West Yorkshire Combined Authority: effective employee engagement to drive improved internal communications

Gauging sentiment and implementing ideas suggested by staff at the Combined Authority is proving to be an effective way of driving change and improving how the organisation works. This case study forms part of our devolution communications toolkit.

Communications support

Challenge

The West Yorkshire Combined Authority is a partnership of the six local authorities of Bradford, Calderdale, Kirklees, Leeds, Wakefield and York, plus the Leeds City Region Enterprise Partnership (LEP).

The Combined Authority employs over 500 members of staff supporting partners’ shared vision for the region. It was established in 2014, and brought together staff from a number of previous organisations – the transport authority for the region, known as Metro; the team that previously supported the LEP; the region’s former inward investment agency, Marketing Leeds, and the regional research and intelligence unit from Leeds City Council.

After bringing these teams together, an internal change management programme called “One Organisation” was put in place to unite staff behind a single vision, identity and culture. Internal communications was a key element of this change programme.

Understanding staff sentiment and concerns was critical in ensuring change communications were planned and delivered effectively, and the Communications team at the Combined Authority identified the annual staff survey as a priority for measuring staff sentiment and developing insight on key issues. Engagement rates with the survey were low however, at around 34 per cent, and anecdotal evidence suggested cynicism among staff about whether action would be taken in response to their feedback.

Approach

The annual staff survey had historically been an HR function within Metro – the organisation that took over the corporate governance functions for the Combined Authority when it was established – but with the organisation effectively becoming a new body covering a much more diverse range of functions a new approach was required. The Communications Team set a goal of improving the response rate to the staff survey, working in collaboration with HR,

The Communications Team worked with HR and research colleagues to design new questions for the survey that were more relevant to the Combined Authority’s new and changing remit. Experienced researchers ensured these were methodologically robust. A set of core questions around satisfaction with job role, the organisation and managers were agreed, which would enable the team to track changes in sentiment over time, with other one-off questions included to gather insight specifically related to the change programme.

Historically the survey had been in paper copy only so the team made use of digital survey tools to make it easier for office-based staff to take part. Paper copies were still made available for front-line staff who did not have access to a computer. An integrated, multi-channel communications campaign was put in place using emails, the intranet, management cascade channels and other forums to encourage everyone in the organisation to take part. Crucially, the Senior Leadership Team (SLT) were engaged at an early stage and committed to taking action in response to the issues raised – this commitment to action was a key focus in messages around the survey, which were fronted by SLT.

As a result of this approach, the response rate rose from 34 per cent in 2016 to 70 per cent in 2017. The results of the survey were independently analysed by the research and intelligence team, and communicated transparently and honestly to staff within a month. An action plan was then developed to respond to the issues raised, with regular “you said we did communications” on progress. In 2018 the response rate rose again to 80 per cent and then to an impressive 84 per cent in 2019. In 2020, despite widespread virtual working as a result of COVID-19, the response rate was 80 per cent.

Outcomes and lessons learned

In addition to the improved validity of the response rate, the results have been used to drive internal change within the organisation at a key time in the development of the Combined Authority. By engaging with the staff, asking their opinion and demonstrating through “you said/ we did” communications  how staff feedback and recommendations have been actioned, the staff have been highly engaged and the Combined Authority has seen an improvement in sentiment among staff.

For example, confidence in and communications from senior management was raised as issues in the 2019 survey. As a result, two directors became senior champions for overseeing improvement and brought together a staff survey working group of colleagues from across the organisation to devise actions in response. In the 2020 survey there has been an 11-percentage point increase in confidence in decisions made by senior management and a 16-percentage point increase in satisfaction with management communications.

This approach to the staff survey and insight-led internal communications more broadly has also led to improved two-way engagement with staff on key issues. Staff input has helped shape the organisation’s plans around head office refurbishment, improvements to internal communications, a corporate technology programme and more recently its response to COVID-19. A representative staff engagement panel is being developed, building on the staff survey working group.

Lessons learnt

  • An insight-led approach to improving staff engagement is key – genuinely listening to staff views and responding to them, rather than relying on assumptions
  • Providing survey materials and information in different formats to appeal to staff in different roles helped increase response rates – office staff typically prefer digital, but some frontline workers still require paper copies
  • The project team approach – bringing together colleagues from Communications, HR and Research and Intelligence – enabled best use of different skills in developing, promoting and analysing the survey, and developing actions in response to feedback.
  • Senior level support from the outset is vital, to ensure there is genuine commitment to taking action on issues raised
  • Communicating the results of the survey in a timely, transparent way – with honest messaging about any issues raised – has been key to giving staff confidence that their views have been listened to
  • A programme of regular “you said, we did” communications about actions taken in response to feedback also gives confidence that issues are being addressed
  • Employee engagement is most effective where it becomes part of the organisation’s culture – not just a once-a-year event.