Staff at Derbyshire County Council are stressed, anxious and fear for their jobs, a review by a local government watchdog has found.
On top of this, the Local Government Association found confusion over who was leading the organisation, frustration over slow decision making and that the voluntary sector does not feel listened to.
The authority invited the watchdog to conduct a review – called a Corporate Peer Challenge – which was carried out from October 22-25.
Now the summary of the review has been published and will be discussed at a meeting of the authority’s cabinet on Thursday, January 31.
The council had specifically asked the team for views about its finances, its new Enterprising Council slogan and its One Council approach to departments working together as one team rather than individually.
In its summary, the LGA states: “Working relationships between councillors and officers are good across the political groups, and both members and staff talk unprompted of a positive culture.
“When compared to many other councils, including other county councils, the organisation is financially better placed, with relatively higher levels of reserves.
“This presents opportunities which are not currently available to the same extent in many other upper tier councils.
“The Enterprising Council initiative, alongside ambitions to work as One Council, are at an early stage. There have been some early wins which have been popular with the public, for example the focus on repairing more potholes.”
The authority’s Enterprising Council approach seeks to find new ways of providing services, such as through outsourcing and involving the community more.
But the watchdog did point the finger at a number of glaring issues within the authority.
It stated that ‘there are widespread concerns about the pace of change and how long it can take for some decisions to be made’.
The LGA found that partner organisations that work with the council ‘express frustration at the slow speed of decision making’, claiming there are often too many layers and individuals involved.
It also found that ‘there are signs that employees are feeling a degree of stress and anxiety’.
The LGA writes that the authority’s sickness absence is on average 10 days per employee per year, above the national average for councils at nine days and far above the UK average of four days.
It states: “Senior managers recognise this is an issue for employees and this is being addressed through a new strategy and programme of work targeting employee well-being.
“Consideration should also be given to the anxieties about job security that some staff hold due to their lack of clarity about the [Enterprising Council] approach.”
Regarding finances, the LGA, while stating that the authority was faring well among the councils, said it had a habit in which ‘unachievable saving targets are rolled forward into the next financial year for delivery’ and that ‘a greater sense of priority and the strategy for containing future spending within the resources available, is required’.
The watchdog also found that “the voluntary sector is a willing partner but does not always feel listened to by the council”.
Regarding leadership, it commented that there was a lack of clarity at a strategic level on who was in control of the organisation and that ‘representatives are not always clear about the rationale for changes to some services’.
It also felt that the authority could benefit greatly by looking at what other councils are doing, noting a current lack of awareness in this area.
Coun leader, Barry Lewis, said: “We asked the LGA to assess our performance, strategy and the way we operate as part of our desire to continually improve what we do.
“A corporate Peer Challenge has not been carried out for more than a decade and we needed to establish where we were relative to other councils.
“The report concluded that we are on very solid foundations with a good approach to running the council. We are financially very stable with good working relationships and keen to innovate and continually modernise.
“Of course there are areas where we need to improve – as the report highlights – and we welcome this feedback which reflects areas for improvement we had identified ourselves as part of Enterprising Council approach.
“It’s helpful to confirm these areas that require attention so we can better address them.
“We value this advice and we’ll be looking closely at the recommendations in the report to plan our next steps.”
Eddie Bisknell , Local Democracy Reporting Service