Leading a Key Service in a Crisis Situation
In this, the first-ever episode of the Leaders Podcast Farooq Mohammed will be in conversation with LATCo member Chris Wheeler of Guildford BC.
In this episode, Chris shares various insights into how his team have met the challenges that they have been faced with. How they have overcome these hurdles and kept vital public services available.
This episode is available in video and podcast formats below so you can choose the format that works for you. If you prefer to read the highlights of the podcast, they are paraphrased with timings underneath.
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0.00 to 4.31mins
Farooq outlines the unprecedented challenges that are being faced by organisations both locally and globally.
Chris is Guildford Borough Councils (GBC) Parking & Fleet Services Manager. He is responsible for the council's waste management, parking and street cleaning services. Guildford is a Historic town with a population of about 130,000 people, with 60,000 households. Chris has up to 170 staff delivering the services daily and (GBC) manages 180 vehicles of plant.
The Challenges of Service Delivery
Chris wants to be visible and available for his front-line teams and is juggling home working with office work in order to be able to be on the ground with his team.
Question: Essential services need to be maintained. How are your team managing with the challenges?
Chris praises his team for being flexible. He describes how dealing with rapidly changing circumstances is common in his sector. Challenges of flood alerts, snow alerts and other events are commonplace. His team is used to responding to emergencies on the ground and is adept at delivering services with whatever else is going on.
His team are incredibly grateful for the amazing support that the public is showing for key workers. Moral is high in response to the positive messages his team are receiving from the public.
Social Distancing and Health and Safety challenges.
The other side of dealing with social distancing and trying to get that balance right is that where possible, without having to deal with new risks and not forgetting the core fundamentals of health and safety change management. Trying to deliver services whilst ensuring social distancing. In order to do that they have changed times of operations. Changed end of day procedures and the start of day procedures. Increased supervision and cleaning. Adopting lots of changes to routine in order to make practices as safe as possible. Chris describes how he has been helped by lots of guidance including LATCo guidance and WISH guidance. The guidance is updated regularly which really helps.
Question: Continuity and Contingency planning and GBC response?
Chris described how existing contingency plans have not had to be brought in as no major service disruption or closing has needed to happen. He describes how any such plans would ultimately be the last resort.
However, the changes that have been made have been unique. GBC had not thought at any stage that all its carparks would be opened as free to support key workers. A major change in services. The challenge was getting to the point of making this possible. However, it was much simpler to open all car parks as free as no visitors used them.
To avoid the need to spend time and energy in putting permits or other measures in place. It was better to make a decision that would be simpler to implement and better for the community. Redeploying staff at every level of seniority to help in the effort, whether that be packing food parcels or making telephone welfare checks on vulnerable people.
Corporately the biggest success has been around the shift to home working using technology such as Zoom and Microsoft teams. GBC has ramped up from an office-based organisation to a home-based organisation in days. Whilst delivering new processes and even a new waste service. The new waste service was delivered within a week.
Question: Given the success of the existing changes would there be a rethink of how services could be delivered, after the end of the pandemic?
Chris says some services such as street cleaning will not change. But looking at the way things will change in the wider world they may change for example if there are fewer people around and working from home. The balance may shift from prioritising street cleaning to home collections and recycling. So there may be a change in where services are needed. This may provide opportunities to do somethings differently.
Question: Have staff self-isolating had been a challenge for you?
Chris says a few staff have needed to self-isolate. In waste teams where they have had to work in close proximity. GBC has encouraged them to stay at home as they do not wish to take any risks. They have also had some staff who are in the shielded category and they have been fully supported.
When staff have been concerned about coming into work as they have health conditions. GBC has been successful in adjusting working patterns to accommodate. They have brought in additional agency staff where required, whilst maintaining stability in each team. To ensure service continuity if required he has asked staff to deliver services at the weekend.
Question: How has GBC responded in terms of the need for PPE?
Chris described that his services primary need is for gloves and sanitisers. They have not had any issues with supply and when stocks have become low, are able to draw on other teams and neighbouring authorities.
GBC has issued facemasks on request, but this is not a policy as the evidence suggest these are mainly only useful in a health care setting.
GBC are working very hard to remind staff to wash hands and clean cabs and all cabs are sanitised on Saturdays.
Question: What changes have you made to service levels and how this has aligned with service users and stakeholders?
Chris advised he has not made any changes to date and has been able to maintain all main services relating to refuse, food waste, recycling and garden waste. Some smaller services such as bulky household waste was offered by local charities and they were impacted as they had vulnerable staff.
The challenge then was whether GBC could absorb this need. Using other staff from other departments. GBC went live with a service to fill this need not just for Guildford but also a neighbouring authority. The service went live within a week. This took pressure away from crews and householders have been able to access the service. Residents are pleased and realised it took a lot of extra effort and are thankful the front-line workers are supporting the local community. The feedback has been really positive.
As a sign of appreciation GBC arranged a goody bag for staff as a thank you.
Question: Has GBC managed to maintain the gardening waste service as many authorities have suspended this?
Chris advised GBC still had a service as it was a small part of the existing operation. Garden waste would have been disposed of by householders as general waste which is already growing by 20%. Therefore, it is more effective to retain the service.
Chris added if staffing were a challenge that would be the service that would be postponed temporarily. The decision to suspend such a collection would be up to individual supervisors. This flexibility will allow future resilience for the service.
Question: Farooq asked about accessing support, advice and accessing information around health and safety and how effective this has been?
Chris said he sits on the Health and Safety board for the council and GBC has a strong H&S team.
The H&S team are in a challenging place too with changing guidance. The team are thinking about control measures that would be practical and effective.
Chris suggests it is about fundamentals and going back to basics. Considering why you have the routes you have developed. Looking at the fundamentals of change management in health and safety. By panicking and making rash changes you can put staff at increased risk. Fatigued staff, additional reverses etc should be avoided. Such things should be planned carefully, and it takes time to plan on a massive scale.
Check out other networks and information sources. LATCo network sent out documents very early that really distilled the WISH guidance.
WISH guidance has become refined over the past few weeks.
Chris chairs the Surrey Environmental partnership which is a group of 12 Local Authorities that all share experiences, what they are trialling and trying to help each other get to the right place by delivering a consistent message across the whole of Surrey.
By sharing information, they are delivering better services locally. This ensures services are not out of step to neighbours at district or county level. This would prevent people from shifting across the border to dispose of waste.
Final Question: What are the key big lessons in dealing with and responding to the current crisis?
Chris says, "Firstly you are not alone, you don't need to suffer in silence. If you share your problems with your colleagues or networks, you never know what you might be able to find out. Share and explain what your issues are. If you need help, ask for it. Commercial operators and other authorities and industry support groups are available to help and can be supportive.
Do not suffer in silence.”
On the other hand, if you can help people do that. It always gets paid back. We have done that.
Also, keep calm. This something that probably will only happen once every 50 or 100 years. There are three distinct phases. We had an emergency; we have to immediately do things differently. This is now the new normal and at some point, it will turn into a recovery phase.
Stay calm through that and work through the logic and deliver your services in a consistent and effective way as best as you are able. Keep calm watch what you are doing take care, look after your staff it will put in you in a good place and when it comes to an end, it will be back to normal services eventually.
Farooq thanked Chris for his great insight, taking the time to share his experience with other members of the LATCo network.
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