In this latest article in a series looking at the outcomes from the first tranche of inspections, FIRE catches up with CFO Chris Kenny and DCFO Justin Johnston to find out what makes Lancashire tick and come top of the class
Lancashire Fire and Rescue Service found itself thrust into the spotlight last summer as the Winter Hill wildfire continued unabated for weeks. At its height, there were over 30 fire engines and 150 firefighters working with fire and rescue services and partners from across the country. It lasted 41 days affecting an area of over 18km².
So what better time to get the inspectors in to carry out their first inspection since 2005?
“We were in the throes of Winter Hill when inspection was due,” explains Chris. “The service was buzzing. It was a brave thing to go ahead, but I’m glad we did.” It certainly worked well as Lancashire’s inspection report was glowing with Good markings across the board and an Outstanding for values and culture. Chris beamed with pride while being interviewed by BBC Breakfast the day the reports were published.
Whilst willing to share their experience, CFO Chris Kenny cautions: “If people are expecting to engage with Lancashire to get a better tick in the box for values and culture for an inspection that’s coming up in a month or two, then they’ve missed the point”
What is the secret weapon for getting an outstanding rating? Chris responds: “It’s a mirror, a mirror that shows you as you are not how you’d like to be.” This is an HMICFRS trope, the mirror held up to reflect what is going on in services and it works well as a way to describe the position of the Inspectorate when it comes to their role in Fire Service improvement.
If that mirror could be used back in time, it would find a very different image. Chris talks about the last time Lancashire was inspected in 2005 when it was ranked 38/48. Coming off the back of industrial action that led to substantial change in the Fire and Rescue Service, he says: “There is no question, we are still living with the legacy of the strikes: those who worked and those who didn’t. That created a schism in the Service and we’ve got to be honest and deal with that legacy.”
“It’s a mirror, a mirror that shows you as you are not how you’d like to be”
Part of managing that legacy is strong leadership. For the last seven years the senior leadership team of five has remained the same. Both Justin and Chris think the stability of the senior team has been a major factor in Lancashire’s improvement. Justin says one of the strengths of the leadership team is that they are diverse – in thinking, if not gender or ethnicity. “None of us thinks the same.” He suggests they thrive on difference.
It is an interesting observation as for some organisations it can have the opposite effect; a long-term cohort at the top can result in stale and sometimes problematic leadership with negative outcomes.
One of the consequences of doing well is that others want to know how it happened and to learn from it. Chris says: “If people are expecting to engage with Lancashire to get a better tick in the box for values and culture for an inspection that’s coming up in a month or two, then they’ve missed the point. It’s a long-term journey. It depends where you start and where you want to move to.”
So far, Lancashire has responded very positively to interest from other services and has run six or seven workshops, sharing not only their approach to values and culture but also why they have invested in a water tower (Stinger); worked with Lancashire Constabulary to use drones; their extensive experience with primary authority schemes and wider protection work. It’s fairly informal but Justin says they are happy to share and will even throw in a buffet lunch.
On recruitment DCFO Justin Johnson says: “Give people the right information, you attract them in the right places”
The last issue of FIRE explored the factors that influence values and culture to the extent that Lancashire warrants an Outstanding rating. There is more to it of course and room for improvement too starting with staff progression: who gets appointed and who does not and much of this is framed around workforce planning.
In 2016 the Thomas Review into conditions of service looked in detail at this area. It recommended that fire and rescue services should maintain an up-to-date strategic workforce plan and create a cadre of managers capable of becoming future Fire and Rescue Service leaders.
The HMI report identifies this as an area that Lancashire needs to improve. It states: ‘The service should put in place an open and fair process to identify, develop and support high-potential staff and aspiring leaders’. Justin recognises they need to do something more formal for those with higher potential. The intention is to move away from ad hoc and responsive approaches and be a bit smarter about planning for the future. He expands on this point by saying that if the organisation knows what its profile looks like five to ten years in the future and is transparent about that, then staff can have a good idea about what opportunities lie ahead and prepare their own career development.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, the HMI report notes: ‘Staff feel there is a lack of proactive development opportunities or engagement with those members of staff who are neither new to the service nor seeking promotion’. Justin responds to this by setting out the development of the new staff intranet and its use of forums to allow communities of interest to form and grow.
At this year’s LGA Fire Conference, where this interview took place, the narrative around diversity was much more nuanced in terms of what approaches need to be taken to make a difference. Chris thinks that the service is more evolved than the Inspectorate portrays it.
“Some people think it’s all about innovation and something different. Sometimes it’s really about doing the basic things extraordinarily well. It needn’t be something new”
A Nuanced Approach
Moving on to talk about diversity and recruitment and understanding why people drop out of the process, Justin says that when he analysed the data for their last recruitment round, the drop-out rate between men and women was equal. This is surprising and he describes why he thinks it happened.
Some of that is about the amount of positive action that took place before the closing date for applications. He agrees with the comment from CFO Dawn Whittaker who spoke from the conference floor about the rate of participation in the process being the significant factor, not that applicants are treated any differently because they are female.
“I think that’s right,” he says. “Give people the right information, you attract them in the right places – working diligently to identify where they are – and give them enough information that says if you apply, you can self-test before you get here and you will come along, confident that you will pass. We don’t want people to come through on a legacy that in any way they have sneaked through on a lower standard.”
Chris develops his point further: “Getting them in is only one step. We’ve got to put them out into an environment where they want to stay. If there’s a difference in the future to where we were in the past, I want to see less of people feeling like they need to fit in, but more ‘here’s me, all of me’.” Justin interjects and adds: “Yes, and where they can be themselves”.
“Our aim is to create a workplace where people will be treated as they would like to be treated.” Chris goes on to pose the challenge: if you went to any firefighter in Lancashire and asked them what they wanted out of work, they would say some variation of this.
Working for Lancashire Fire and Rescue Service provides opportunities for staff to innovate, but they are not natural first adopters or innovators, preferring to observe and come second. So why is that? Chris explains: “Inherently, Lancashire Fire and Rescue Authority is a low risk authority and they don’t like mistakes being made. That’s the reality of what we’re working with.”
Lancashire Fire and Rescue Service were in the throes of the Winter Hill wildfire during the inspection. At its height, there were over 30 fire engines and 150 firefighters working with fire and rescue services and partners from across the country. It lasted 41 days affecting an area of over 18km²
Right Time to Innovate
If the comfortable place is behind the innovators, then being in the forefront post inspection is challenging for Lancashire, but it does not mean they are not willing to innovate and lead from the front. Justin talks about a new debriefing app that they have developed with a commercial supplier; and about Lancashire’s investment in a new concept in fire engine, the Stinger manufactured by Rosenbauer. Both get picked up in the HMI report.
“I think staff respond well to innovation as long as they are involved with it from the outset. What we’ve not done, and it’s probably a Lancashire thing, is we haven’t been too forward in demonstrating our success to people. We’re a bit more reserved.”
Recognising this organisational reticence, Justin goes on to talk about an agile approach to innovation, where short sprints lead to progress and sometimes they do not work and that it is OK to share something that is not perfect. He is wary of sharing innovation that is seen to be ‘over polished’ because when others see it they may not agree with it and their resulting cynicism overshadows the product.
He has taken heed of HMICFRS feedback and understands that to move forward from Good to Outstanding in other areas requires proper evaluation, understanding the impact of what you have done and sharing it with others. Justin is quick to point out that HMICFRS highlights that there is an inconsistent picture when it comes to fire and rescue services use of evaluation. He describes the evaluation that a local university is doing of their risk based inspection programme. He is a fan of partnerships like this, to help services understand how to ‘fail fast’.
Warming to this theme, Chris makes an interesting point: “Some people think it’s all about innovation and something different. Sometimes it’s really about doing the basic things extraordinarily well. It needn’t be something new.” He says that these are the golden nuggets people are looking for. Get the foundations right, be comfortable with those, take further steps, innovate, evaluate and share. That is what Chris says will lead to Outstanding grades.
“Get the foundations right, be comfortable with those, take further steps, innovate, evaluate and share”
Collaboration and Governance
Moving on to talk about collaboration, this is another area where HMICFRS says that evaluation is patchy and does not provide the evidence that it is improving things. Chris says: “I think our collaboration is producing better outcomes but I’m not sure it’s producing better value for money because it’s not about saving money in a partnership. If you enter into a partnership you’ll rarely get out what you put in. Someone’s got to be a senior partner, prepared to pump prime with extra effort.” He says that the test is whether it is better to be in a partnership or act alone. Sometimes it is the right thing to do for the community.
Lancashire’s investment in a new concept in fire engine, the Stinger manufactured by Rosenbauer, was picked up in the Inspectorate’s report
It would be odd not to talk about Lancashire PCC Clive Grunshaw’s brief dalliance with fire governance. He is the only Labour PCC to consider taking on fire governance. He ran a consultation exercise last summer and in November said: “After careful consideration and stakeholder consultation on a draft business case, I have taken the decision not to proceed with any changes to the fire governance arrangements in Lancashire at this time.”
It is always tricky talking to officers about the moves made by politicians, but nonetheless, Chris offers his thoughts. “We’ve always said that if it improves the outcome for the public then you’ve got to consider it.” He goes on: “A case was never made to us that a change in governance would bring a benefit. The reason why is because we’re already doing a lot of the partnership working that we would have done if we were governed by the PCC.”
Lancashire Fire and Rescue Service has adopted an agile approach to innovation such as adopting the use of drones
While the governance may remain the same for now, there will be a new Chief Fire Officer as Chris Kenny retires at the end of April after 41 years’ service. As he approaches his 60th birthday in December he does not know what he wants to do with his retirement, concluding: “It’s the best job in the world.” It will be hard to beat that.