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Rotherham Council's assistant CEO on recovering from scandal

Shokat Lal shares how HR is central to the council rebuilding its culture following the child abuse scandal

In 2016 Shokat Lal joined an organisation that had been damned as “not fit for purpose”, “in denial” and “archaic”, with “ineffective leadership and management”, “no shared vision” and a “culture of covering up uncomfortable truths” just a year before. That was the verdict of Louise Casey, commissioned by the government to assess Rotherham Metropolitan Borough Council, after an earlier shocking inquiry revealed that 1,400 children in the town had been sexually abused, mainly by men of Pakistani origin, between 1997 and 2003.

As a result of Casey’s report Rotherham Council was taken over by the government in February 2015, and commissioners were given control over it rather than elected members. It is, says Lal, “the only council in the country that is in intervention”.

So, one could ask, why join? Lal took the role of assistant CEO, leaving a comfortable post as assistant director of HR and workforce services at Coventry City Council, in March last year. His reasons for doing so are twofold. The first is an unshakeable belief in and passion for public service. He recalls his first frontline role in local government 27 years ago: “My very first job was in poll tax. When the doors opened in 1990 I was sitting by the front door, welcoming people in. For me the role has always been about wanting to be a public servant.” He has since worked for four local authorities in customer facing and HR roles, as well as volunteering within the NHS (he is vice chair of Southern Derbyshire Clinical Commissioning Group).

The second reason is what he calls “the football analogy”: “You could go into a Manchester United or a Liverpool and there wouldn’t be that much to do or make because they are already successful. The beauty and challenge is going somewhere with a series of complex challenges to address – the ability to almost start with a blank sheet of paper.”

Although Rotherham’s recent history cannot – and should not – be forgotten, the “blank sheet of paper” comes from clearing out the senior leadership team post-Casey review. “That rebuilding programme is really exciting,” Lal says.

As assistant CEO Lal’s responsibilities include all of HR and OD, communications (internal and external), “democratic services” (supporting elected members), scrutiny (“a function all local authorities have, where the check and challenge takes place”), policy, performance and partnerships. “There’s a real connectivity with most of those,” he feels. “If you’re developing an organisation you need to pull on all of them together. The whole thing around people is the critical part of the role.”

The post was recreated specially because of the findings of the inquiry. “Some of the findings were around there being no corporate grip, no consistency and no proper governance frameworks,” Lal explains. “A large part of my job is about that corporate grip, giving the organisation that governance and making sure we have an infrastructure in place that will check, challenge and scrutinise. To make sure the failures that were allowed to happen will never happen again.

“This local authority failed its children,” he adds baldly. “Children were systemically abused while this authority looked the other way and the failures were both astronomical and tragic. There is no denying that, and there is no defence of that.”

The role of the leadership team now is to navigate the “complex dynamics” that come with being in intervention while working to improve and rebuild, with the damning criticisms of the Casey review front of mind. And with many of Casey’s findings focusing on a culture she described (perhaps with some restraint) as “unhealthy”, much falls under Lal’s remit.

“If we look at the failures, they were about not being listened to,” he says. “They were about staff raising concerns but those concerns being blocked, or stopped, or swept under the carpet or not taken seriously. The information given to [elected members] was limited and one dimensional, and a lot was being contained by a small group. The truth was not coming out and the systematic rape and abuse of young girls was just allowed to take place. It was going on and no-one took responsibility for it.”

That means his focus is on creating an organisation that is “far more open, transparent and responsible”. “There is nothing here that’s innovative in the world of HR, but if you don’t do the basics everything collapses and falls over,” he says. “[Here] people stopped doing the basics and we failed. We stopped listening to people. We stopped asking people; we were telling people.”

A new set of values and behaviours have been developed as a starting point – representing, Lal says, everything the Council didn’t used to be: honest, accountable, respectful, ambitious and proud. These feed into four impact drivers: ‘Knowing our communities’, ‘Brilliant at the basics’, ‘Smashing the silos’, and ‘Doing the best work of our lives’. The leadership team have spent much of their time meeting staff and breaking down barriers.

“Employees are so pleased to see the chief executive,” Lal says. “Someone said to me that senior managers used to sit on a particular floor, and never leave, and you could never go there. I find that really alien because I rely on good HR principles: start with your people, bring them with you, work with them. We are in this together.”

Direct conversations are encouraged, telling staff “you shouldn’t be afraid to go directly to someone”. Chief executive Sharon Kemp writes a weekly blog and employees can contact her directly, although the opportunity to raise issues anonymously is also available. “We are clear on our whistleblowing policies,” says Lal. “You should not be afraid to say what you want and if you think there’s malpractice you have got to tell us. If we don’t deal with it you go to an elected member. We need to make sure there’s better connectivity between those on the frontline and those at the top.”

Another dimension is the issue raised by the Casey review that staff did not report concerns for fear of being seen as racist. “There is no denying or hiding that Pakistani men abused white girls, but our focus is less about their ethic origin; it’s that they are criminals,” Lal says, adding that “if there are things emerging we can’t hide or try to paint it in a different light”. The antidote to Casey’s criticism of political correctness getting in the way is “to be honest, accountable and respectful”. “Our view is: as long as you’ve got the evidence and facts you can say what you like. I’d rather people said it, and we correct them if we need to, than them feel that they can’t say it. It is a big thing from an equalities point of view – we have to be more challenging, more open, and allow people to say what they believe to be the truth.”

Despite Rotherham’s many problems Casey’s review praised the “many committed, hardworking and dedicated staff” working at the Council. For them the last few years can’t have been easy. Lal speaks of employees being unable to wear their ID badges outside the office for fear of being abused. Far right groups seized upon the ethic origin of the abusers – the English Defence League organised marches through the town centre and members of Britain First set up camp in the Council’s reception one day and refused to leave. “Staff felt uncomfortable, at risk and it was a really demoralising time,” Lal says, although he adds “remarkably” the Council didn’t lose a great number of people. “They watched their employer and the place they live being vilified. We are in a process of healing for the workforce.”

That “process of healing” involves “engaging with and talking to the workforce about how we move on and what the lessons are”. “We have got a much more inclusive approach,” Lal continues. “We’ve promised people that whatever we decide they will hear it from us first, not the newspapers.” Rotherham Council is embarking on a change programme, which Lal says will involve cross-functional groups of people from across the organisation working on solutions to various problems, which they will then present to the senior team. This is a direct attempt to “smash the silos” Casey identified as a crucial contributing factor in Rotherham’s failures.

While Lal is cautious on assessing the impact while still early on the change journey, he says anecdotal staff feedback has been positive, adding: “We are also hearing from the commissioners that they will be making recommendations to the secretary of state to return more functions [to Council control].”

For the Council’s HR function, Rotherham represents “a massive challenge”. Not only is there culture change, but like all UK councils significant cost savings need to be found, as well as policy changes like the apprenticeship levy to contend with. Lal says HR has already delivered more than £100 million in savings, but there is still more to be found, such as by reducing reliance on agency staff.

“The organisation has lost a massive percentage from its revenue budget and we’ve still got further to go,” he adds. “But when you’re in intervention it’s not just the budget challenge, there’s a whole separate set of challenges and we’ve got to step up. HR is the engine room, and if the engine room isn’t working properly you’re not going to get the organisation functioning well.”

HR also needs to be “a thorn in the side”, Lal feels, adding that his job is “to speak truth to power”. But, he qualifies, “I see the role of every employee as that”. HR needs to challenge and in this context a zero-tolerance approach is required: “Where HR sees bad practice, it has to fundamentally stop it and escalate it. We tolerated so much in the past and ended up where we are.”

Many local authorities, he believes, could share some of the managerial problems uncovered in Rotherham: “A complacency sets in, where you’re meeting bottom line objectives and that constant constructive challenge almost disappears. You forget to ask people how they are feeling, what’s happening, because you think things work. Perception takes over rather than evidential feedback. That’s why people are at the heart of this, and why HR is critical.”

In three to five years’ time Lal hopes “this local authority will be a beacon of excellence”. And in getting there he is keen to point out that there is “no place for heroic leadership”. What it is about is “distributed leadership, collective responsibility and everyone working together”.

“It’s empowering and enabling people, with careful and considerate leadership,” he adds. “That ‘gung ho, wear the cape, kick the door open’ [style of leadership] is not a sustainable solution. The leadership team are in it for the long haul and we want to get this organisation in a really good place. The only way to do that is by building relationships and working with people. The only kind of leadership we will tolerate is collaboration.”

And while acknowledging the horrors and mistakes of the past is important “we mustn’t let the past define us, because you could end up being so embedded in what’s happened that you can’t move on”. “For me,” he adds, “it’s about focusing on the positives and learning. We’ve had the earth removed from below us. Now we’ve got to build, and make sure we don’t build on sand.”