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Waltham Forest Council case study

How a London council transformed development for office and front-line workers

With Ben Plant, HR Director at Waltham Forest Council.

Company info

Waltham Forest Council, based in east London, looks after the needs of more than a quarter of a million residents.

  • Industry

    Local government

  • Headquarters

    Walthamstow, London

  • Company Size

    2,700 employees

Waltham For­est Coun­cil looks after the needs of more than 275,000 res­i­dents in north-east Lon­don. Like all local coun­cils, it has a broad and diverse mix of employ­ees, from front­line work­ers in health­care and edu­ca­tion to office-based teams at var­i­ous sites, includ­ing Waltham For­est Town Hall. 

For some years, the coun­cil had relied on a tra­di­tion­al annu­al appraisal sys­tem sup­port­ed by a lega­cy HR sys­tem. The sys­tem was, as HR Direc­tor Ben Plant describes it, com­plex”. Over the years, the appraisal exer­cise had become as much about com­pli­ance as it had devel­op­ment. The forms that need­ed to be filled in were numer­ous and com­pli­cat­ed. There was a strong focus on mea­sure­ment. Suc­cess was about shep­herd­ing as many peo­ple through the process as pos­si­ble, not search­ing for ways to help employ­ees grow. 

Ben puts the chal­lenge in context: 

You have to remem­ber that this was set against the back­drop of aus­ter­i­ty. All local coun­cils were keen to make sav­ings. When we looked close­ly at where our devel­op­ment bud­get was going, we saw that far too much of it was being spent help­ing peo­ple to nav­i­gate the sys­tem. When you have a tool designed to devel­op per­for­mance, you want it to devel­op per­for­mance. But we weren’t able to spend our bud­get on train­ing to help man­agers have use­ful con­ver­sa­tions with employ­ees or iden­ti­fy areas for devel­op­ment, because it was going on train­ing to use the sys­tem, help­ing peo­ple who were stuck in the sys­tem, and so on. That was a real­ly unsat­is­fac­to­ry state of affairs.” 

All of this com­plex­i­ty was hav­ing an effect on the HR func­tion as well: team mem­bers were forced to act as com­pli­ance police’, coax­ing and cajol­ing peo­ple into using and com­plet­ing tasks on a sys­tem that no one want­ed to use. This nat­u­ral­ly affect­ed the val­ue of the data, as employ­ees and man­agers des­per­ate­ly want­ed to tick the com­pli­ance box and get back to their every­day work. 

HR’s aim was to redi­rect their bud­get and resources away from all this, and towards help­ing man­agers be bet­ter man­agers. Ben and his team con­duct­ed many con­ver­sa­tions with senior lead­er­ship, with employ­ees and man­agers across the coun­cil, and kept encoun­ter­ing the same opin­ions. Peo­ple knew that the appraisal exer­cise had become more about com­pli­ance than devel­op­ment, with the ulti­mate aim of award­ing a rat­ing at the end of the year. Very few believed that it enabled good con­ver­sa­tions and sup­port­ed development. 

The HR team want­ed to avoid a big bang approach to deliv­er­ing an alter­na­tive. They made a point of not announc­ing a big organ­i­sa­tion­al and cul­tur­al change, con­cerned that a dra­mat­ic announce­ment might over­shad­ow the work they want­ed to do. 

The first stage involved small-scale test­ing. The HR team iden­ti­fied three sys­tems they were inter­est­ed in — two which focussed on con­tin­u­ous per­for­mance devel­op­ment and one which offered a more tra­di­tion­al approach based around an annu­al appraisal — and chose two teams to test the sys­tems and get detailed feedback. 

The teams they select­ed came from two com­plete­ly diverse areas of the organ­i­sa­tion: Children’s Social Care and Eco­nom­ic Devel­op­ment. One team were very much front­line work­ers, deal­ing direct­ly with local res­i­dents and work­ing in a num­ber of loca­tions in any giv­en month. The oth­er team was almost entire­ly office-based, and with a much more tra­di­tion­al work­ing week and work­load. Both teams were led by man­agers who were keen to work with HR to tri­al new sys­tems, and were enthu­si­as­tic about the idea of a new mod­el for per­for­mance development. 

Ben’s team ensured that the process of test­ing was done in an extreme­ly open and col­lab­o­ra­tive way. HR team mem­bers were reg­u­lar­ly on loca­tion with the teams to answer ques­tions, cap­ture feed­back and dis­cuss the mer­its of each sys­tem. The small-team test­ing mod­el allowed HR to engage very close­ly and get detailed infor­ma­tion on how the sys­tems were being used and what learn­ings they could take on board. Izzie Hur­rell, a project man­ag­er sup­port­ing the HR team, was one of the most promi­nent faces of the test­ing phase.

I did a lot of shar­ing wall work. I’d be in the depart­ments with a white­board on wheels, cap­tur­ing that feed­back. I’d send around group emails and post mes­sages say­ing that I’d be in a cer­tain place between cer­tain times, and I’d be avail­able to answer ques­tions. Peo­ple real­ly came up and engaged. They want­ed to know what was going on, they want­ed to share their opin­ions on the wider issue of change and what they thought devel­op­ment should look like.” 

Once they had cap­tured a crit­i­cal mass of data, Ben and his team put togeth­er a rec­om­men­da­tion for the coun­cil board. The fact that they had test­ed using real teams, with raw adop­tion and usage data but also anec­do­tal feed­back, was a huge fac­tor in the suc­cess of the project. 

I don’t think we would have got very far if we’ve gone straight to senior man­age­ment and pro­posed that we sim­ply adopt a new per­for­mance man­age­ment tool,” says Ben. The fact that we’d run the test­ing, that we’d been rig­or­ous in look­ing at the sys­tem with live teams in such diverse areas of the organ­i­sa­tion: that made a real­ly com­pelling case for the change that we want­ed. We’d been able to focus and engage with peo­ple through­out the process. We’d cap­tured a lot of feed­back, had a lot of dis­cus­sions with peo­ple about what they want­ed and what was work­ing for them. It’s so hard to say I want to deliv­er a big cul­tur­al change for more than 2,000 peo­ple’. It’s much eas­i­er to say We’ve tried this out with some of our employ­ees and here is what they think, these are the ben­e­fits, and we feel that this sys­tem, in par­tic­u­lar, will give us what we need mov­ing forward.’” 
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Ben was inter­est­ed in a con­tin­u­ous per­for­mance devel­op­ment mod­el from the begin­ning because it relat­ed strong­ly to the work the coun­cil already does with residents. 

So much of social care, from a prac­tice per­spec­tive, is about ongo­ing rela­tion­ships and con­ver­sa­tions with ser­vice users rather than one-off assess­ments. Just as we’re trans­form­ing those ser­vices, invest­ing in more mean­ing­ful rela­tion­ships with res­i­dents and ser­vice users, it’s great to be able to use that mod­el to strength­en rela­tion­ships between man­agers and employees.” 

Clear Review was by far the best received of the mod­els that Waltham For­est Coun­cil tri­alled. In sat­is­fac­tion sur­veys, which were run reg­u­lar­ly through­out the test­ing peri­od, it con­sis­tent­ly scored 90% and above. Feed­back focussed on the sim­plic­i­ty and intu­itive­ness of the system. 

Acces­si­bil­i­ty was also a big fac­tor in Clear Review’s pop­u­lar­i­ty. The pre­vi­ous sys­tem had required the user to be reg­is­tered on the council’s intranet, which added anoth­er IT work­stream to the process. None of that was required with Clear Review, so yet anoth­er bar­ri­er to adop­tion came down. 

When the coun­cil rolled the sys­tem out, one of the most imme­di­ate impacts on the HR team was, unusu­al­ly, finan­cial. Pre­vi­ous­ly, HR was ear­mark­ing resources to sup­port peo­ple in the use of their lega­cy appraisal sys­tem, which was hav­ing an impact on oth­er projects. That end­ed when Clear Review was rolled out. 

Don’t under­es­ti­mate the val­ue of that sim­plic­i­ty. When we start­ed mov­ing teams onto the Clear Review plat­form we were able to say We don’t need to sit you in a class­room and teach you how to use this. We think it’s intu­itive enough that, with the help of a short instruc­tion video, you should be able to log in and start using it straight­away.’ What we could then offer peo­ple, with the bud­get we’ve freed up, was train­ing that made a real dif­fer­ence to per­for­mance. We could train peo­ple on how to have bet­ter and more con­struc­tive con­ver­sa­tions with their colleagues.”

The platform’s flex­i­bil­i­ty has been anoth­er rev­e­la­tion for the team. 

We have such a wide vari­ety of job func­tions and work­ing prac­tices with­in a coun­cil. We have school staff and lec­tur­ers who work to an aca­d­e­m­ic year; we have accoun­tants who work to a finan­cial year; we have project man­agers who aren’t inter­est­ed in those timescales and oper­ate around the life­cy­cle of their par­tic­u­lar project. All of those groups, and plen­ty of oth­ers, have a par­tic­u­lar and impor­tant invest­ment in those cal­en­dars. It’s vital that they work around them and Clear Review is flex­i­ble enough to help them do just that.”

From an HR per­spec­tive, the admin­is­tra­tor view is equal­ly intu­itive and has giv­en the team the data they need, at a glance, on all those diverse groups and func­tions. Ben and his team also have a lot of praise for the Clear Review cus­tomer suc­cess team, who were an ongo­ing resource dur­ing their phased roll­out. Waltham For­est Coun­cil rolled Clear Review out in a stag­gered way, over the course of around six months, which did mean that there were times when some employ­ees were using the lega­cy sys­tem and some using Clear Review. The cus­tomer suc­cess team worked close­ly with the coun­cil to make that tran­si­tion as sim­ple as possible. 

A few months on from launch, Waltham For­est Coun­cil has 84% adop­tion of the sys­tem across the entire work­force, from office work­ers all the way through to front­line ser­vices, and as they embed its use across the coun­cil the team are con­fi­dent that take up will rise fur­ther. But, in the end, the human anec­dotes are the most telling for the HR team. 

We had peo­ple ask­ing us if the data from the test would be car­ried across to the live sys­tem when we rolled out. Not because they were con­cerned about what they’d said: it was because they enjoyed the work they’d done on it dur­ing the test. They were invest­ed. They want­ed that data to stay avail­able,” says Izzie. And man­agers loved that vis­i­bil­i­ty: the abil­i­ty to see all the way down the pipeline. For me, the big learn­ing was that you don’t need to be an IT per­son to deliv­er an IT project: you just need to under­stand what dif­fer­ent depart­ments need to progress things. It’s about trans­paren­cy and about cut­ting through the inter-depart­men­tal walls to get peo­ple talking.”.
If some­one is look­ing to deliv­er a project like this, I’d tell them to be pos­i­tive. In any project of cul­tur­al change — and that’s what it is, how­ev­er you describe it — peo­ple will have scep­ti­cism. Although the reac­tion to Clear Review was real­ly pos­i­tive, you do have moments when you need to stick to your guns. And the most impor­tant thing is to remem­ber that a project like this is about peo­ple tak­ing own­er­ship of their own devel­op­ment. That is nev­er going to hap­pen overnight. But when it does, it’s worth the effort.”
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