Culture eats strategy for breakfast

In this post Chief Executive of the council, Paul Matthews expands on an article he wrote for staff back in April called ‘Back to the Future‘. The article set out the things that were on his mind back then about the year ahead and how it was likely to play out. On re-reading it, Paul has said he’s pleased that it stands up as a pretty accurate analysis and forecast, but he said we know things now that we didn’t know then. Here’s he talks more about the council’s progress.

Chief Executive of Monmouthshire County Council
Paul Matthews

“So where to begin? How about a quick tour around the ‘collaboration conversation’ that has been playing out over the last few months.

Collaboration – ‘a means to an end’

The Wales Government has taken a firmer position on the geographical clustering that they believe public bodies should concentrate on when considering collaborative initiatives. These footprints are based on the local health board geographies (six in Wales) and suggests that our activity should be focussed in the Greater Gwent area with core partners being Blaenau Gwent, Caerphilly, Newport and Torfaen. Nothing much wrong with this logic from my perspective as long as, and this is important, we are not restricted in exploring collaborations more widely when circumstances suggest this is the right thing to do. So Greater Gwent as our first touchstone, but not acting as a restriction on our desire to work with anyone who can help us advance our priorities and deliver our outcomes.

The important point for us all to remember is that collaboration is a means to an end, not an end in itself. There has to be value creation through collaboration and that can be any combination of financial saving, service improvement or reputation enhancement – but we don’t do collaboration for the sake of it. We do it for a purpose. Collaboration is a centre-piece of a couple of national reports published over the last few months. The ‘Simpson’ report is the product of work commissioned by Welsh Government to explore how services can best be configured; be that locally, regionally or nationally. Arising from the report, the Welsh Government and local government have been discussing how to take forward its recommendations. These discussions are formalising into something called a ‘Compact’. This has yet to be finalised so more on this in subsequent articles.

Children at the Castle Park Primary School learning plaza
Children at the Castle Park Primary School learning plaza

For us, this national noise is mostly supportive of our direction of travel. We have previously spoken on Prosiect Gwyrdd, Gwent Frailty, the Shared Resource Service, the Joint Adoption Service, legal support to Brecon Beacons National Park, financial support to the South Wales Fire Authority, combined audit roles with Newport, and I could go on. The point is we are good at collaboration, we have a history in it. And this history is informing additional work, most notably building a service model for an Integrated Achievement Service within education on a Greater Gwent footprint. All of the Greater Gwent councils have committed to this new model. Andy Keep, Chief Officer for Children and Young People, has led this initiative and done a brilliant job.

We are also advancing a piece of work around developing a service model which will see the integration of legal services with around seven other south east Wales public bodies. This model is not so much about saving huge sums of money, it is more about developing complementary skills with our neighbours so we can be more assured about the breadth of our competence than is the case right now.

Closer to home

There is a danger with all this talk about collaboration that we take our eye off the ball off our own internal agenda of redesign but reassuringly, we are not. Work continues on our portfolio of services that are engaged with ‘systems thinking reviews’. Development control, building control, human resources, payroll, training, highways, waste and adult social care are all moving through the process with our leisure centres about to join the party. A brief reminder that this is really about asking ourselves in a structured way what the purpose of our activity is from the perspective of the customer and committing to redesign our way of working to only deliver things of value.

Put another way, it is about making sure we get things right first time and avoid the costly exercise of doing things twice. This is important stuff and takes me back to ‘culture eats strategy for breakfast’. Some of our more ‘experienced’ colleagues with circa 20 years service will remember a group called ‘Bananarama’ who covered a 1939 song with Fun Boy Three:

T’ain’t What You Do (It’s the Way That You Do It) … and that’s what gets results

Much local government thinking is dominated by a managerial perspective – clear vision, sound strategy, appropriate structure, good systems of work, appropriate organisational style with a decent set of performance indicators on the end. This is important stuff for any organisation, and certainly ours.

My view is that we have made massive strides on these agendas in recent times and we have seen good outcomes; but it isn’t enough. The real agenda for us now is the future and what it takes to really position ourselves as a ‘best in class’ authority. We can reach for this now because our strategy, finances, governance and core service offers are strong enough to allow it – so what is this all about?

Well, I think it is about ‘culture’. Culture is a difficult thing to define. From my perspective it is the accumulation of stories that are told within any organisation – it is how we do things around here. You can’t create culture but you can describe what you would like it to be and nudge it in that direction through acting out the right behaviours in the things that we do. Strategy well executed is seeing us travel but ‘culture’ well lived will see us accelerate. This is the point where that often used phrase – our people are our greatest asset – gets tested, because I need to know if that’s true.

So are we a Creative Council?

Others seem to think so and are keen to work with us. Where we are going is into a ‘whatever it takes’ culture. This may all sound a bit surreal but we are committing time and attention to it. We have been shortlisted as one of only 17 Councils in the UK to take part in a Creative Councils Programme. I confidently expect to make the final five in March of next year. We put together a little video to set out our area of interest which in a nutshell is to become the council that the place of Monmouthshire deserves – outstanding.

We are about to launch our very own Intrapreneurship School. This is our in-house programme designed to enable you and people just like you to explore how you think about public service and as importantly what you have always wanted to do differently but were too frightened to ask. This programme will work with you to develop any ideas that you have for improving our business. It goes with the grain of ‘systems thinking’ but enables us to engage individuals as well as whole teams. I’m looking to involve hundreds of staff in the programme over our next period. When you attach these to our ‘systems thinking’ agenda, and our ‘creative councils’ submission, we have a cluster of activities that starts to describe our path forward.

@Innovation House
@Innovation House, Magor

I haven’t forgotten that this comes on the back of some big changes for many of our staff. Significant office relocations can be unsettling but I’ve got to say the attitude that I have seen through the period has been outstanding. We have many organisations paying us visits now and being blown away by the speed of change and they are asking us how it is happening. Our answers sound a bit boring but they are straightforward. Change is happening because we want it to happen – and the ‘we’ is a growing proportion of staff. So this is what I mean by ‘culture eating strategy for breakfast’.

We can go so far with great process but the real premium is in an engaged workforce which is in touch with the communities that we serve and want to do ‘whatever it takes’ to get the job done while being granted permission to redefine what the job actually is. This is the way we will increasingly do things around here.

We have had indicative notice of our grant settlement from Wales Government and we are working out what this means for us, set against Cabinet’s clear policy expectation of no council tax increase. Clearly this will give rise to some interesting conversations but let me say very clearly that I am not expecting huge numbers of job losses and I am not expecting significant changes in terms and conditions that are under the control of the council.

 If we are going to ‘eat strategy for breakfast’ I need you to have an appetite for it. Speak soon. “

Photos; Children at the Castle Park Primary School learning plaza and @Innovation House, Magor



  1. Systems Thinking is great if you do indeed look at the whole of the organisation. Paul’s comments to me several months ago on the lack of solid HR data (i.e. business results, level 4 evaluation etc) that relates to the training and development activities carried out by MCC demonstrate a lack of thinking between sending people on course / qualifications, the financial cost of those workshops, the resultant increase in skills, knowledge and ability of those attending, the measurement of such an increase and the financial savings that have resulted. Nearly £500k on training courses and you can’t tell me what the benefit to MCC has been?

    In a different department I had to push to get data on a road refurbishment that was taking longer than advertised and that didn’t seem to be doing what the local people wanted it anyway.

    Systems thinking should include your stakeholders – which if you do stakeholder management correctly includes members of the public (not just internal departments) and the various sub-bodies that Joe Public belong to.

    If I asked a random sample of MCC workers what MCC’s strategy was for the next five years would they be able to tell me?

    The open government license is a great idea and I am sure you will be held more and more accountable (which as public servants you should be) for the decisions that affect the people of Monmouthshire.

    • Andrew
      Thanks for the comments. I agree absolutely with your take on systems thinking. The view of citizens / customers is the only real way to differentiate value work from waste and our early exercises have produced some really eye opening outcomes with some dramatic service redesign as a result.
      Your previous comments on training did make me think a bit and was one of the reasons for bringing forward this aspect of our work for review. Likewise our highways services are currently being taken forward.
      Would all of my colleagues be able to clearly articulate our core strategy? I doubt it but I believe many more could now than 12 months ago so I think we are moving in the right direction.

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