A marathon not a sprint in the race to the exam finish line!

The butterflies are fluttering in the stomach, the sleepless nights have started, fingernails are chewed – and that’s just the parents and teachers!

Exam time is upon us and it’s the culmination of years of hard work by pupils, teachers and all of our dedicated school staff alike.

Thanks to all who have got our thousands of city pupils to the start line – now it’s just the race to be run!

If like me you have children preparing to put their hard work to the test you’ll be well versed in the trials and tribulations of revision timetables and the sweat and toil of preparation.

We’ve all been through it ourselves and it’s easy to forget that there is a lot of pressure on young shoulders. As we always say at this time of year, all anyone can do is give it their best – whatever the results may be, there’s a long road ahead for every pupil and opportunities at every turn.

Good luck to all of the young people as the exams get into full flow and to the parents and carers who will be lending a guiding hand.

Taking time out to recognise the sacrifices of workers

On Friday at 11am you are invited to join a minute’s silence as part of the Council’s recognition of International Workers Memorial Day.

Introduced as a day of remembrance for those who have lost their life at work or suffered work related injury or illness, the day itself falls on Sunday (April 28) but we feel it is important to give employees the opportunity to pay their respects during office hours.

There will also be ceremonies at Duthie Park and Persley, on Friday and Sunday respectively, as part of the programme organised by trade unions in conjunction with Council colleagues.

The health, safety and wellbeing of every member of Aberdeen City Council staff is a priority and I’d urge everyone to use IWMD as an opportunity to reflect on how we can all play a positive role.

We have established processes and policies to ensure safe working environments – but those are built upon the vital input of each of us as individual members of staff and collectively as teams to maintain the highest standards. By being vigilant, diligent and conscientious we can make important contributions.

The public sector and private sector must strive to ensure Aberdeen is a place where workers are protected and where we can all take pride in a proactive approach.

This week’s programme is a timely reminder of those aims and an important opportunity for remembrance across the world.

Cycle accreditation and accountancy awards add up to success

As Council life gets back into full flow after the Easter school break in the city, it’s fantastic to be highlighting the latest good news stories.

The many colleagues who commute to work by bike will be pleased to know that we have been re-accredited as a Cycle Friendly Employer at Marischal College. The recognition may even tempt a few more to join the growing band.

Cycle Scotland have made the award after assessing facilities and have been very complimentary about the Council’s approach – with the inspection following on from Cycle Scotland’s grant which funded the improvements at Marischal, creating two-tier parking as well as a maintenance area and equipment.

Sustainable transport is a core part of our agenda as an authority and it’s fantastic to see so many staff making use of the improved facilities.

Staying on the good news theme, I must congratulate two of our finance colleagues for their recent success.

Accountancy graduate trainees Graeme Snape and Eve Bane (nee McIlroy) have both come through their final exams with flying colours and are in the process of gaining CIPFA member status.

Congratulations to both and also to Alan Simpson and his team in Strategic Place Planning for their work with Cycle Scotland.

Putting mental health at the top of the agenda

Earlier this year the Staff Governance Committee approved a Mental Health Action Plan for adoption by the Council.

It may not have grabbed the headlines in the way that some reports and decisions do – but it is every bit as important.

The focus of the plan is on ensuring that mental health is a priority for us all and that we continue to build a culture that encourages an open, inclusive and supportive attitude towards wellbeing.

Angela-Jane Hesketh has written an excellent blog post on the subject, following on from the work she and all those who have had an input in creating the plan have done.

It’s something that was raised directly with me, by staff members initially and also trade union representatives, and quickly took shape thanks to the energy and enthusiasm of colleagues from a variety of clusters, led by Organisational Design. I’m delighted to see something so important that has been driven by staff coming to fruition and that’s something we want to see more of in all parts of the Council.

Angela-Jane’s blog post is a really thought provoking read and this particular challenge from Angela-Jane jumps out from the screen:  “I ask you all to stand with me, let’s battle the stigma and get the conversation going, raise the awareness that we can only be our best selves if we start by looking after ourselves, mentally as well as physically.”

I echo those sentiments and I’m really keen to do all I can to support the team in promoting and implementing the plan.

At a time when our guiding principles and culture are being shaped, it’s heartening to see the mental health action plan gathering pace and underlining the caring ethos that we want to be running through our relationships with customers and colleagues.

That includes being open about the inevitable pressure that colleagues feel as our staff numbers contract.

I’m very conscious this is impacting on how people feel and the challenges they face day to day, something we have to manage together. The commitment to no compulsory redundancies that was reiterated by elected members at the budget meeting earlier this month means the reduction in posts is being managed through Voluntary Severance and Early Retirement. That is obviously reassuring for staff but I know it brings different worries in terms of covering the workload of those who choose to leave.

We can’t control the funding constraints we face or which areas of the Council colleagues will opt to leave from through VSER. What we can do is ensure we are innovative in how we deal with that, particularly through the digital technology we’re embracing to reduce the volume of manual work required. We must also continue to consider how we adjust our service levels to take into account the financial challenges, with a great deal of work being done around defining what we should and can provide as an organisation by creating commissioning intentions that will map that out in detail.

Turning back to the Mental Health Action Plan I’d encourage everyone to take time to familiarize themselves with it, read Angela-Jane’s blog post and give some thought to what the plan may mean for you and the colleagues around you.

As Angela-Jane points out, we would all know what to do if we cut our finger at work – but not necessarily where to turn if mental rather than physical health is the concern.

The adoption of the plan is a vital first step and my appreciation goes to everyone who has driven the project. It’s up to all of us now to help build the momentum and keep mental health at the top of the agenda.

Bringing our new guiding principles to life after seal of approval

Another important step on the Council’s transformation journey was taken last week  when the Staff Governance Committee approved our new guiding principles.

The endorsement from elected members is the latest stage in adopting the principles that will shape the culture of the organisation and is testament to power of work that was put in to get to this stage.

Thanks to Isla Newcombe, Dorothy Morrison, Martin Wyllie and Sandie Scott for driving the project forward and, just as importantly, to the employees from across the Council who got involved, made suggestions and gave feedback as part of the process. Around 2,000 people played an active role in creating the principles and that type of collaboration is really fantastic to see.

The approved principles are:

  • We care about our purpose, our city and our people;
  • We take pride in what we do and work to make things better;
  • One team, one council, one city;
  • We trust each other and take responsibility;
  • We value each other and recognise a job well done.

In addition to defining those guiding principles, the valuable exercise we have gone through has also helped to paint a picture of what this looks like in practice for all of us as members of that united Aberdeen City Council team.

After all the hard work, energy, enthusiasm and passion that has taken us to this point the real challenge starts here!

We’ve all got a very important part to play in turning the theory into practice and I’m looking forward to working together to do that.

Sharing experiences of the guiding principles in action will be at the heart of the culture we nurture in the weeks, months and years ahead. A new platform on the Transformation Zone has been created and will give everyone the chance to share their stories.

It’s well worth taking the opportunity to read and to contribute to this section as it evolves as we all have a responsibility to each other to keep building momentum after the great progress that has been made already this year.

I’m looking forward to hearing more from all corners of the Council and sharing those stories with you as we bring our new guiding principles to life.

A lunch invite with a difference!

The Clean Up Aberdeen campaign for 2019 will be launched next week and it’s the perfect opportunity to recognise a fantastic initiative.

Steven Shaw and his team join forces each year with volunteers, community groups, schools and many more organisations and individuals to do exactly what it says on the tin!

Clean Up Aberdeen involves everything from litter picks around schools and parks to beach clean-ups and everything in between and it’s a great example of the Council working together with others to make a difference to the city.

The launch at the Beach Ballroom on March 21 will involve 16 schools, with young people from across the city getting the opportunity to ask important questions of a panel comprising representatives from the Council and other organisations with a litter and recycling theme.

More schools than ever before are taking part in Clean Up Aberdeen, with a range of challenges to choose from.

There will be a clean-up following on from the launch, with the pupils and teachers leading the way.

That’s where Council employees can get involved and join the lunch-time clean-up, starting from the Ballroom. If you’re interested in taking part, the intention is to start at 12.30pm and all are welcome.

Steven is the best point of contact if you’re keen to find out more about Clean Up Aberdeen opportunities through the year. My thanks go to Steven and his dedicated teams for their efforts, not to mention the pupils and volunteers who continue to make it a project to be proud of.

 

Moving the Council forward with purpose

The business of a local authority is complex. When you look at the recently approved Council Delivery Plan, it gives you a sense of the diversity of services, programmes and projects which the organisation is involved in and the varied work of our colleagues.

From closing education attainment gaps and tackling food poverty to reviewing adult protection and increasing flexible childcare provision right through to pioneering hydrogen technology and introducing a cycle hire scheme the remit is incredibly wide ranging.

Given that diversity, is it possible to find a unifying purpose which can bind us all together?

We often talk about being “one team” but to feel a member of a team you have to have a sense of belonging together in order to achieve a common purpose.

I believe we can have a common purpose and it is captured in the recently approved Local Outcome Improvement Plan. It states that the purpose of the partnership is to “ensure that the people, place and economy of Aberdeen prosper”.

Prosperity doesn’t simply mean being financially prosperous – it can refer to our wellbeing, a state of peace and harmony.

I think this definition of purpose, can be something that unifies us within Aberdeen City Council too. If we align ourselves to this purpose, instead of aligning ourselves to our professions, our defined job profiles and organisational clusters, then we’ll all have something that binds us together regardless of where we are in the organisation.

Of course, it’s an inevitable feature of life, that the state of prosperity for individuals, families, communities and cities is not guaranteed and life, societal and environmental events happen which put that state of prosperity at jeopardy.  For example, the loss of a job can have a detrimental effect on a family and put at risk the ability to feed, shelter and keep loved ones safe. Environmental events, like significant flooding, can result in major damage to property as well as risk to life.

In the event of such harmful events occurring, I believe our role is to first of all help rescue the people and place from that harm and to then help with the road to recovery. In fact, in civil contingency law, we have duties placed on us as a local authority to act as a “Category 1” responder to play our part in rescue and recovery, for example, in the event of severe weather or terrorist attacks.

So, our common purpose can be defined as: “To ensure that the people, place and economy of Aberdeen prosper, but in the event of a harmful event, to play our part in the rescue and recovery from that harm”.

Going back to those earlier examples of the diversity of what we’re involved in – it’s possible to see how each contributes to the common purpose.

Protecting the people and place from harm comes in lots of different forms, from the vital work we do in schools and through our social work teams as well as in the growing early intervention initiatives and right through to the infrastructure investment and introduction of technology to prevent and respond to severe weather.

Equally, there are lots of ways in which we as a Council help the city to prosper.  From developing the economy of Aberdeen by staging events and creating world class facilities such as The Event Complex Aberdeen and redeveloped Aberdeen Art Gallery through to our work in sustainable transport and technologies.

As you know we’ve been doing a lot of work on a new behaviour framework and this has been submitted to the Staff Governance Committee for approval when it meets on March 18. The report can  be viewed here and I’d encourage everyone to read it.

Within the framework, one of the general principles being proposed is about “caring for our purpose”. My challenge to you is to share in a purpose that’s focused on helping the people, place and economy of Aberdeen to prosper but, in the event of a harmful situation, be part of a team who cares enough to play its part in the rescue and recovery. We all have a big role to play.

Congratulations to our very own ‘Oscar’ winners

We may not have had Aberdeen City Council’s name up in lights on the big stage in LA for this year’s Academy Awards, but a bit closer to home we have been in the spotlight.

The Scottish Property Awards, regarded in the industry as the property Oscars, last week brought the latest award for Marischal Square.

The development was named Regeneration Project of the Year at the ceremony in Glasgow, a joint winner along with West Dunbartonshire Council’s Hub West, and it’s another impressive accolade for our partnership with Muse Developments and Aviva Investors.

Judges noted “positive impact Marischal Square has had on the city centre” and acknowledged it has “breathed new life into the area, created new jobs and is making a valuable contribution to civic life”.

Congratulations to all of our Council teams who have been involved, from the very beginnings of the project right through to our continued support.

Marischal Square and the Broad Street regeneration has given a real vibrancy to an important area of the city centre, just two of the major projects that are transforming Aberdeen.

Marischal Square was named 2018 Commercial Development of the Year at last year’s Scottish Property Awards as well as Project of the Year 2018 by the Aberdeen Society of Architects and 2018 Regeneration Project of the Year by the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors.

Well done to all involved on another award win.

Priorities for 2019/20 set with budget decisions

With the 2019/20 budget meeting now concluded, as officers we have clear instructions from elected members on the priorities for the year ahead.

My appreciation goes to the finance team, led by Jonathan Belford, for their diligent and exhaustive work over a period of weeks and months as well as the governance team, led by Fraser Bell, for steering us through two complex Council meetings on consecutive days. The preparation was comprehensive, not least given the scale of the task in preparing and gaining approval for the updated scheme of governance

Thanks also to every officer who has been involved in the budget process, with valuable contributions coming from all quarters.

I’m appreciative of the positive attitude and commitment staff across the organisation display in every circumstance and that is always very evident as the budget process reaches its conclusion. The prospect of change can be unsettling and, given the scale of the financial challenges we face, this year’s budget report contained a wide range of proposals for change in all areas of the organisation. Thank you for your efforts in maintaining business as usual and continuing to show the support and care for our customers that is so important to everything we do.

I hope colleagues managed to read the budget report in advance of Tuesday’s meeting. I can now provide you with a summary of the budget decisions as well instructions I received at the budget meeting.

In terms of Income, council made the following decisions against the backdrop of a reduction in our revenue grant of £6.6m.and an overall funding gap of £41.2m:

  • To increase Council Tax by 4.5%;
  • To increase a range of fees and charges: A number of proposals were put forward, with the potential to realise additional income of more than £1.6m, and many of those have been adopted by members. A variety of charges were increased at rate of 3% (for example creative learning classes, library late fees, event space hire and high hedge notices to name just some) whilst the following specific charges were also applied:
    • Parking charges will rise, as will the cost of parking permits by £10 per year for the first permit and £20 per year for the second;
    • A new fee for garden waste collection has been introduced, with a charge for brown bin collections for the first time, but it has been set at £30 per household rather than a higher monthly rate. This is expected to raise around £800,000 annually;
    • In the housing budget, an increase of 4.3% to Council house rents was approved.

In terms of the expenditure side, Council made the following decisions:

  • Staff costs: Council approved the proposed further reduction in our workforce through voluntary severance and early retirement, reiterating the commitment to no compulsory redundancies. This commitment applies to all of the decisions taken at yesterday’s budget, including those relating to changes in service provision or delivery. We have budgeted for a further 260 colleagues choosing to leave through VSER, but it’s important to acknowledge the overall reduction in numbers in the year ahead will be greater than that as we continue to limit external recruitment when vacancies arise. You will already have seen an increasing number of posts being filled by advertising internally and that will continue as we take a flexible approach to ensuring staff resource is being allocated to best meet the needs of those we serve in a more efficient way. Members did not accept proposals that would have led to a review of terms and conditions for Council staff in 2019/20, but did issue an instruction to me to begin negotiations with Trade Unions to consider locally agreed terms and conditions moving forward. In recognition of the necessity of digital transformation in order to underpin the release of staff through VSER, members approved the continuation of the transformation fund in order to ensure appropriate investment is available for the required technology.
  • Assets: Members took all the options relating to the further rationalisation of our estate resulting in reducing the number of buildings we use and getting more from those that we retain. Examples include continuing preparations to move staff out of Frederick Street, taking ourselves off our site at Kittybrewster as well as progressing with options for the co-location of partners such as Police Scotland into Marischal College. Members understand that capital receipts are required to provide a funding source for VSER payments, as councils are not allowed to borrow to fund the cost of change. Council agreed to permit the sale of a number of assets in order to provide the necessary funds for VSER.
  • Contracts: Contract spend is a major part of our overall expenditure, covering the diverse range of goods and services we purchase each year. Close to £4m of savings are budgeted for 2019/20 following decisions in the chamber yesterday by reducing the levels of purchase. Further savings will be made through the use of national frameworks to reduce costs and close to £2m through reviewing and reducing the costs associated with many other contracts. The message around contract spend is a familiar one but just as important today as it was last year and in previous years – every penny counts and we all have a duty to ensure best value.
  • Arms Length Organisations: Members have opted for some changes in the funding to our arms length organisations. Sport Aberdeen will be the subject of a £550,000 reduction in funding. Aberdeen Sports Village funding reflects the commitment to the joint venture agreement, on the proviso that investment is made by ASV in a proposed new 4G rugby pitch.  Bon Accord Care is not directly impacted as the IJB budget setting process has yet to be concluded. Aberdeen Performing Arts will be the subject of a small reduction in revenue funding but benefit from a Common Good Fund grant that will protect events such as Granite Noir. The IJB will receive additional funding, as will the Grampian Valuation Joint Board.
  • Grants: External grant funding is an area that understandably has been the subject of a great deal of scrutiny in our communities, with groups concerned by the prospect of reduced funding. There were reductions in external funding to various organisations, including VisitAberdeenshire, but members also committed to protecting grant funding to a number of groups in the budget approved yesterday, including the Workers Education Association, Aberdeen Lads’ Club, the Grampian Regional Equalities Council and the community initiatives at Fersands, Middlefield, Printfield and St Machar. The Fairer Aberdeen Fund has also been protected. There is an acknowledgement that external funding will continue to be reviewed as we move forward, but also a recognition that we must work closely with community groups to ensure solutions that enable us to deliver on the objectives of the Local Outcome Improvement Plan (LOIP).
  • Capital programme: The General Fund Capital Programme budget delivers infrastructure projects across the city and £182m will be invested following budget decisions. This includes the completion of The Event Complex Aberdeen and refurbishment of Aberdeen Art Gallery as well as City Centre Masterplan projects including the renovation of Provost Skene’s House and community facilities including the Tillydrone Community Campus. A commitment to the Union Terrace Gardens project and the programme of new school construction was also made.

In light of the above, the Council now has a balanced budget for 2019/20.

Planning to deliver – the year ahead

So while the ink may not have set yet on the council budget, we must now create a momentum around our delivery. Whilst our transformation programme has helped council to set a balanced budget in 2017/18 and 2018/19, our 2018/2019 end of year outlook still looks unfavourable because of the continuation of demand pressures we face. It’s therefore vital that we redouble our efforts to deliver all of the approved budget options in order to get ahead of the growing demand pressures we face.

In addition to receiving the budget reports, members also noted the new Council Delivery Plan. I would ask every member of staff to take time to read through plan, which was approved during the budget meeting.

It summarises the way in which the next phases of transformation will take shape and sets out our clear priorities for 2019/20 arising from the council’s policy statement, our commissioning intentions for council services as well as our contribution to multi-agency improvement priorities contained in the recently approved refreshed LOIP: https://bit.ly/2H1ONgu .

The spending priorities for the year ahead have been set using the LOIP as the foundation, tying our budget back to the LOIP vision of Aberdeen as ’A place where all people can prosper’.  Our purpose is to ensure that the people, place and economy of Aberdeen do prosper but in the event of harm happening, to be one of the first bodies to be there to rescue people and place from harm and to help them recover from the harm. With diminishing resources, the LOIP is vital in ensuring we target resources where they can really drive positive outcomes.

The Council Delivery Plan is a clear statement of our priorities for 2019/20 and all staff objectives for the year ahead will be derived from it. More detail will follow on the way we will improve that process for staff, with the aim of ensuring every individual is clear on their part in delivering outcomes and can relate to the overarching ambitions we have for the city.

As I said previously, we need to collectively have a strong belief in ourselves and that we have the ability to change our organisation in a way which responds to these challenges. We owe it to all those people in Aberdeen who rely on the Council, to make sure that we can continue to provide the support they need – and that will involve doing things differently in order to live within our financial means.

Planning ahead – The medium term outlook

When we set off on our transformation journey the estimate was that in the region of £125m of savings would need to be identified over a five-year period, or around £25m per year. What the 2019/20 funding settlement and budget has demonstrated is that was a conservative estimate, with £41.2m required this year alone. We do expect the gap to fall to around £25m each year for the next two years, with current estimates for a £19m gap in 2022/23 falling to around £11m the year after – so combined efficiencies of £90m in the four years ahead.  We are currently placing reliance on the Scottish Government’s medium term financial strategy for forecasting our medium term financial position. Of course, we will have to await our financial settlement notification from Scottish Government in order to confirm the position exactly.

The short to medium term picture is clearly one of continued financial challenges, we can’t sugar coat that and I wouldn’t want to. As soon as the budget meeting finished in the chamber, my thoughts and those of the senior management team were already turning to 2020/21 and continuing to drive improvements and efficiencies. Colleagues from all corners of the Council have stepped up with suggestions in response to the invitation to submit ideas to support the aims of reducing spending and increasing revenue. Every one of those is being considered for 2020/21 and I’m looking forward to providing updates soon.

I continue to need your support and input by:

  • Identifying where you feel resources, money or efforts are being wasted or where things could be done differently to save money and reduce spend;
  • Being open to doing things differently as options for doing so come forward;
  • Making an investment in your future within the Council, by being proactive about shaping the Council’s future.

Whilst there has been a focus on the gap we have to close, it is also important to underline what we will spend in the year ahead to make a real difference to the people and place – in the region of £700m that we will use to meet our aims. That is a real positive we can all reflect on.

With the clarity the budget meeting provides on the priorities for 2019/20 it’s important we take the impetus that provides and push forward once again. Thank you in advance for your support and energy as we prepare to embark on the new year.

A final call for nominations for the 2019 Star Awards

This week presents us all with the last opportunity to submit a nomination for the 2019 Star Awards and, if you haven’t already, I would urge everyone to take some time to consider contributing.

Think of a colleague, a manager, a team you have worked with or perhaps individuals and teams from other areas of the Council that you have seen making a difference to the city. Then think of the recognition they deserve and the boost a nomination would give to that person or group.

Nobody asks for a pat on the back for the work they do, and in so many cases going above and beyond the call of duty, but everyone likes to know that they are appreciated and that their efforts are recognised.

We have thousands of staff across the Council who excel day in and day out, so often in very testing circumstances, and a major part of our work on developing and improving the organisation’s culture is around getting better at recognising that.

The Star Awards offer an opportunity to celebrating the success stories that happen throughout the year and showing us all that we have a tremendous amount of talented people within our organisation, all delivering for our customers or for us as colleagues.  All are striving to improve processes, to improve experiences, to deliver services and to help make the city of Aberdeen as good as it can possibly be.

I have mentioned before how important it is for us all to feel responsible for each other’s success and that we want to be a part of celebrating those achievements. This sense of shared responsibility for the good work we do is critical to creating the culture we need in order to be successful as an organisation.

The Star Awards give us the chance to do just that and I hope you will join me in encouraging colleagues to nominate members of staff who are most deserving.

The deadline for nominations is 5pm on Friday (March 8) and the Star Awards page can be found here.

Good luck to all the nominees who are put forward this year.