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June 27, 2012

Citizen spotlight shines on West Lothian Council

Councils are often criticised (sometimes in this Briefing) for being remote and inaccessible to the communities they serve.  So credit where credit’s due and hats off to West Lothian Council for going the extra mile and bringing a new dimension to what usually passes for community engagement.  A programme of Citizen Inspections is underway with a remit to scrutinise different areas of the Council’s service provision. The early results are encouraging.


Citizen spotlight shines on West Lothian Council 

Extract from Governance International website.

Citizen Inspections: 

The project aims to achieve three primary outcomes: 

better designed services that meet customer needs and preferences;

community inclusion;

and a greater level of co-production between the council and the people living in West Lothian.  

The initiative was launched because the Chief Executive championed it as a way to strengthen customer focus throughout the organisation and as a practical mechanism to involve customers in review and redesign of services. 

West Lothian Council has a strong sense of the community in which it operates and has developed multiple and varied forms of consultation and engagement over the years. It has also been striving to find new ways to engage citizens in the process of delivering and improving services.   Since 2005, West Lothian Council has collected survey data (as part of a standardised approach across all services) on customer satisfaction levels with council services, in particular related to the quality, choice and accessibility of service provision.  This type of data has been valuable as a useful indicator of the local council’s ability to meet the basic needs of customers. However, its use was limited because it restricted customer involvement to commenting on and providing feedback on services received.  The council wanted a more involved form of engagement, where the customers actually directed improvement activity.  

In 2011 the council reviewed the corporate approach to community engagement as part of the development of a new Improvement Strategy, and as part of its overall strategy to be a progressive and inclusive council.  This identified the customer-led inspection (CLI) process as a new engagement method, involving customers in challenging and reviewing services. 

The aim was to complete two citizen-led inspections in the summer of 2011 that would: 

1. give citizens a voice in the shaping and prioritisation of services;

2. inspire confidence in the community that West Lothian Council operates openly and transparently and is accountable for the services delivered and the use of resources;

3. manage the organisation’s reputation in the local community by engaging directly with citizens and involving them in improving services;

4. establish a two-way dialogue that will assist the building of a stronger, mutually beneficial working relationship between the council and the community forming a model that could be replicated across all service areas;

5. ensure priorities and decisions are driven by customer needs through a forum for the decision makers to hear alternative viewpoints.

West Lothian Council set up a project team of 2 members, led by a Depute Chief Executive as the project sponsor, each working part-time on the process.  Because it was delivered within existing resource, the two project team members were selected for their knowledge of this type of activity (one in customer participation, one in quality assurance), as opposed to bringing in dedicated resource.  It is anticipated that, as the project matures, the inspection team will increase their control and autonomy, with a corresponding reduction in the council resource required to deliver inspection activity.  At present each inspection requires around 8-10 FTE days from council staff.  This includes recruiting, training and supporting the team. 

It was clear to the project team that the process had to be robust and challenging, but also accessible and understandable for the citizen inspectors. Furthermore, the project team had to ensure that it could be replicated across the authority.  In particular, if public money was to be used to implement improvements from the inspection recommendations then it was important to ensure they were structured and based on facts. The project team developed a robust inspection process with a comprehensive inspector’s toolkit of materials, including the creation of an inspection framework, adapted from the EFQM Excellence model. This involved a 5-point rating system (1 unsatisfactory, 2 weak, 3 adequate, 4 good and 5 excellent). Citizen-led inspections were also capped at 6 days (not including training) to make it more convenient for the citizens and minimise any negative impact on service delivery.  For each inspection, timescales are agreed between the service and the inspection team to identify the best dates and times for both parties. 

Furthermore, the team at West Lothian Council created a bespoke 2-day training course to provide citizen inspectors with the skills, knowledge and capabilities to carry out the inspection and reporting activity effectively and the confidence to critically evaluate services. The training was designed to be engaging and participative, and focused on providing the inspectors with an understanding of the council; and knowledge of the inspection process, framework and scoring, report writing and how to deliver feedback. It also explained the inspection techniques available to them, such as interviewing; shadowing; mystery shopping; desk top audits; surveys and focus groups and site visits.  

At the early stages of the development of the CLIs, it was important that the areas to be inspected captured the public interest.  Therefore, following a difficult winter period and a challenging school placement process in 2010, winter maintenance and pupil placement were selected as the first inspections. 

The council was keen for inspectors to come from a representative sample of people from the community. As a result, it launched a multi-media information and recruitment campaign. This involved: 

the creation of CLI pages on the council website;

articles in the local media and council newsletters;

Twitter and Facebook updates; direct mailings and emails to participants in existing forums and community groups, including the parent councils, tenants groups, older and younger people forums and the disability and race forums.

Interest built as information was cascaded through the different media.  There was a high volume of telephone and email enquiries and an open evening was held. The intention was to raise awareness across the community but it was recognised that the initiative should start from a low base to build experience and knowledge of the process, on the part of both the inspectors and the council. The recruitment generated 35 notes of interest/applications, from which 15 were placed on a Register of Interest.  From the Register, 8 people were trained, making 2 inspection teams of 4 people.  These 8 people ranged in age fromearly 30s to early 60s, with three-quarters being female.  There were representatives from 4 different towns in West Lothian, with 5 inspectors coming from Livingston, the largest settlement.  For future inspections, the council aims to ensure balanced representation on the Citizen Inspection register and particularly hopes to ensure more involvement from young people through greater engagement with the Youth Congress in West Lothian. 

The citizen inspectors are volunteers, receiving no payment and are only compensated for out-of-pocket expenses, such as travel costs.  

The winter maintenance and pupil placement services were fully engaged in the development of the process and welcomed the inspectors, giving them full access to any information, staff or sites that were requested. This open acceptance was in large part due to West Lothian Council’s strong culture of self-assessment and mature, honest critical evaluation of practice and performance.   

The two inspection teams completed their inspections in June and July 2011.  Across the inspection process the teams reviewed hundreds of pieces of information, interviewed Deputy Chief Executives, managers, staff, partners and customers, conducted on site visits and carried out research and online mystery shopping. The teams each produced a feedback report that critically evaluated the services, providing challenging scores and recommendations for future improvement. These reports have since been used to create improvement actions that make significant changes to service provision. 

Improvements to winter maintenance include increasing salt storage, developing new gritting routes with greater clarity on prioritisation of routes and developing a more effective communication strategy for periods of severe weather. 

The pupil placement process will in future involve a simplified pre-school admission policy and guidelines, improved quality of information provided to customers, strengthened links with the council’s contact centre and newly-developed customer satisfaction performance indicators (as the inspectors felt there was a lack of cost/efficiency performance indicators that were meaningful to customers, in terms of demonstrating that the service provides value for money).