Supporting Service Mergers Across Two Devon Councils

As part of a major merger of services in Devon, two district councils are breaking new ground – by recruiting their staff based on the behaviours that meet their vision – not just the skills. Jonathan Werran reports.

When we look for examples of difficult transformation being achieved, we have a tendency in local government to swing our eyes towards the larger authorities – the unitaries, the shires, the inner-city councils.

But, quietly and away from the spotlight, two councils in Devon – South Hams & West Devon - are achieving some remarkable savings through shared services – and have just broken new ground by changing the way they recruit to focus on the behaviours they want from their staff.

The concept is straightforward enough – if you want a culture of collaborative, innovative, outcome-focussed staff, then recruit to those behaviours, not just the skills required to do the job. But making it happen is a different challenge – and one that, working with iESE (the Innovation & Efficiency Social Enterprise), the two authorities have made it a reality.

The story began in 2007, when the two authorities agreed to work together to deliver better services at a lower cost. They knew it was possible, but they also knew it would be difficult to break decades of “doing things the same way”. A joint endeavour to find efficiencies was undertaken, and had already made savings of around £6m over six years– almost 10% on a combined annual budget of just under £17m – as 2014 approached.

Earlier this year, the two authorities agreed a merger of all corporate functions – creating a single hub of finance, IT, audit, legal and HR staff to work across the two organisations.

To achieve it, South Hams and West Devon partnered with iESE – the Innovation & Efficiency Social Enterprise – to deliver a framework for the new organisation, beginning with a shared corporate centre.

It is the start of a process that will eventually see some 400 services re-engineered. The savings will result in a reduction of some 25% in the combined budget of the authorities, or around £3.8m per year – an impressive outcome for two authorities spending a combined total of £17m.

But perhaps the most interesting element was the joint approach taken to recruitment. In considering how best to deliver the quality of services residents need, the emphasis became as much about behaviours as it did about skills.

This led to a radical new recruitment framework to deliver the organisations’ vision of focussing services around customers.

In short, South Hams and West Devon decided that having the experience and skills to deliver a role would no longer be the determining factor in recruitment. Instead, a fundamental decision was taken that the types of behaviours they wanted from their staff would become a core element of the scoring process.

To embed it, six behaviours were set out – Responsible, Communicative, Adaptable, Outcome-focussed, Co-operative and Challenging – and assessments of these were embedded into the recruitment process.

Such a radical change in job descriptions also led to the inevitable impact of every single member of corporate staff at both councils being made vulnerable to redundancy at the same time – presenting further challenges.

As a solution, iESE helped to lead the implementation of those new services over an interim period while senior staff went through the process of being interviewed, with a specialist iESE consultant sitting on each interview panel.

Around 70 staff – up to and including the most senior managers – were put into the process, and what followed was, as one member of staff put it, “the most rigorous interview process I’ve been through for any job in my career”.

Traditional interview questions and tests – designed to test knowledge of the skillset  - were replaced with ones that required candidates to show not WHAT they were capable of – that much had been established at the application stage. Instead, the process was designed to test the behaviours that the new world of local government needs – collaboration, ownership of outcomes, and adaptability.

The process was led by Principal Consultant John Knight and his team from iESE – who have worked with South Hams and West Devon officers at every stage of the process.

“So often when organisations look at change programmes they focus on the ‘hard’ elements – processes, systems and structures. These are the visible parts of the change. But many programmes lack effort on considering the ‘soft’ elements – behaviours and culture, because they are invisible, and, frankly, the most difficult.

“In South Hams and West Devon the ‘hard’ skills required to do the job were considered at the application stage – so by the time the applicants reached assessment, we knew they were capable of delivering the role,” says John.

“That wasn’t the point of the assessment – the point was to establish HOW you go about it, and how you demonstrate the type of behaviours that the organisations’ want to see in staff going forward. It was – and is - an incredibly thorough process, and forces people to really stop and think about the way they go about doing their job.

“But it’s also been hugely rewarding to see so many staff demonstrate the passion they have for the job – we have been fortunate in the sense that the driver was financial, not performance related. So actually, the majority of staff we assessed were able to demonstrate the behaviours clearly and therefore got the posts they wanted. But – as with all transformation – there have been people who didn’t make it through, and that has been difficult.”

The process is ongoing – only time will tell if it has the desired effect, and the first appointments were only made three months ago. But when authorities look at fundamental changes in culture, it may well be worth a trip to Devon.


CASE STUDY: “The hardest job interview I’ve ever had”

If anybody at South Hams and West Devon should be able to assess the level of change, it’s Andy Wilson – the recently-appointed lead HR specialist – who himself has just gone through the process of behaviour-based recruitment.

Andy had previously held the role of HR Manager and has several years of experience working at senior levels in local government. At many councils, he would have been a shoe-in for any re-organisation.

Not so. “It was probably the hardest job interview I’ve been through” he said. “As an HR professional, you prep for certain questions – I’ve been through enough interviews to know what to expect. But those questions never came.

“For example, I had expected to be asked to give an example of a time I had been involved in recruiting to a senior or difficult-to-fill position. But I wasn’t. Instead, I was asked to demonstrate how I’d taken ownership of that kind of situation, and how I’d worked with others to deliver the outcome.

Andy accepts the process has not been an easy one. “The most difficult element was when we had to let people go while still having vacancies open – that was a real signal that we were serious about the behaviours, and that having some experience of doing the job wasn’t going to guarantee you a role,” he said.

“It’s too early to give any real measures – we’re only a few months in – but the difference in how it feels working here has been immediate. Every day I arrive to work with a team full of people who have the same approach as each other, and the difference is huge.”



Published in the MJ, December 2014