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Application of The Argenti System of Strategic Planning in Cheshire West and Chester Local Authority.

An interview given by Chris Hardy, CEO

Background

Chris was Director of Leisure when he first came across Argenti in the late 1980s. He had been asked by the then CEO of Chester Council to develop a strategy for the council. Chris immediately recognised Argenti was what they needed. Chris has 34 years experience in local government, having worked at Cheshire County Council, St Helens, MBC, Vale Royal BC and Chester City Council. We caught up with Chris to find out more:–

What are the main issues for strategy in local government?

Local government starts with a community plan – identification of the main priorities for the local residents – this cascades down to a corporate plan for the council, then to individual directorate plans and then ultimately to the performance of individuals.

“The key is to get individuals aligned with the strategy of the organisation”, says Chris.

More recently the Government has started to establish Comprehensive Area Assessments. These assess the effectiveness of all public sector organisations in delivering a range of services for a particular area. This is a major change from the previous regime and means all public sector organisations working within an area will be assessed as a whole for their collective performance in delivering the needs of the local residents. The other key aspect for local councils is the need to include the views of council members, as corporate strategy cannot be done in isolation of the local political context. The process has to be robust as there are so many interested parties, each with their own agendas – but the council can only have one corporate strategy and one set of corporate objectives. Chrisí belief is that strategy must inspire action. “Itís about leadership and ambition”, says Chris.

“The strategy must engage the executive team and in our case also our councillors – and this needs to be communicated with our employees. Everyone needs to buy–in to what we are trying to achieve. The beauty of Argenti is that we are all focused on the things that make the difference, on the things that will count.”

What have been the main benefits from using Argenti?

Argenti helps organisations focus on the issues that will have a massive impact – these are termed Elephants in Argenti. “The elephants were central to us”, says Chris – “getting all the main parties to focus on the same key issues, the big things that we needed to address was a major step forward.

“The concept of elephants enabled us to get all the senior managers and councillors to employ the same thinking – to focus on the matters that meant the most to the delivery of our core objectives. We developed a saying, that if you donít look out for the elephants then there will be plenty of mess to clear up.”

The other key benefit was the simplicity of the process, “itís a common sense approach that is not overly complicated, which is great in a complex environment like local government”. Chris says that people liked the fact there was plenty of visibility about how the process worked, “people could read the manuals and see the 5 stages very clearly, everyone felt at ease with the process – there was nothing hidden”.

Chrisí view of strategy is that the process has to become part of everyday life and this means it needs ownership and buy–in right from the top of the organisation. This is a key element within the Argenti process, which starts with the formation of a planning team headed by the organisation leader. The Argenti process states – categorically – that if the organisation leader is not prepared to head the strategy process then no further work should be undertaken, as ultimately it will not lead to an effective strategy. “In short, the process provides a simple tool kit for corporate strategy that works – we saw it as the right thing at the right time and since then we have never looked back”, says Chris.

Chris has done 4 to 5 major reviews using the Argenti process at his time with Chester and they also have an annual refresh process and half–yearly reviews to check progress.

“Itís a common sense approach that is not overly complicated, which is great in a complex environment like local government. It enabled us to get all the senior managers and councillors to employ the same thinking – to focus on the matters that meant the most to the delivery of our core objectives.”

How does the process work with local councillors?

In local government you have to bring council members on board in terms of corporate strategy, whatever the political status of the council. One of the difficulties is that councillors are typically focused on matters that will make a difference within their term and often strategy has a greater time horizon than this. Therefore you need a process that will win support from councillors. When Chris did his first process they had a hung council, so they had to work hard to bring all the key players on board. Everyone had their own view and their own set of priorities. The process helped them to refine these into a single set of agreed priorities. Chris has used the principles of the process to help out with other councils. “In one case the officers could not get people to agree on priorities. We set up a series of small workshops and using the principles of the process got everyone to see that their priorities were not that far out. As the saying goes, often people canít see the wood for the trees and the process helps people to clarify the real priorities”, recalls Chris.

What about measures, Argenti recommends use of a single performance measure for strategy?

“This was the most tricky part”, says Chris. “This is where the Argenti facilitator made a big difference as we were all too close to the detail.” The process requires an organisation to select a single measure to measure strategic effectiveness that is focused on beneficiaries – these are the people the organisation has been set up to serve, and in Chesterís case these were the local residents. This does not mean to say that other parties do not have a stake or an interest, such as employees, suppliers and the like – but ultimately the organisation is not – at least rarely – set up with the sole purpose of creating a benefit for these other parties. One of the key elements of strategy is to get focus on the right issues and Argenti has been the right tool for Chris Hardy for over 20 years.

“Argenti has a simple philosophy and that is an organisation should be centred around its beneficiaries – those people that the organisation was set up to benefit.”