Donna Hall served for eight years as CEO of Wigan Council in Greater Manchester, leaving in 2019. Under her leadership the council, faced with budget cuts of £160 million, implemented The Deal, a radically holistic, ethnographically based approach to public service delivery and a key data point in our investigation into the enablement mindset.
The Deal ensured that, despite significantly reduced funding, no frontline services were cut and outcomes – particularly around health and social care – actually improved, changing the lives of local residents for the better. In fact, the council has seen a 59% increase in overall satisfaction levels during the period of austerity. As Donna pointed out, “We’ve got less money to spend, but people are happier with what we’re doing.”
Putting people at the heart of public services
When we spoke to Donna, we wanted to know how The Deal came about and particularly to understand the impetus for such a deep-seated change. “In one way it was simple,” explained Donna, “It was born out of austerity and in that sense we just had to get in with it. When you’ve got no money, it focuses the mind! We knew we had to reduce costs dramatically but it was never just a money-saving exercise. For us to continue to function, everything had to change. A new policy or programme would not be enough. It needed a radical rethink about how we could put people and connections at the heart of public services. So The Deal was developed as a new kind of social contract between us and the community.”
“When you’ve got no money, it focuses the mind! We knew we had to reduce costs dramatically but it was never just a money-saving exercise.”
The council went to the community and pledged to freeze council tax and to foster the development of community relationships if local residents would, in turn, get actively involved in their communities by recycling more, reporting local maintenance issues and volunteering in local groups. The response was positive, and as The Deal progressed, funding for expensive and/or underused services was frequently replaced with grants to small community groups. For example, day centres for the elderly were replaced with grants to voluntary groups so that elderly people could be included in local groups that better matched their needs and interests.
“For health and social care, we wanted to really focus on early intervention, prevention and increasing life expectancy, particularly with regard to closing the gap between rich and poor. In the six years since we started The Deal, we’ve managed to improve healthy life expectancy by seven years in the most deprived areas of Wigan. We’ve also reduced the numbers of looked after children in the borough by 10%.”
Keeping key functions intact
Many councils in Britain were faced with adapting to a challenging environment under austerity and yet few have been able to demonstrate success on the scale that Wigan achieved. What is it about Wigan’s approach that enabled them to re-strategise so successfully?
“We have a really brilliant policy team and great analytics. We didn’t strip out the brains of the organisation in order to make cost savings,” Donna explains. “I see a lot of colleagues in the NHS and local government losing important functions. We kept the strategic finance and data resources that we had and have focused their work very strongly on deep systemic change. That has been fundamental to the success we’ve had.”
Another cornerstone of The Deal is that it’s holistic in its approach. It’s not just about the council, but about all the partners who provide services in Wigan. Donna lists “the police, colleges, schools, doctors… all of them had to buy in to a kind of values-based way of working, focused tightly on the place and people we all serve. We’ve taken the principles of ethnography and turned them into practical action-focused toolkits, things that change the way doctors relate to patients, teachers to pupils, and so on.”
Taking an ethnographic approach (it’s all about listening)
“Every single person in the council is trained in ethnographic practice – we had an anthropologist come in to support us with that. It’s about seeing every person as an individual, not just a unit of need or problem to be solved.
“The bottom line is that we don’t know what’s best for each person, so just slotting them into a prescribed solution is expensive and ultimately wasteful, if it’s not what they actually want or need.”
“There are 323,000 people in Wigan, each with different assets, needs and expectations. An ethnographic approach recognises and honours that. We don’t fund one group or offer one solution and ignore those whose needs don’t match. We really focus on how everyone in the community interacts with each other and how public services in that particular place interact with each individual. One result is that we now fund 500 community projects, meeting needs that have been identified by the communities themselves. We didn’t tell them what they needed; we listened.”
Valuing vulnerable leaders
A more localised, more individualised public service model like this is not always comfortable for those at the centre, since decision-making naturally moves outwards, as those at the frontline of service delivery are given more freedom to make decisions. We asked Donna about the implications of The Deal for leadership and for the council as a whole.
“The first thing to say is that this way of working takes courage – that’s the driving leadership value. You have to try new things and you have to be prepared to let go. I would say, ‘Be tight on the values, but loose on the delivery’. The single most important element of this model is that you give people on the frontline permission to innovate.
“It’s a model that our residents really appreciate. We’ve listened hard and engaged more and we’ve tried harder to pass power over to the community and give residents greater autonomy. We’ve also admitted when we’ve got things wrong and tried again. It’s not easy for leaders to show vulnerability but I think it has really increased people’s trust in us as an organisation and allowed us to connect with the community in a much more meaningful way.
“Because it has been a deep values-based change, we have had to let go people who weren’t comfortable with that and to hire based on values and behaviours that fit with the philosophy of The Deal. To work in an organisation like ours you need to be prepared to give yourself, to show vulnerability and to step out from behind your clipboard and talk to people with genuine curiosity. That can be hard if you are used to a top-down way of working.”
Central government’s role in local-level change
Wigan clearly has some valuable lessons for local government everywhere, but what about central government. What, if anything, could Westminster most usefully take from The Deal’s highly localised approach and how could it support other local council’s looking to make the change?
“Well, we’d definitely be looking at long-term change with central government, but if the prime minister were to apply a more ethnographic approach, thinking broadly across the idea of human connections rather than looking through the lens of a single organisation or Ministry or initiative, that would be a start. Perhaps it would only work as slow process, focusing on one outcome at a time, allowing for mistakes and corrections, listening.
“It’s not about getting fast results but about changing working practices fundamentally. If a future government was interested in that way of working the change could begin.”
“In terms of creating a more supportive climate for other local councils looking to emulate The Deal, there are several things government could do but the key one would be to change the inspection regimes. The way they work is to encourage risk averse behaviour by monitoring the impact of a single organisation in a way that becomes inevitably silo-focused. If more councils are to develop integrated, holistic, place-based strategies built around people, then we need a new way of looking at outcomes more broadly to encourage this.”
A way forward
Donna recently retired from Wigan Council and is currently Chair of the New Local Government Network (NLGN). The NLGN’s new Community Paradigm report argues for a transfer of power to communities to fill what Donna describes as “the current void of clear thinking around the future role of the state.” Her hope is that this work will be seized on by leaders and communities of people working together in their local areas to demand a mindset and culture shift in local government and beyond.