by Anita van de Vliet.
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010


Surprises aren't confined to Wigan. The 'loony Left' and 'barmy' Brent of yesteryear is on course to become 'The Quality Council'.

Brent Town Hall is a place of surprises. From the outside, it presents the usual civic facade of solid if faded pomp. Inside, in the unreconstructed parts of the building not intended for public scrutiny, the gloomy paint, worn lino, exposed pipes and overall air of dingy parsimony are familiar hallmarks of local government premises. But if you turn right at the entrance and proceed to the Council's One-Stop Shop (as you would do if you were a resident of the borough seeking information on local matters), you enter a very different world - a place of spacious and carpeted calm, where knowledgeable staff in pleasant uniforms will deal with any query, or complaint. Here there are no queues, no overflowing ashtrays, no scruffy noticeboards, none of the normal signs of a municipal domain. Instead, you see neatly arranged customer charter leaflets making quite specific promises - from answering phone calls within five rings to paying out refunds if dustbins aren't collected - and even, astonishingly, offering apologies for service that has not been good in the past. You see a children's play area, well stocked with toys, and a vending machine that works.

Can this really be local government? Above all, can this really be Brent? Brent Council, readers may recall, was known for its 'loony Left' agenda in the latter 1980s - in particular, for the equal opportunities programme which the Labour-controlled council rightly deemed necessary, this being the most ethnically mixed borough in the country, but which it pursued with rather excessive zeal. The Council earned itself a new sobriquet as 'barmy Brent' when, in 1991, the Tory leader elected the previous year broke the deadlock of a hung council by enlisting the support of two former Labour councillors, whose eccentric views included support for the Ugandan dictator, Idi Amin (not an attitude calculated to endear itself to Brent's Asian population).

Sandwiched between the 'loony Left' and 'barmy Brent' periods came the council's distinctly unfunny financial crash in 1988, when the inefficiencies and financial mismanagement of previous years finally became too much for the usual end-of-year creative accounting. The only response available at that time was a savage redundancy 'programme', which cut 1,000 jobs out of the existing total of 7,000, but did so in an unplanned, unstructured way that left disintegrating basic services and despairing residents in its wake. It was, however, these very disasters that were to fire Brent's Pauline conversion from what was arguably one of the worst local authorities in Britain to one that is determined to be 'quite simply the best'.

'There can be no doubt that the events of 1988 were the single most important contributor to shaping and motivating everything that has happened since,' says Charles Wood, chief executive of the council, which now has a comfortable Tory majority. Wood himself is something of a surprise. Young, 43, dynamic, astute and unpompous - he is not at all the grey totem of officialdom you might expect of a local authority chief, despite the fact that his entire career has been in local government. A graduate in civil engineering whose first jobs were at the Greater London Council and then at the borough of Hammersmith and Fulham, he joined Brent Council as director of development in 1982, and was appointed chief executive in 1986. The council then, he says, had little in the way of 'real systems of accountability, no schemes of delegation or appraisal, no structure of financial control, no cost centre structure, no systematic review or forward-planning systems, and no real vision as to where it was going'. A few small steps towards tighter control, such as a policy programme with targets, a customer strategy and increased training and staff development, were taken over the next two or three years.

But the real awakening came in 1988, and it is since then that Wood has been driving through the most radical programme of change - in attitudes, structures and systems - in local government today. This has been dubbed the Total Quality Programme, and Brent has adopted a new and, it hopes, definitive slogan 'The Quality Council'. The programme has been enthusiastically endorsed by Brent's Tory councillors for its attack on bureaucracy, but it is not specifically party-political, says Wood, and would survive a change in the elected membership of the council. It is also, incidentally, not a programme imposed wholesale by a firm of management consultants, although individuals such as Charles Tennant and Geoff Austin (on training) have been consulted, while PA Consulting and National Westminster Bank have advised on financial devolution.

Perhaps the most fundamental change at Brent is precisely what surprises you on your visit to the One-Stop Shop - or the registry office, or the housing department, or environmental services, or any of the council's front-line services - and that is that the needs and wishes of 'customers' have been made paramount. (The change in terminology is significant, away from the amorphous concept of the 'public' or the derogatory notion of 'punters', which is how the people of Brent were formerly known, to the more individualised image of 'customers'.) The One-Stop Shop, for example, recognises that the council 'seems a complicated and impersonal place', spread over a bewildering number of buildings; so instead of sending customers scurrying or limping from one department to the next, Brent's customer service officers 'do the running around' for them, bridging the demarcations between services. The same principle applies in the One-Stop Shops in all the council's departments. In addition, these One-Stop Shops make allowances for the reality of people's working lives by opening on Saturdays, with extended opening hours during the week.

The registry office, for its part, has moved from neglected, out-of-the way premises into the Town Hall, where it now opens on to well-tended gardens as a picturesque backdrop to that 'special day', and offers customers music or poetry reading of their choice at the wedding ceremony, which has been extended to half-an-hour from the usual 20 minutes. At the housing department, the customer service officer at the reception desks handles an extraordinary range of detailed enquiries, the facts literally at her fingertips (on her PC). Again, there are no queues; and people are treated politely and reassuringly.

Such examples of customer consciousness could be multiplied across the council's operations - from the meals-on-wheels service which caters for precise dietary preferences (Kosher, Afro-Caribbean, vegetarian, etc), to the weekend opening at the Kingsbury Day Centre in response to requests from its elderly customers and their carers, or the informative directories of services put out by all departments, telling you who to contact for what. All services now are based on customer surveys.

Brent's new customer focus may sound an obvious approach, but even in private sector business in Britain there are many instances where the customer has been a recent discovery: it is only eight or nine years ago that British Airways, for example, made what it then called the 'quantum leap' of arranging its timetable to meet the requirements of passengers rather than the convenience of flying staff. And in the case of a local council, Wood points out, the 'customer imperative is not immediately apparent'. Brent Council is, as he says, a 'huge and complex business', turning over £400 million annually and employing 5,000 staff to provide services for 250,000 people, from registering their births to digging their graves with much else in-between; but there is the important difference from the private sector that the council's customers 'cannot walk away'. Indeed, since they can be taken to court for not paying their bills, a council actually operates as a 'double monopoly'.

The key, according to Brent's experience, lies in separating out the providers of the services from those who commission them. 'The belief that lies behind this is that if the same people are responsible for commissioning a service and for providing it, human nature dictates that purchasing policy will be influenced by the providers at the expense of the customer or the community.' This client/contractor split in turn depends upon a genuinely devolved structure.

Traditionally, local authorities have been structured hierarchically, with those at or near the top being remunerated according to the numbers serving under them. This inevitably creates empires, which become self-enclosed and remote from customers. It encourages 'conformance to process rather than innovation' and process becomes an expensive ritual rather than a logical way of doing things. 'Cheques here used to have to pass through 33 pairs of hands,' says Wood, 'because it was only by passing bits of paper up the system that people could justify their jobs.' At the Kilburn Library, manager David Jones recalls the 'whole labyrinth of steering groups and co-ordinating groups' deemed essential in the old days: 'My recollection of those days is that we were totally paralysed, there was so much brainpower focused on the smallest thing. It used to take years to set a scale of library charges. Now it takes one day.' The old hierarchical structure also resulted in a territorial protectionism quite inappropriate to the work of a local council, where services such as housing, care in the community and nursery education overlap and where interdisciplinary teamwork is essential. In addition, says Wood, the assumption was that the higher up the organisation a decision was taken, the better. 'This is simply wrong,' he declares. Library manager Jones bears him out, remembering how in the past the most 'menial' maintenance job became an 'absolute nightmare, consuming half a rainforest in paperwork' only to receive the reply from the central bureaucracy, 'Sorry, no money in the budget', for 11 months of the year, and then the instruction to spend, spend, spend in the last month of the financial year, when an overloaded works department would be unable to cope. The experience was dispiriting.

Wood also points out how the traditional local authority structure sucks detail up the organisation, fobbing off the councillors (to whom paid officials are accountable) with inessentials while feeding the dominant work ethic that persuades senior managers that they are performing a vital role when their real but more difficult task should be leadership and strategic thinking. 'Local government has spent the past 50 years developing systems and processes of increasing complexity and expense to reinforce these structures,' he says. And whenever these were challenged, 'we could use notions of public duty and service and probity to explain and excuse anything'.

Brent's aim now is to become the first 'enabling' council, composed of 450 commissioning staff and some 150 free-standing business units employing 4,000 contracting staff. The concept of 'enabling' should not be read as code for privatisation, Wood insists: 'Some contractors will be directly employed by the Council, some will not. The balance between directly employed and private or voluntary sector contractors is not to be the subject of any target or objective in itself.' Progress towards this ultimate goal has been swift, given the size of the task. The council first committed itself to the principle of decentralisation and to pushing decision-making as close as possible to the point of service delivery back in 1990. The same year saw the first MORI customer survey, a staff attitude study, the first-ever corporate vision statement, and the introduction of performance management and appraisal. (All managers now have key result areas, success criteria and individual action plans - and, as one puts it only half-jokingly, the awareness that 'If you don't add value, you don't exist'.) By 1991, says Wood, the council felt ready to start setting its own agenda - the Total Quality Programme, which proclaimed Brent's mission ('to be quite simply the best local authority in the country'), its three core values (quality, efficiency and putting the customer first, to which has since been added 'valuing and empowering staff'), and a number of organisational beliefs (strong and committed leadership; the split between client and contractor; Total Quality; clear accountability; customer-led services; total ownership; simple, direct communication; maxmum devolution; strong staff development). At the time, proposing a programme of radical change on the basis of a series of 'values' and 'beliefs' was very new to local government, where the approach was to produce documents and programmes with targets which would be selectively used and which employees felt were imposed upon them, says Wood.

Within three months of council agreement to the programme, the old structure had been drastically overhauled. The number of departments had been cut from 10 to five (housing, environmental services, social services, central services, and education, arts and libraries), with a corresponding reduction in the number of executive directors, only two of whom were survivors from the former regime. The number of senior managers was cut by a third. New fixed-term contracts and performance-related pay were introduced.

All this was achieved by October 1991. There was no let-up in the months that followed, with a senior-management development programme, the training of 300 quality facilitators, the introduction of 'quality time' (two hours a month during which staff contribute their ideas to improving service) and intensive communication programmes to employees coming thick and fast. In May 1992 Wood rallied his audience of council employees to the Total Quality Programme in two giant sessions at the Wembley Conference Centre - a risky endeavour, he suggests, given the 'inevitable cynicism' that exists in all large organisations, but one which received 90% approval rating from employees at the time.

Since then, the council's relentless progress has included streamlining the centre of the organisation, with savings of £6 million; the migration from mainframe computers to local network systems; reviewing its accommodation policy, and has started the move from the old-style, multi-purpose buildings to more congenial, smaller buildings in accessible locations. In order to measure effectiveness, the council has instituted customer focus groups, a rigorous complaints procedure, and has undertaken more than 70 customer and other surveys during the past two years. As an example of its new customer focus, Brent is experimenting with the Sunday opening of Willesden Green library. It has reduced local taxation by 46% over the past two-and-a-half years, and has pushed customer satisfaction up from 30% in 1990 to 48% in 1993. By 1996, the aim is to have a rating of over 65% with dissatisfaction rates of below 10%.

By April 1994, meanwhile, all the council's business units will be in control of their spending, with their own cheque-books, their own financial software packages, and freedom to hire and fire. If the experience of the businesses in environmental and central services, which have already been devolved, is a guide, they will probably find that their new independence is exhilarating. 'Once real power is devolved, managers can get things done by bringing in temporary staff, for example,' comments Richard Saunders, planning director in the environmental services department. 'This motivates staff, and efficiency goes up.' Thus his department has, for example, improved the time taken to process plans from a position in the bottom quarter of London boroughs in the late '80s to fourth position last year. At Kilburn Library, meanwhile, manager Jones has revelled in being in charge of the refurbishment of the library, transforming it from dark Edwardian clutter to cheerful and practical elegance.

Brent's transformation programme has not been painless. A survey of staff in early 1993 revealed low morale and insecurity. There was also concern that the equal opportunities approach had been abandoned, although this is resolutely denied by all managers and would, in fact, militate against the council's efficiency: it would, for example, be unsound practice to employ predominantly white male managers in the social services department, given the borough's ethnic mix (48% Black or Asian). The council is unusual, however, in publishing such criticisms, and in trying to overcome them. And although it does not yet feel it is 'quite simply the best' local authority in the country, the goal is a realistic one. One can't help wishing that other councils were so ambitious.

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