Shaer Halewood, the Section 151 Office at Wirral Council and C.Co’s Operations Director Natalie Abraham recently met up to discuss how Wirral Council are transforming services. Shaer and Natalie discuss how by taking a fresh and collaborative approach to annual budget setting, it can become a key tool to align decision making, change management and an entrepreneurial culture in a context of limited resources and making tough decisions about public services.

With 2019/20 budget setting well underway, if not nearing completion, many Local Authorities will be grappling with how they can deliver the significant budget reductions required to deliver a balanced budget.

With limited resources and tough decisions to make, sometimes the process can become too narrowly focused on options for budget reductions rather than a broader approach which uses the budget setting process as a key lever to enable organisation transformation. Done well, the budget setting process is positive change management tool, and often the ‘golden thread’ that hangs decision making and culture together.

The benefits of a collaborative and outcome-based approach to budget setting can be significant. Resetting budget conversations away from cost cutting into more positive investment conversations can unlock opportunities which can be otherwise missed. Tough decisions are definitely still needed, but asking the question, ‘how can we best achieve the outcomes we are seeking through other resources we have available’, provides the opportunity for more radical thinking and fundamental organisation level transformation.

With this in mind, we recently met up with Shaer Halewood, the Section 151 and Director of Finance and Investment at Wirral Council to understand How Wirral Council are transforming services.
Shaer joined Wirral Council only 10 months ago, and in that time has injected positivity, inclusion and a can-do culture into the organisation, summed up no more perfectly than by the authority’s recruitment slogan ‘Bring It On’.

Shaer has turned budget setting on its head within the authority, setting up staff focus groups to encourage innovation and to empower all staff to feel a part of the process. This has resulted in a myriad of creative ideas being put forward to support the budget setting process and a collective feeling of responsibility and drive. Alongside this a whole new commercial and entrepreneurial approach is being carefully engrained into the conversations, through formal mechanisms such as governance as well as less formal and more accessible channels.

We could see from Shaer’s active CIPFA network, that she believes in positivity and the ability of the sector to share learning, so we were keen to understand what is working for her at Wirral. When we met with Shaer, this is what she had to say;

‘We needed to move the conversation on from cuts as it was becoming a barrier to unlocking innovation within the organisation. £300m to spend per annum is a considerable amount of money, and with it we can achieve an awful lot of good and contribute to the positive delivery of outcomes for our residents. Just focusing on cuts can breed negativity, whereas focusing on what we can achieve, gains more buy in and support from staff, members and residents alike.’

It is very hard to argue against this narrative. As a sector we have collectively seen budget setting processes which are reactive to annual ‘cuts’ with limited forward planning and very little staff or resident engagement to shape proposals. That said, as a sector there are some brilliant examples of where good budget setting is having a positive impact in moving a council’s culture forward whilst acting as a platform for transformation. If we are in the business of delivering positive outcomes for residents then how we allocate our resources is one of the key levers available.

Engaging people is key for this to be a reality, and at Wirral Shaer has gone to great lengths to learn from others and establish the right engagement forums for stakeholders to participate in budget setting.
‘We are taking a 4-year balanced budget to our next Cabinet Meeting alongside a new MTFS. To get to this point I have been able to apply first hand experience from what worked at other local councils such as Warrington and Oldham, but also learn from peers in the likes of Harrow and Sutton Councils. This ensures that what we do at Wirral is inexplicably ‘Wirral’ whilst also learning from best practise elsewhere.

Local context is imperative. For us, a focus on being more entrepreneurial was critical, we need to generate income as well as generate efficiencies. Our new Joint venture growth Company goes a long way to supporting this agenda, but for this to contribute to a wholesale culture shift we needed more. So, we now have a Commercial Ideas Panel which meets weekly contributing ideas which differ hugely in scale and impact, from localised operational opportunities, to organisation-wide strategic considerations. The value in this forum is there are no barriers to entry, everyone can contribute ideas. Similarly, budget setting is now a priority focus of our new management forums, creative problem solving, and cross-cutting ideas are discussed and driven forward.’

This collaborative approach to problem solving and building a sustainable future has contributed to a shift in focus from the negative consequences of the budget, i.e. what services will be reduced or even stopped, to showcasing what fantastic outcomes are being contributed towards through the ongoing service delivery of what remains.

However, Shaer is clear, that having staff buy-in to the process is one thing, but ensuring residents understand the impact of different scenarios and associated decision making is imperative.

‘Budget consultation can be dry and residents aren’t always open to being engaged. However, it really must come alive to people so as they can understand the impact of the decisions being made. We have worked hard to design community conversation processes and suitable on-line tools which will be rolled out in the coming weeks to encourage an interactive and equitable consultation process for 2019/20 and beyond’.

These conversations, alongside our Community Wealth Building initiative will enable our partners and residents to clearly understand their contribution in ensuring we can continue to provide valuable services into the future
With this all encompassing and engaging approach to budget setting, it is clear this will act as a key tool to align decision making with the emerging entrepreneurial culture Wirral Council is keen to encourage.

Natalie Abraham is CIPFA C.CO Chief Operating Officer