Friday, 20 March 2015

80. Four ways to make council reports more digestible

This post is a further follow up from the excellent Notwestminster event.  Check out the website to see how other stuff is progressing.

Specifically this post is about the number one ‘something we need to fix’ from the User Stories for Local Democracy workshop:

As a local resident I need to see council reports in a form I can easily digest so I can understand the decisions that are being made

Here are four suggestions that we might want to work on and develop.  I would love to hear your thoughts.  I would particularly love to hear examples of people doing any of this already.

1. Use video for reports

This is a suggestion from John Popham who discusses it on video here in true ‘be the change you want to see in the world’ style.

2. A style guide for council reports

While style guides are a normal part of providing content for the web, it's less obvious that people refer to them when writing council reports.  Often we forget that we are writing for a public audience and instead have councillors and fellow professionals in our minds.

Common gripes include:

  • Use of jargon (either unnecessarily or without explanation where technical terms do need to be used) -Councillor David Harrington mentioned this one.
  • Acronyms (for some reason Education reports seem to particularly suffer from this)
  • Saying ‘members’ instead of ‘councillors’
  • An unnecessarily wordy of formal style (often people assume this is how reports should be written as it’s the way that they always have been)

There are corporate style guides that councils use but these but I'm not sure how widespread they are or how much attention people pay to them.  What’s needed, perhaps, is a consistent set of golden rules that are used when writing reports.  If these were visible then the public would be clear about what to expect.

As Sarah Lay suggests, we could build on the LocalGovDigital content standards to do this.

3. Short summaries

Linked to the idea of a style guide, a short summary at the top of every report (and agenda pack, letter etc) that explains in plain language what the report is about might help people to understand quickly and easily what is being discussed.  This was suggested by Diane Sims.

This is nothing new in terms of writing for the web but it’s not often part of council reports.

Following the Notwestminster event we have introduced summaries for all of our scrutiny publications in Swansea.  We write them all to the same format and place them at the top of the documents and on the webpage when they are published..  A couple of examples:

This is the review report by the Children, Young People and Learning Overview and Scrutiny Board about literacy in children and young people. It contains conclusions and recommendations. 
This is the agenda pack for a meeting of Schools Performance Scrutiny Inquiry Panel taking place on the 19 February 2015.  The main items are update on Casllwchwr Primary School, school categorisation, and how schools have used their Pupil Deprivation Grant. Background reports are included. 
This is a letter from the Schools Performance Scrutiny Panel to the Cabinet Member for Education following the meeting of the Panel on the 11 December 2014.  It is about Annual Education Performance.  It includes conclusions and proposals.

4.     Policy pages

Rather than simply inserting summaries into reports we could produce public summaries of entire policy areas making it easy for people to see what the issues are about and understand the decisions being made.  This was suggested by Ed Hammond from the Centre for Public Scrutiny.

This is something that already do - you can see an example here.

The advantage of this is that we can cook up an appetising meal of reports rather than leave people to digest them one by one.

Whaddya reckon?

Thursday, 19 February 2015

79. Solution focused supervision for the public sector

This post describes an approach to supervision that is different from the performance management approach often seen in local government.  Solution focused supervision means a conversation that improves practice by focusing on the strengths and assets of the supervisee.  Many social work and education practitioners will already be familiar with the solution focused approach.  I'm certainly no expert but I find the approach very appealing.  I wonder if it might be used for supervision more widely in the public sector - for any role that involves professional practice.  Anyhow, here is my personal (and unqualified) take on the general approach and how it might work in practice.  

Traditional Approach

The traditional conversation between supervisor and supervisee is centred on targets linked to corporate objectives.  Supervision is a process of performance monitoring and management.  Tasks to meet objectives are agreed and targets set.  When targets are met praise is given.  When targets are missed encouragement, guidance and sometimes coaching is given.  There may even be criticism if things are going badly.  It is common within this framework to spend a lot of time analysing problems in order to try and overcome them.

Solution Focused Approach for the Public Sector

A solution focused approach advocates a therapeutic relationship where the supervisee is taken to be an independent and capable practitioner working towards broad outcomes in a complex environment.  The work of the supervisee involves an ever changing set of relationships with the public, partners and sometimes politicians.  The aim of supervision is to help the employee to develop effective strategies to navigate through this complexity by reflecting on their own good practice and building on their personal strengths.  This is what is known as an asset based approach.

In contrast to the performance management approach problems are not subjected to analysis.  Indeed, this is taken to be a bad thing as this gives the problem more prominence and permeates the conversation with negative ideas that can be self reinforcing.  From a solution focused perspective it is not necessarily helpful to know the cause of a problem - only what works to solve it.

In advocating this approach I’m drawing from Solution Focused Brief Therapy.  This is a highly specialised area of practice that requires proper training and support.  Here I am just an enthusiastic amateur taking some of the general principles and seeking to apply them to supervision in my own world.

Here is a quote about this style of supervision from a book I was given on the subject.  Solution focussed supervision is described as: 
“…an outcome focussed process of enablement rather than direction, building on success rather than correcting failure, and privileging the supervisee’s knowledge rather than that of the supervisor.  It is a process intended to empower each supervisee to develop his or her skills rather than imparting those of the supervisor.  This does not mean to say that supervisors abrogate their managerial or standard-maintaining role; this is an important part of any supervisor’s responsibility even though it is most often not required.”  Ratner, George and Iveson (2012) Solution Focused Brief Therapy p.213

What Does It Look Like In Practice?

So what does this approach look like?

A solution focused supervision session requires the manager to ask three questions (actually the first is optional).

Question 1.  How are you today?

It’s not in the solution focus manual but I just like to ask this.  To welcome the supervisee to the meetings and to give them a chance to get rid of any ‘baggage’ before we start.

Question 2.  Can you tell me about something you have done since we last met that you are proud of or pleased about?

The point of this question is twofold.  

First it ensures that the conversation starts with the positives, with the person’s strengths.  It gets that person thinking about something they have done well.  

Second it gives the manager a chance to explore an aspect of good practice with the supervisee.  
The manager’s role is to LISTEN and to ask follow up questions to help them understand why something worked, what the individual’s part in the success was and what might be shareable with the rest of the team (with permission of course).  This seems to me to be a useful way of understanding how practice is developing within a team.

Question 3. What are your best hopes for this session?

Yep, that’s it.  

No list of targets to review, no action plan to work through.

The idea is for the supervisee to bring an issue that’s concerning them at that moment and think about what they would ideally like to get from the session. 

‘I hop we can finish quickly so I can get back to something I'm doing’ is a perfectly acceptable answer - if there is not much to talk about then that's fine.

Where an issue is raised then the manager’s role is to LISTEN and help the individual draw on their own experience and resources to develop strategies that might help overcome the challenge in question.

There are a number of questions and techniques that can be used to start the conversation.

  • The supervisor might ask the supervisee to think about what a person involved in the challenge might say that the supervisee had done that had been useful to them.
  • The supervisor might ask about similar situations that had gone well and what the supervisee had done to contribute to that.
  • The supervisor might use scaling.  This is where the supervisee is asked to give a situation or behaviour a score between one and ten, to explain what led them to give that score and to think about what would increase that score by one:  “What would change the score from a five to a six?”  
  • The miracle question is another common technique.  It usually starts with something like: ‘Imagine that when you come to work tomorrow a miracle has happened and the problem has been resolved.  What would you notice that would tell you things were better?”  It is then possible to explore what might have led that change to happen which in turn might point to some practical steps that might be taken.

The points above are just tasters – if this is an approach that interests you should take time to some research and explore the techniques further -  there is plenty of stuff out there.

The Role of the Supervisor

As you will probably have gathered, one of the most challenging aspects of this approach is the role of the supervisor.  Traditionally the supervisor is the expert providing advice or the coach giving direction.  They may even be the ‘parent’ monitoring performance and providing ‘correction’.  

A solution focused supervisor is none of these things.  They are there to LISTEN and ask the right questions, to help the supervisee see the strengths and assets they already have and to facilitate a conversation about solutions rather than problems.  

This is much, much harder.

But, if done well, I believe this approach will be much, much more productive.

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Tuesday, 10 February 2015

78. Perform your strategies like jazz

We don't like to talk about strategy making do we?

I don't mean the stuff that the strategies are about, we love talking about that, I mean the business of making strategies; the mechanics of how they actually work. That stuff is boring isn't it? But not thinking about that stuff might be a problem if it means those strategies don't do what we want them to do.

Often strategy making is just 'common sense'. You know, vision is followed by aims is followed by objectives that are followed by an action plan.

Sometimes we have a method. Results Based Accountability and Balanced Scorecards have been popular of late. Driver diagrams are something I've come across recently. You might even try something more bottom up like Appreciative Inquiry.

Of course we never have a methodology (despite chronic misuse of the word) but that's another story.

So where Am I going with this?

As someone involved the writing of community strategies and other partnership plans I think it would be great if, in a given locality at least, we could all use the same approach.

Health plans are made differently to police plans which are made differently to council plans etc etc. This makes it really hard to fit plans together - to make them talk to each other.

Having worked on Single Integrated Plans (the Welsh upgrade of community strategies) I've seen how hard it is to incorporate everything into one strategy. Rather than the tricky task of making 'one plan to rule them all' perhaps it would be more productive if everyone simply worked to the same strategy making principles?

Hence the jazz metaphor.

Jazz musicians improvise, yes, but within a shared key, shared time signature and shared tempo (probably).

In the same way wouldn't it be groovy if partners in a given area could agree to work within a common structure including:
  • Shared definitions (things like aims, outcomes etc)
  • Shared method
  • Shared outcomes
Strategies would be made separately but within a shared framework. The result would hopefully be harmonious.

That would be cool man.

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77. #notwestminster

Carl Haggerty had it right when he blogged yesterday:
Remember this date : Saturday 7th February 2015, because on Saturday in Huddersfield a special event We’re not in Westminster – Local Democracy for Everyone took place that created the space, time, inspiration and curation to bring together an amazing group of people to discuss and suggest small and big changes to how local democracy works.
It certainly felt to me like a game changer.  We talked about practical stuff, yes, but there was also energising, re-energising and inspiring by the bucket full.

This post isn't about the event, excellent though it was (I've already blogged about my workshop and others are blogging as well - here is the Storify).

This post isn't even about all the brilliant people who came together to make it happen (although they are and they did).

It’s about the #notwestminster hashtag – or, perhaps more accurately, it's about the attitude.

When Carl (@gr8governance), the impresario of the event, told me Diane’s (@72prufrocks) idea for a strap-line, I knew straight away it was perfect.

"We're not in Westminster anymore."

Most people know 'We're not in Kansas anymore' is quote from the film The Wizard of Oz.

It gets used as a saying that means, according to the Urban Dictionary:

When you're in a place or situation that is outside your comfort zone or scope of understanding. Strange surroundings.

By swapping Kansas for Westminster it gives you the sense that local democracy is very different to national government - that it's a very different world.  This post about a recent GovCamp by @emilyaturner illustrates that point very well.

It's also a reminder that democracy happens outside of what is, after all, a very small part of the capital city. As John Popham has reflected, the fact that the #notwestminster event took place in Huddersfield is refreshing to say the least.

My hope is that the #notwestminster hashtag continues to be used.  For me it represents:

  • the uniqueness of local democracy
  • the fact you need to live it to understand it
  • the passion that many of us have for all the good stuff 
  • the excitement that there is around change for the better 

Remember, if we are not in Westminster anymore then maybe we are somewhere over the ....

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