In Conversation With Alan Russell at Renfrewshire Council

Check out this conversation between LGIU Scotland and Renfrewshire Council’s Chief Executive, Alan Russell. A year into the post of Chief Executive of Renfrewshire Council, LGIU Scotland hears Alan’s personal and organisational reflections on the challenges, opportunities facing Renfrewshire Council.

Located in the Western lowlands of Scotland, Renfrewshire Council oversees an annual budget of £466 million and is responsible for  a population of 179 000. 

To start us off, tell us about you, the team and what you are trying to achieve? 

In terms of my background, I have been at Renfrewshire for most of my career. I joined in 1998 as a recently qualified accountant and I have been here ever since. At the outset I never expected that would be the case, but I have been here for 24 years. To be honest, it has been a fantastic organisation to work for and that is why I have remained here for so long and it has been a great journey. Every council will understand that journey, with the austerity agenda post 2008 being a real trigger for councils to change and transform, and that is a trend that has continued to accelerate from that point onwards.

In terms of Renfrewshire itself it has been a real journey. The demography makes it 10th largest council area in Scotland, and one with a real mix of urban and rural geography. In addition, there is a real mix in terms of areas of deprivation and challenges, as well as a strong manufacturing base and business community. Despite some of the challenges, as an area, Renfrewshire punches well above its weight.

Renfrewshire Council has always been a really great place to work, with good partnerships across the public and 3rd sector, communities and businesses. In the council itself, there is a really strong team ethic in Renfrewshire. The full workforce are highly committed, and this was especially evident during the pandemic.

Not only is it a great place to work, but it continues to be an influential council on the national stage. By way of example, the town centre regeneration of Paisley has been ongoing for 10-15 years and drives part of the national conversation forward on how you reinvent large town centres in Scotland.

So that is some  background on myself. There is still a lot to achieve in Renfrewshire, but it is a great place, the Council has a great workforce, and delivers the best outcomes for its residents and communities. Overall, there are a huge amount of positives and Renfrewshire is a great place to work and a great area.

It is fair to say that the Ask Alan and Youtube video messages are unique to Renfrewshire Council. What inspired you to take a direct and open approach? 

There were a number of reasons. A personal reason for the Ask Alan was as the incoming Chief Executive, I had been at the council for a long number of years, most recently as Director of Financial and Resources and had led a large service. But being predominantly based in the Council’s HQ, in terms of visibility across the council, being the new CE, I was very conscious that I wanted to make a quick mark and be more visible and accessible across the organisation.

One of the challenges I discussed with the Communications team was the need for a clear strategy to connect quickly across the organisation and establish myself in my new role as the Chief Executive. At that point (November 2021), we were still in the midst of Covid, physically going out and connecting with people was quite restricted, so the online video and Ask Alan approach was something I agreed to do.

It certainly was not in my comfort zone, but I told the team to go ahead and make me uncomfortable. I wanted to be more than just visible and used it as an opportunity to open a two-way communication across the workforce. So, the Ask Alan was not just me talking to people, but setting an opportunity for people to engage and ask questions. So that was a personal objective.

There was also, coming out of the pandemic, a need to communicate and engage with the workforce about the plans for transitioning from how we had worked during COVID. For example, how we would look to plan the recovery, transition from dealing with the day to day and week to week challenges of the pandemic, how we would re-set the strategic agenda and picking up and recommencing our transformational agenda. So, there were a number of key things that the workforce needed to engage in.

On that point, prior to the pandemic we undertook a really significant exercise in engaging with 4000 people across the workforce, with our partner and across our communities as part of establishing a new set of values for the council. We looked at what we stood for, how we would operate, what our culture was and what the council represented. Part of that exercise was about how we engaged, communicated and collaborated inside and outside of our organisation.

Lastly, a lot of investment was made on communicating with the workforce during the pandemic. Personally, I think that really ignited an appetite among the workforce for communication and engagement. There was a real appetite amongst the workforce to want to know what was happening, to engage and to ask questions. So, for me there was a real desire to build upon that.

So, this new strategy of engagement reflected our values in action. Ask Alan was just part of the strategy along with a host of other changes we have made in how we engage within the organisation. We also continue to deliver traditional written communication along with more informal bitesize monthly videos which seem to go down well.

Hybrid working cultures and increased staff turnovers are challenges facing every Scottish Council. Where do you think home and hybrid working will go in the next 15 months? 

My view is that hybrid working is absolutely here to stay. The approach in Renfrewshire has been to launch a conversation on new ways of working in a hybrid fashion. I have been very clear from the outset that whilst it is a challenge to support people back to the office after such a prolonged period during COVID, my perspective is that getting people back for periods of time is important for reconnecting teams and getting used to being back in the office environment.

Part of the approach we are adopting in Renfrewshire, and a potential compromise in terms of pace of change from my point of view, is to invest more time to get to the answer and hopefully the right answer. We have set a broad 18 month period to work through a co-designed  process instead of implementing a potentially top-down design of how a new hybrid culture will work.

Part of the new ways of working programme allows every team to progress the design of how hybrid working will work for them. We understand that a one size fits all model won’t work. Instead, the needs and demands will differ from team to team, so allowing teams to work within  broad design principles, allows each to create and directly influence a hybrid environment that will work for their team. So, it is much more of a bottom up and co-designed process in Renfrewshire.

A big question that people will ask is what is the purpose of coming back into the office? That answer will vary from team to team but the broad principles will focus on team cohesion, social contact, supporting less experienced members within staff, and a support network as well as opportunities for more effective collaborative work that digital environments, despite how well the tools have developed, can never replicate.

We are also looking at how we redesign our office spaces to reflect a hybrid environment. What we have at the moment is what predominantly existed prior to the pandemic. A relatively modern HQ, but one which is not geared for hybrid working. So at the moment, we are in the process of progressing plans to rationalise office buildings and looking at how we redesign a smaller estate.

As a CMT, what we really impress on people is that we are designing something that had the pandemic not happened, may have taken us 10 plus years to incrementally get to. Understanding that we are trying to do this in 15 months means that inevitably we won’t get all of it right  first-time round. Therefore, part of the process will be learning and identifying things that are not working and making changes quickly. Equally, we do not want to jump too quickly into major investment and redesign until we test the change.

For example, it is useful to look at emerging design principles and thinking associated with open plan & collaborative spaces as well as the use of more innovative solutions such as individual pods to provide private space for participating in remote digital meetings whilst in the main office environment. We will more fundamentally  want to ask ourselves what is it we need from our office and collaboration spaces. This co-designed, active learning approach will inevitably result in a longer process of change than if we just brought in a partner to design a modern hybrid environment for us –  that may provide pace in change but the fear is that we risk  spending valuable and limited financial resources and time redesigning and within a few years regret decision made at pace.

We are therefore continuing with this bottom-up & co-designed approach for our office environments. Giving teams influence over how hybrid will work for them and what they need from an office environment now and in the future will I’m sure pay longer term dividends for us as an organisation.

(Interview continues below)

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Looking at your time in public service you touched upon some of the challenges. Looking forward, it would be great to hear your perspective on the key challenges facing Renfrewshire Council. 

We have actually just refreshed our Council and Community plans. They were due to be refreshed and coming out of the pandemic it represented a fortuitous but ideal time to be doing this. What was helpful is that our plans have not changed significantly in respect to our key strategic priorities. This is important because it tells us that we had them broadly right 5 years ago, but what we are seeing now is a change in emphasis on those key challenges as the wider economic and social environment and challenges shift at pace.

It goes without saying, everybody in public service will be wrestling with the financial sustainability challenge. I have been through that journey since the 2008 financial crash in my finance roles within the Council. Since then, you hoped and expected you would be coming out of the austerity agenda over the medium term. With the end-point expected in 2015, then by the end of the decade, then the early part of this decade, we now see issues of financial sustainability of public services likely being here to stay for a considerable part of this decade.

The current climate means we are in for another sustained period of public spending squeeze, so we are back to the challenge of trying to move forward and trying to re-design public services in the context of extreme financial pressures. We are at a critical level of financial challenge, one which we would not have expected only 12-18 months ago. That also shows us how quickly things change and highlights the critical importance of sustained economic growth as a key part of the overall recovery across the country.

Another key challenge is tackling inequality. That has been a big focus in Renfrewshire over the last 10 years and we have made huge progress locally with programmes that emerged from the tackling poverty commission and the alcohol and drugs commission work in Renfrewshire. These programmes have really come to fruition, and we are looking to see how we can build on their success and work more effectively with our communities and build for the future.

Also, the climate agenda is a huge challenge for the Council as an organisation in terms of our own transition towards net zero. But also, how we take forward the leadership challenge across Renfrewshire. The Council only accounts for around 2.5% of emissions across Renfrewshire, meaning the vast majority of the challenge to tackle a just and fair transition lies within our communities, with businesses and with travel emissions. So, we have a huge leadership role to promote and support the transition to net zero.

All these issues were part of the strategic agenda in the previous council plan, but what has changed is the emphasis and acuteness of a number of these issues over the past two years. These issues are shifting quickly, for instance the Cost-of-Living Crisis and the speed at which it developed on the back of the pandemic and fall out from the Ukraine/Russian war has really shone a much brighter light on inequality, that those least able to cope are suffering the most.

I doubt the experience in Renfrewshire is very much different from other council areas across the country. One common thread in all those strategic strands for Renfrewshire is a focus on children and young people. There is a recognition that  children and young people are at the heart of those agendas. Looking forward, the big question is how we create a brighter future for our young people and give them every opportunity to thrive.

Finally, you have been in the post for nearly a year. During this time, what has surprised you? What challenged you or surprised you? 

Coming from a finance director role, you are at the corporate centre at the Council and even as a Director and member of the corporate Management Team you get a very unique insight because you are involved in so many different aspects of the Council’s strategic agenda. That was a big advantage, so I thought I knew most of the big challenges coming into the role. I also worked closely with the former Chief Executive Sandra Black. Sandra was a huge support in getting me involved in many aspects of the Council beyond what might be regarded as being part of the traditional finance director role, so I thought I knew what the job entailed.

However, a year in, it is a real eye opener in terms of the breadth and depth the role involves. That could also be a reflection on the year we have had. Coming into the job, I had set out my priorities for the first 6-12 months. To a large extent I have delivered on most of those. However, over the course of that year things have continued to shift so quickly. I was only 4 weeks into the role when the Omicron variant sprang up and that turned the dial back up on re-establishing the pandemic response. Thankfully, its impact was not a bad as first feared. Following that, we had the planned May elections, the quickly unfolding impact of the Ukraine conflict and the demand to support those fleeing their home country, more recently the rapidly unfolding Cost-of-Living crisis and prospect of the longest recession in history. Over the past number of months, it has been a hugely busy year.

Whether this year is unique or not, as a Chief Executive we are never sure what curve balls can be thrown. That is the biggest thing I have learned over the course of this year, the sheer variability and how quickly things can change significantly, so I did not know as much as I thought I did.

Thanks to Alan for sharing his insights one year into the role as Chief Executive at Renfrewshire Council. To find more on local governance in Scotland, find the latest on LGIU Scotland.

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