Kensington Youth Services was, until April 2014, part of Kensington & Chelsea Council. As such it had many of the characteristics of traditional working, of compliance and control, that is common in local government.
Under the leadership of Brendan O’Keefe they wished to break free from the Council and establish themselves as an independent social enterprise, selling services back to the Council, and also to other local authorities. To do this they needed to learn both a range of commercial skills and to radically change the culture to create a dynamic and innovative company that would thrive in a competitive market, while still reflecting public sector values.
The government is encouraging such moves and Happy first became involved when commissioned by the Cabinet Office, with Mutual Ventures, for seven days of training in strategy, commercial awareness and culture change. This was followed by a staff conference and by several 4 day leadership programmes for directors and managers within the organisation.
The requirement of the client, which changed its name to Epic on becoming independent, was commercial capability and culture transformation. The key test was whether the new company could not just survive but successfully expand its services.
The key challenges and the approach adopted
The core challenge was that most of the staff had worked for many years, some for decades, within a fairly traditional local government organisation. They had been encouraged to follow rules and procedures, rather than to innovate and had certainly never had to think about creating a service that would deliver a profit.
One example was that the creation of a new role, or even the change of the number of hours of an existing role (such as from 3 days to 4 days) had to be signed off by the Chief Executive of Kensington & Chelsea Council. It was not a culture that encouraged new thinking.
The needs, which included keeping the values of serving the public, were clearly established in meetings with the future Managing Director and senior staff. The aim was to create a culture based on freedom within guidelines, autonomy and freedom to innovate – in line with the principles of Henry Stewart’s Happy Manifesto.
The process has gone through regular review. “Our people are schooled in the Compliance and process style”, explains Brendan. “I knew the new approach needed a programme that enabled them to understand the concepts, express any concerns and be able to come back after putting it into practice.”
To meet that need Happy designed and delivered a four day leadership programme, spread over six months. It is a continuing relationship. Upcoming learning events include training in the “recruit for attitude” approach and “Understanding the principles of a people-led management style” for front-line staff.
This was a whole-company learning solution. The key performance metric was the commercial success of the new enterprise, based on a new culture. Epic has had a successful first 18 months as a commercial enterprise and is now starting to win new business beyond its original contract. For instance it has just won seven contracts for play services, expected to add £800k to the company’s turnover.
The contracts are a good example of the new company’s mix of commercialism and commitment to service. Well-off parents will pay for the play services but those in more difficult circumstances will pay lower rates or be fully subsidised.
One example of the new approach is the implementation of ‘recruit for attitude, train for skills’. Epic has revamped its entire recruitment.
“We are now looking for enthusiasm as well as aptitude”, explains Brendan. “I can think of two newcomers especially who are shining stars. Under the old selection method they would not even have got an interview, as they didn’t have the qualifications and experience. One in particular I really don’t know how we would do without.”
Another example is planning. “In the old model, planning started at the top”, explains Brendan. “It would filter all the way down and might be done in a tokenistic way once it got to the front line. Now we have bottom-up planning, with much more ownership. It works much better. These are the kind of changes that the work with Happy has enabled.”
The core achievement was the successful transformation of a traditional public sector department into a dynamic and innovative social enterprise. As such it is a potential example to thousands of similar government departments across the country,
“There is still work to be done”, acknowledges Brendan. “But the direction of travel is clear. For example we now have a Happy Manifesto group, which keeps asking why we aren’t doing more of this. Coming from the staff, this is great, constructive criticism – this just the kind of pressure you want.
“The bottom line is that if we hadn’t gone through that transformational change, and had Happy’s practical support to enable it, we probably wouldn’t have survived.”
In the Happy model, there are three key levels of culture:
1. Micromanagement: telling staff how to get from A to B
2. Empowerment: enabling staff to choose their path from A to B
3. Self-management: enabling staff to decide what point B is, as well as their path to it
Many public sector organisations are still at micromanagement.
The first shift is to get to empowerment, but real change is possible once people reach self-management.
“We are not all the way there yet”, acknowledges Brendan. “I would say around a third of staff really get it. They are self-managing. Around 40% are on the journey and around a quarter still reflect the old ways.”
This programme goes beyond training in management and leadership skills. It is about enabling transformational change and, as such, has been highly successful. It is an approach that others are interested in. Happy and Epic will be holding an “Innovation in the Public Sector” conference in February, to make others aware of the possibilities, which may be sponsored by the Cabinet Office.
“Happy has been absolutely invaluable in enabling this transformation”, adds Brendan “We enjoy working with you, feel in tune and find it a model for public sector working. It is not an add-on but integral to what we are trying to achieve.”
“We would love to see the Happy Manifesto approach being implemented widely across the public sector. What would it mean? Simply better services, delivered by more motivated staff, costing a lot less.”
“Happy demonstrates how the method for attaining a happy and high achieving workplace is within the grasp of any organisation – provided managers are prepared to be inventive and let go of past certainties.”
Brendan O’Keefe, Managing Director, Epic Ltd