Being a 21st Century Public Servant at a cooperative council

Adrian Smith is Commissioning Director for the London Borough of Lambeth. Here he reflects on how public service careers at Lambeth are changing

“Lambeth is a cooperative council, using a cooperative commissioning cycle to transform the way we help communities achieve the outcomes that matter most to them.

Like many Council’s we’ve been on a whole systems transformation over the last 2 years, and it genuinely feels as though we’re a different organisation and working in a very different way. Transformation journeys always look neater when looking back, in truth we’ve had to pioneer a lot of what we’ve done, we are after all working in unprecedented times.

We’ve consistently held to our cooperative principles – rebalancing the relationship between citizen and state, building community and individual resilience, seeing people for the strengths and assets not the challenges they face, and focusing on outcomes not traditional services or silos.

To achieve this we needed to take the old organisation apart, unlearn lots of traditional ways of operating, and build new systems, processes, policies and procedures. A new more fluid structure also sat at the heart of our transformation, but as ‘culture eats strategy (and structure) for breakfast’ we knew we’d need more that just system changes.

The introduction of a ‘cooperative behaviours’ competency framework (now used for everything from recruitment to appraisal) was pivotal. The framework was of course co-produced and sets out that ‘working collaboratively with integrity’, being ‘politically astute’, being ‘citizen focused’ and ‘committed to the Borough’ amongst other behaviours are just as important as being skilled or knowledgeable in a particular field or service area.

Fortunately we already had some excellent commissioning practice on which to build; now we needed to build a ‘Commissioning Cluster’ that brought together commissioning functions from across the whole organisation.

To bring cooperative commissioning fully to life, we needed to recruit. This posed us several challenges. Who are the cooperative commissioners of the future, what values and motivations will they have, what behaviours will they exhibit, what skills and experience should they bring. It’s no surprise that the 21st Century Public Servant commission has been of such interest.

We’ve created new commissioning roles that incorporate many of the roles set out by the commission – our Lead Commissioners for example are expected to look at ‘total resource allocation’ bringing resources such as community capacity, capital and assets, information and knowledge or leverage and influence into the commissioning cycle as well as revenue or cash. Our Associate Directors are creating compelling visions of how public services in our borough can work together with communities to broker new ways of helping people ‘be healthier for longer’ or ‘live environmentally sustainable lives’. Our ‘Senior Commissioning Officers’ are not just redesigning systems, but transforming them, weaving together public, private and voluntary/community sector for place or outcome.

Building this new commissioning cluster has certainly not been without its challenges.

We found recruiting people from outside the organisation with the right behaviours and skills into commissioning roles particularly challenging for outcomes not related to health and social care. Too few potential candidates were able to express the potential of commissioning for ‘place’ and other outcomes.

We’ve chosen to ‘grow our own’ and we’re reaping the benefits of that, but we’ve not seen the sector or learning and development market grasp the need to build the capacity of our future workforce and prepare current and future public servants for the new roles that Councils are creating. We’ve found too little focus on leadership and helping people think differently. Many potential candidates are fully proficient in talking about ‘what’ they do, but too few were able to explain ‘how’.

Local public servants are so often in the media wrapped in negative stories, but I’m a proud public servant. I can see the need now more than ever for passionate, locally minded, entrepreneurial and resilient officers to feel that there is a valued career with progression on offer for them. The sector can still do more to promote this and retain or attract the talent we need.

There’s still a long way to go on our journey in Lambeth. It does however feel as though our approach fits with the new emerging paradigm for public services rather than the old. I’m really proud to say we’ve recruited the vast majority of our new commissioners from inside the organisation, but that also sends an important message to the sector. We’ve created a flexible structure that should help us nurture and harness the talent sitting in our commissioning cluster; it feels as though the future is bright!!”





5 thoughts on “Being a 21st Century Public Servant at a cooperative council

  1. [Please note that the moderator has removed some names from this post, although the names are in the public domain elsewhere]

    This is a rosy-eyed view of the theory…here’s a reality for readers to chew on…

    Lambeth Council is currently destroying housing co-ops that have existed in the borough for 40 years, while at the same time marketing itself as a ‘co-operative council’.

    Lambeth’s ‘recall’ of ‘shortlife’ housing means that members of these co-ops (including OAPs and other vulnerable people) are being taken to court so that the council can gain possession of their homes – homes that co-op residents have maintained across this 40-year period – and sell them on the open market, at auction.

    Lambeth Council has:

    – pulled away from a social housing solution and enforced evictions

    – purged established communities and destroyed family life built up over 4 decades

    – broken clear promises made by councillors to these communities

    – sold social housing units and displaced people onto the already overcrowded waiting list

    – spent money on lawyers, vacant property managers, contractors and auctioneers

    – picked on the vulnerable and the elderly, causing serious psychological and physical harm

    – used re-housing offers as instruments of coercion & charged exorbitant legal fees as a scare tactic (up to 5 times what defendants are paying their solicitors, residents are also threatened with “unauthorised occupation charges”)

    – blocked a Councillor Call for Action requested by the now deselected Labour councillor Helen O’Malley (O’Malley recently described the evictions policy as “savage”).

    – denied minutes of the first meeting to discuss a social housing solution

    – hijacked the subsequent meeting’s agenda so that negotiations stalled and were only brought back to the table, months later after persistent lobbying

    – ultimately declined a social housing solution (one supported by the Co-operative Enterprise Hub and housing expert Jon Fitzmaurice OBE) and refuted savings identified by campaigners, while at the same time declining to respond to evidence for those savings!

    – refused to answer questions about in-situ status of ‘shortlifers’ – councillors simply tell elderly constituents that they have no right to be in their homes despite once supporting this right and having no evidence for this new claim!

    – denied opposition requests for an urgent ‘special meeting’ on erroneous grounds, saying that no trials or evictions were imminent, but this was not the case

    – carried out a woefully inadequate Equality Impact Assessment, with question marks over whether Lambeth is breaking the law on CRB checks for officers dealing with our co-ops

    – refused to respond on improprieties surrounding sales of co-op homes

    …and even refused to answer FOIs on the policy including on where any monies raised were going (crucially there is no sign that the number of social housing units lost will be replaced and then added to because of this policy)

    Meanwhile, Lambeth’s attitude has also been exposed by a number of serious events:

    – one man suffered a heart attack four days before his trial and remains critically ill

    – they have issued an eviction notice against a 64-year-old cancer sufferer even though he already agreed to move

    – 75-year-old [name removed] still lives under threat of eviction after an attempt to move him was made last year

    – they threatened to evict [name removed] a woman with mental health problems, until housing activists occupied the town hall

    – a man with mental health problems left his house house before bailiffs were due to arrive and fled, now Lambeth are refusing to rehouse him

    – they promised one man [name removed] that he would not be evicted but he returned home one day to find bailiffs in his house

    – people have been rehoused in places with asbestos and no floor

    – campaigners were followed by a troll who only had three followers, two local councillors and a former council leader!

    – two of these councillors were the ones who lied to us about supporting our community

    – one of our members received an email from [name removed] in response to a general communication about the evictions that was insidious and inappropriate for a an elected representative to send. A complaint was raised to the Labour Party’s General Secretary, Iain McNicol, but no action was taken. Surprise, surprise.

    Meanwhile, the formal complaint raised with the Co-op Party about the Labour and Co-operative councillors involved with the eviction decision is now well over a year old! It is completely unacceptable that we have been ignored for so long, and another example of the Labour movement’s unaccountability on this issue.

    Ed Miliband has been contacted (October 2012 onwards) and was approached in person (August 2013) but has not given any reply.

    Unaccountable and undemocratic, Labour and Lambeth are forcing people including OAPs and other vulnerable people out of their homes.

    Not only do they lack the moral justification to do this they also have no political credibility, steamrolling over communities with no intention of letting them challenge an unjust decision.

    This is a conspiracy of silence and a litany of failure that would shame any local authority/political party/political movement!

    Co-operative Council?

    Cop out council more like.

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