the council’s longer-term ambitions, including the progress of Shakespeare North Playhouse to support cultural regeneration, and the content of the council’s 2016 local plan to support housing and employment sites.
The peer team also heard praise for the council’s chief executive, particularly from partners for their contribution to partnership working, the wider Liverpool City Region and their responsiveness. It was also appreciated that they have supported strong relationships across the council’s senior management team, as well as effective relationships between officers and councillors in a broader sense. This was included in the original peer challenge of 2017: “Members feel well supported by democratic services and officers more generally” and “there is a positive working relationship between senior elected members and the chief executive”. It is an important asset to the council that these relationships are still in place, and this feedback was reflected by councillors and officers across the organisation.
The council has undertaken a few small-scale staff surveys to gather information quickly throughout 2021 (as well as member surveys). These surveys are a useful tool to consider immediate issues and feedback but have had relatively low response rates (614 responses from c. 2,000 staff). Positively, these surveys have been supplemented with focus group discussions on findings and have included positive headline messages with 82 per cent of respondents coping well with working from home and 90 per cent feeling well connected to colleagues. However, there is a natural risk that these figures do not represent the full workforce given the response rate, and therefore the council should be mindful of ongoing engagement.
This should include the potential to hold more frequent pulse surveys, as well as considering the merits of a wider staff survey that explores broader themes rather than immediate issues. To-date, the results from these surveys have been reported through the regular chief executive’s blog, and it would be beneficial going forward if they formally reported publicly through a dedicated analysis report to consider trends and support political oversight of any issues raised. In particular, more granular analysis to understand the experiences of particular groups of staff and drawing more on the experiences of existing employee groups will assist the council to continue to embed its changing internal culture.
Throughout the Peer Challenge the team heard praise for the internal approaches to communications, including a regular question and answer session with the chief executive. There was praise from staff for the chief executive’s blog, with appreciation of the public audience for their work being recognised through the ‘thank you’ section. The council should build on these existing channels to support the political leadership of the council to better engage with staff, including the potential for a Leader’s blog, question and answer session, or joint sessions. The Team also heard from staff that they would welcome further information on emerging issues (e.g., changes to buildings and new working from home arrangements) in line with the principle that it is better to communicate too much rather than too little.
On the theme of communications, the council could consider how they tell their story externally, sharing progress with residents, partners, trade press and the wider sector. The council would benefit from this increased engagement with the sector at large, both from sharing the practice that they have developed, but also from hearing and implementing ideas from elsewhere. This is an area which could be supported through a dedicated external perspective, such as “Communications Health check”.
The council has strong support processes in place for scrutiny, this includes regular surveys of councillors involved in scrutiny committees, as well as audits on agreed actions and recommendations. This, alongside dedicated support from officers, provides oversight and ‘grip’ to scrutiny decisions and supports transparency of impact. This has contributed to tangible examples whereby scrutiny has supported service improvement including topics of mental health in school and learning disability and employment support. The team heard that there was clear appreciation for the contribution which opposition councillors made through scrutiny and that it was recognised that this improved discussion, debate, and decisions. This is also shown in the Annual Scrutiny Report which highlighted several positive responses from councillors involved in scrutiny with all respondents stating that they valued the contribution of the committee, and that scrutiny acted as a ‘critical friend’ and 96 per cent feeling that they had represented the voice of residents.
4.4 Financial planning and management
As part of the revisit, the peer team commissioned an independent assessment of the council’s financial context, which was completed by a financial peer who has previously worked in the sector. This review was used as a guide to further conversations and questions rather than a full and complete review of the council’s finances.
The previous LGA Peer Challenge found that Knowsley had strong financial management in place which had enabled the council to make significant reductions in spending whilst maintaining key services. This included having a three-year balanced budget in-place, and robust assumptions regarding pressures on demand led services.
This strength of financial management is important to the council given the levels of funding reductions which they have faced since 2010, which are the equivalent of £485 for each resident of the borough. In this context the council has worked hard to generate new income including supporting businesses to invest in the borough, development of 3,700 New Homes to support through both the new homes bonus, but also the impact on their tax base which has grown to include 47,000 dwellings.
Whilst there is strong financial management in place at the council, it is notable that there are relatively low levels of “balances” (reserves), with general fund balances currently at approximately £5 million which represents less than 5 per cent of Net Revenue Expenditure. However, it should also be noted that the council does have a further £78.3 million in earmarked reserves, which includes allocated mitigations such as
£3 million for Public Health interventions and £1.6 million for protecting vulnerable residents. The council has also set aside resources in reserves to ensure that they have capacity to deal with COVID-19 related issues in 2021/22 – notably £5.9m in Adult Social Care.
This strong financial management is still in place at the council, although the council, as with others, has faced specific financial challenges linked to the COVID-19 pandemic. The council has responded to these practically, including the decision to extend the current council plan for six months to allow better understanding of the impact of the pandemic on demand services and the borough, and for them to be reflected fully in a new council plan by ‘going wisely and slowly’.
The impact of COVID-19 also impacted the financial performance of Volair, a 100 per cent council owned company which provides health, fitness, and leisure services. The impact of national lockdowns resulted in losses of income during 2020-2021, highlighting a wider challenge facing the sector. These challenges will require further planning and management over coming years, and the council may also wish to consider the wider social benefits that they may be able to leverage through their contractual relationship with Volair.
Importantly, the peer team heard positive feedback that councillors felt well informed and engaged in the council’s budget process. The council’s current MTFS runs to 2024-2025 and is balanced for 2022-2023, with deficits of £1.6 million and £2.8 million forecast for the second and third years. These projections include sound assumptions, including the investment to support health and social care services, consideration of the local government pay awards, and future price inflation pressures. These figures will have altered following the financial settlement for local government which was announced following the team’s time on site.
Knowsley have significant ambitions to build on the Knowsley Better Together Programme and the foundations that are currently in place. It is a positive that this includes the investment of £8.3m for the Borough’s approach to COVID-19 recovery and response. This ambition requires careful thought and planning to ensure that resources are quantified and in place to support this work going forward. This includes making sure that the appropriate corporate support is identified to support community development, but also requires the council to consider the monitoring framework that will be needed to support internal reporting on progress and support further discussions and decisions regarding this work.
The relationship between community divestment and financial controls was illustrated through COVID 19, including the increased delegation of financial decisions to more junior managers to support rapid decision making within a changeable context, including the success of the £2.5m Hardship Fund to support communities with essentials, and delivered in partnership with Merseyside Fire and Rescue, mental health providers, and wider voluntary and community sector partners. The council has set out some of the considerations for this work in their recent internal discussions regarding their stronger communities strategy, including identifying some of the assets which they already have in-place such as 1,300 volunteers, 500 grass-root groups, and 300 voluntary and community sector organisations. This work includes several community asset transfers including Court Hey, supporting local groups with £250,000 for community empowerment, as well as a £45,000 participatory budgeting exercise.
These discussions have also seen the council commit to developing a community accommodation register, volunteering action plan and social investment plan, and these documents will be key to providing a strategic framework for this approach. Finally, it is important that there is both accountable and responsive governance in place to support this work, the peer team were struck by the contribution of the partners involved in our Voluntary and Community Sector Focus Group and their appetite for this work and would encourage their input into the Stronger Communities Partnership as a matter of course.
4.5 Capacity for improvement
The team met with a range of dedicated staff who have worked hard for both the council and the borough in responding to the pandemic. This volume of work has been driven by the immediate challenges, but also through the breadth and ambition of the organisation. This creates a risk of potential damage to staff morale if this pace and breadth of work is continued longer-term. The council is aware of this challenge, and the creation of a new council plan will enable more clarity with staff regarding prioritisation. This work will be complemented by the workforce efficiency review which is already underway at the council on workforce planning, with the council undertaking a programme to ensure that future skills and capacity are best aligned. The council already has experience of implementing successful approaches to managing resources in this way, as proven by their major development team leading on priority projects to help maximise the use of capacity.
The challenge of prioritisation was highlighted in conversations with both councillors and officers and was surmised as: “we don’t need to start anything new, we need to finish our existing programmes”. Beyond these existing programmes, the council plan also provides the opportunity to set out where the wider theme of improvement sits within corporate priorities. The council would benefit using the council plan as an opportunity to explore these issues in the round, considering how they balance the cost, resource, and impact of moving from good to great, improving children’s services from ‘requires improvement’ and addressing climate change. As a concerted and coordinated effort in some areas will likely bring greater benefits than spreading resources too thin across all. The team heard a range of opinions regarding what the number one priority for improvement was, during the feedback discussion it was stated by the council that this was the improvement of children’s services.
The council has a good approach to training and development that will support their capacity for future improvement. This includes a good leadership programme which will help to develop future senior managers and officers within the organisation. In conversation with middle managers across the organisation they also praised the development opportunities that existed. However, this cohort did raise that they would welcome the opportunity for training on resources to bid into community development approaches, an increased understanding of political priorities, and the opportunity to share evidence with their colleagues.
This approach of officer training is mirrored with a good programme of member development. The council has a dedicated working group to support and coordinate work and the prioritisation of topics. This has included a successful mixture of internal training on topics such as the council’s Constitution, as well as engaging with external training, including cabinet members attending the LGA’s Leadership Essentials courses. The potential exists for further work to be completed on member development, including ensuring that all councillors have engaged with the Knowsley Better Together ‘Journey’, recognising that two-thirds have already. Further training and development could consider the impact that this brings on member’s relationships with their communities because of the move away from direct provision towards their involvement in community engagement and developing community capacity. The council may wish to consider the potential benefits of having a dedicated member champion to support and coordinate on this issue.
The council also illustrated that they had internal approaches to improvement which supported the organisation. This included the use of performance information to support outcome focused discussions across the council. This also included instances where the council had been able to swiftly respond to local needs, such as establishing an online taxi licence process at short notice to enable new ways of working. The next natural step for this would be for this information to be reported publicly as part of a consistent performance framework.
The council has made significant savings and is aware of the impact that this has had on staff morale. In this context the council has moved away from a terminology of ‘service reviews’ recognising that this could be unsettling. However, the council should look to develop a consistent approach and methodology to support service changes and improvement. This would enable services to be reviewed in line with the wider principles of Knowsley Better Together, rather than financial parameters, and would support further partnership working and a consistent approach to public service reform.
Develop an approach and methodology to ‘reviewing’ services which builds on the principles of Knowsley Better Together rather than being a financially driven exercise. This will support the council to maximise the wider contributions of services towards outcomes beyond traditional costs and output models and will further empower middle managers to improve their service offers and develop new ways of working. There are instances where the council has begun to make progress in this regard, including their reviews and repositioning of the Knowsley Works Programme. This initiative, which connects residents to local employment opportunities, is support by European Development Funding, and has been considered within the wider context of Brexit. The council already has a service review toolkit which is in place to support transformation and may wish to review how this incorporates themes of wider community capacity, broader social outcomes, and the principles of Knowsley Better Together.
5. Next steps
It is recognised that senior political and managerial leadership will want to consider, discuss, and reflect on these findings over the coming weeks. To support transparency, the council is expected to publish this report within six weeks of receiving a final draft. There is also an expectation that an action plan is publicly available within eight weeks of the report’s publication.
Both the peer team and LGA are keen to build on the relationships formed through the Corporate Peer Challenge Revisit. This process includes a six-month check-in holding a structured conversation across Peers and the council to consider progress made against these recommendations.
In the meantime, Matthew Dodd, programme manager for the North West, is the main contact between your authority and the Local Government Association. Matt is available to discuss any further support the council requires and can be contacted by email (Matthew.Dodd@local.gov.uk) or mobile phone (07780 226 852).