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Working out how well fire and rescue services look after their people is one of the three pillars on inspection carried out by HMICFRS. Sitting alongside the other pillars of Effectiveness and Efficiency, the questions posed by the inspectors under the People pillar provide an opportunity to shine a spotlight on the softer, less tangible side of delivering the business.
As a general rule of thumb, 80 per cent of the cost of running an organisation is taken up by staff costs, so making sure that the workforce is skilled, motivated and treated fairly is critical. And yet a review of the 30 HMICFRS inspection reports published so far reveals that the results for the People pillar are much weaker than the other two pillars, with only 11 receiving a Good grading and two services graded as Inadequate overall. Why is that?
The scope of the People pillar is extensive, with four main questions asked of each fire and rescue service:
The fourth question is the focus of this article.
Starting with leadership, there is a steady stream of chief fire officer retirements and it seems that rarely does a week go by when one more announces it is time to call it a day. Coming at the end of a 30-year career, CFOs spend a few years at the top before retiring. There are exceptions, of course, but generally CFOs do not last that long.
The tranche two summary report notes: ‘We understand that a significant number of senior leaders – possibly around 20 per cent of chief fire officers – are expected to retire from the Fire and Rescue Service over the next two years, which is likely to result in a rapid ‘leadership drain’. We encourage services to invest in talent management to mitigate the effects of this’.
“The big issue here is the one about leadership and making sure that there are succession plans in place to bring in the best talent to the top of fire and rescue services”
There is no research that shows CFO turnover across the UK and the career path of a chief fire officer in terms of which services they work for or the ranks they occupy on their way to the top. It would be good to see that, to understand what it takes to be a CFO and occupy the top leadership position in a fire and rescue service.
It is well known that, in general, the CFO is white, male and has an operational background. The exceptions are few and far between, but there is a new member of the women chief fire officers’ club with Sabrina Cohen-Hatton recently announced as the CFO of troubled West Sussex Fire and Rescue Service. That is still only six out of 50. HMICFRS does not comment on the paucity of women chief fire officers, but it does expand on what it takes to be a leader and what is good and bad about the route to get there.
Concerns about leadership are not new to the Fire and Rescue Service and it is worth remembering that Adrian Thomas’s review of 2015 into conditions of service also contained recommendations in this area. ‘To create and maintain (in the face of decreasing numbers) a cadre of managers capable of becoming future fire and rescue service leaders, a standardised industry wide approach to leadership development should be adopted’. [rec. 39]
He made two more recommendations in this important area: one focused on a collaborative approach to creating succession planning and, ‘Senior leader programmes with more cross authority developmental moves’. [rec. 33] The other looks at the introduction of a lateral, industry wide, recruitment scheme that, ‘Will fast track managers through the experiential requirements and into senior roles’. [rec. 41]
The Thomas Review went on to commend the Executive Leadership Programme that is still run by the National Fire Chiefs Council, urging all fire and rescue services to use it as part of workforce planning. HMICFRS recognises the merits of this development programme as well.
Looking at talent management and having recognised that this may mitigate the effects of the ‘leadership drain’, HMICFRS offer some examples of good practice from Kent and Humberside: ‘[They] have a process for identifying and developing staff with high potential to become senior leaders but who fall outside “traditional” development pathways’.
This chimes well with the NFCC People Strategy where it is more specific about the routes to the top. ‘There should be more open career paths that more readily allow talent to rise to the most senior roles in FRSs irrespective of their terms and conditions on entry’.
Interestingly, in the second tranche of inspection reports, three of the four fire and rescue services which attract Good gradings in this area all have the same ‘area for improvement’ (as did Lancashire in tranche one). This states that: ‘The service should put in place an open and fair process to identify, develop and support high-potential staff and aspiring leaders’.
The tranche one summary report recognises that talent can come from outside the Fire and Rescue Service directly in to senior roles. ‘We are encouraged that a small number of fire and rescue services have looked outside the fire and rescue sector to bring in talented individuals at senior management level. Such leaders will bring diversity of thought and experience. This is an important opportunity for services that must provide a modern public service in financially constrained times’.
From this it looks like those fire and rescue services aspiring to achieve Outstanding in this part of the People pillar will need to take note and work together to develop ways to support the leaders of the future. The NFCC’s Leadership Framework will be a good place to start.
“Talent comes from many different sources and it is not always best to recruit from within or simply promote the next in line”
But of course not everyone can be a leader of the future; there is after all only one chief fire officer in a fire and rescue service. HMICFRS looks at the way in which staff access the promotion process at all levels of the organisation and finds mixed results.
In some organisations it finds that staff are aware of the system, have faith in it and use it well; in others it finds that staff think promotion is a skewed, biased process or opaque and unclear about how it works and the decisions about who gets promoted. The nub of the problem appears to be fairness, or perceptions of fairness. Staff need convincing that processes are equitable.
HMICFRS come up with some examples of good practice. In Kent, ‘Staff must complete a “licence to recruit” if they are to sit on recruitment or promotion panels, which includes unconscious bias training delivered by external recruitment specialists’. The lack of unconscious bias training for assessors also appears in the Merseyside report, but the inspectors note that there are plans to introduce it in the future.
Unconscious bias in the context of promotion is not cited in every report, but the need for all services to train their staff in understanding it was a recommendation by the Thomas Review. Recommendation seven was unambiguous. ‘Unconscious bias training should be rolled out across the fire and rescue service’. Why this has not happened since the report was published in 2015 is hard to know, but given the leadership of the NFCC’s People Programme by Kent Chief Executive, Ann Millington, no doubt it is on the list of things to do.
Cheshire gets a good write up as HMICFRS describe what good looks like when it comes to promotion processes. It says that they are well documented and transparent and that staff understood what they need to do to get to senior levels in the organisation. ‘Assessment processes are overseen by HR and are subject to equality impact assessments. The process uses set criteria to avoid bias. All staff who attend an assessment centre are given feedback. Those who are successful are given a specific development plan’.
An example of innovation comes from Dorset and Wiltshire where the service has introduced a scheme called “role hopping”.
‘It allows staff to move past, or hop over, the next role or grade and apply for the next one above it. Line managers identify staff who have shown potential and enable them to move to a more challenging or different role – or to the next role above. For example, a watch manager could apply to become a group manager without having been a station manager. Role hopping is available for both operational and corporate staff’.
The inspectors looked at how long staff stay on temporary promotion and found some examples where staff had been on temporary promotion for many years. The tranche one summary report asserts: ‘These temporary roles are not secure and we believe this is to the detriment of staff who hold them. It could also be a further example poor workforce and succession planning’.
The third main part of this section of the People pillar focuses on performance management. HMICFRS report that the processes vary and that there is a mismatch between the feedback process and the value placed on it by both manager and staff member alike. It seems that for many, it is hard to convince staff that performance management is not just a tick-box exercise.
The phrase “tick-box” comes up in the Cambridgeshire and Cheshire reports. In Cambridgeshire, which received Good gradings across the board, the inspectors praised its clear and structured process for carrying out performance development reviews, but, ‘Found that staff have little confidence in the new process. Many of them see it as a “tick-box exercise”. We saw limited evidence of the setting of personal goals or continuing professional development objectives’.
In Cheshire, the reference to box ticking is made in relation to operational training. ‘While the appraisal is an effective process for those seeking development, it is seen as “box-ticking” for those staff whose needs are met through mandatory operational training. For these staff the element of “how well am I doing my job?” is in many cases superficial’.
Both Merseyside and Royal Berkshire are commended for their behavioural-based appraisal systems with the latter piloting a behavioural competency framework. Interestingly, in Royal Berkshire the number of staff who have completed performance assessments is a corporate target and reported on quarterly. Is this a case of what gets measured gets done?
What is interesting about this canter through one section of the inspection reports is how much of it appeared in the Thomas Review is mentioned in the NFCC People Strategy or is captured in the NFCC Leadership Framework. There is a long history in the fire and rescue services of reports making recommendations that are not implemented and it is no different here.
Will the HMICFRS reports be any different? The stick may be different, but is it compelling enough to make fire and rescue services change the way they work? Clearly it takes time to introduce reform and the examples above demonstrate that the services that were graded Good are doing interesting things and the Inspectorate is noticing this. Sharing good practice is one way of improving things and the NFCC and LGA are well positioned to facilitate.
The big issue here is the one about leadership and making sure that there are succession plans in place to bring in the best talent to the top of fire and rescue services. Talent comes from many different sources and it is not always best to recruit from within or simply promote the next in line. Taking a look at the job descriptions for principal officers would be a good place to start because as long as they always say operational knowledge is required to service the operational rota, the pool will remain small, white and male for a very long time.
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