BOROUGH OF POOLE
7th SEPTEMBER 2006
RESOURCES OVERVIEW GROUP
REPORT OF THE HEAD OF LEGAL AND DEMOCRATIC SERVICES: AMALGAMATION OF LEGAL AND DEMOCRATIC SERVICES - UPDATE
1.0 PURPOSE OF REPORT
1.1To update Members on progress to date following the decision to amalgamate Democratic and Member Support Services and Legal Services in late 2004.
2.0 DECISION REQUIRED
3.1In 2004, an opportunity arose to combine the previous Democratic and Member Support Service Unit and the Legal Services Service Unit due to the proposed departure of both Service Unit Heads. The decision was taken by the Council to combine both Service Units and to seek a new Service Unit Head to lead the amalgamation process.
3.2The new Unit was named Legal and Democratic Services and comprises Legal Services, Democratic Services (including Member Support), Election and Registration Services, Civil Registration, Land Charges, and general office support including the Post Room, Couriers, Print & Design, and Document Management. This Report updates Members on progress that has been made with the amalgamation to date.
4.1The two previous Service Unit Heads effectively left their posts at the end of December 2004. The new Service Unit Head took up position at the beginning of January 2005. Some work had already been done in terms of a new structure for the Unit and a start had been made on the process of integration with some services that had been previously been the responsibility of the Legal Services Unit (i.e. Civil Registration and Land Charges), transferring to the Election and Registration Team. Essentially, however, the new Service Unit Head inherited a position where the two previous Service Units were amalgamated into one but, in reality, in name only. This situation was exacerbated by the fact that the plan to move Legal Services into the Civic Centre from their previous accommodation at Mitre Court in Commercial Road had been put on hold due to other Council priorities.
4.2 The new Service Unit Head faced some immediate difficulties in managing the Unit from two bases since it was considered that to take up residence at either Mitre Court or in the Civic Centre permanently would send an inappropriate message to the other teams that they were not being adequately managed.
4.3 Lack of space prevents a retelling of the office move saga which passed through a number of different manifestations before Legal Services were successfully able to move into accommodation at the Civic Centre previously occupied by SASS. Some concerns had been expressed by staff previously over the move to the Civic Centre and the open plan nature of the offices. However, it is pleasing to be able to report that one year on very few difficulties appear to have been posed and staff have been pleased with the facilities on offer and the additional opportunities for collaborative working posed by the office configuration.
4.4 A number of other steps were taken to promote and facilitate additional joint working between the constituent parts of the new Unit, including some whole Unit meetings for people to get to know each other. A new Unit Management Team was formed from the existing Team Leaders and this has now established itself as a positive and proactive force, both in terms of the management of the Unit and in supporting the Service Unit Head in his role. We have recently been successful in recruiting an experienced and extremely able Business Support Manager (to fill an existing but vacant post) who is already making her mark on the Unit. Her appointment should enable us to progress with a number of long delayed initiatives in terms of business process and quality assurance.
4.5 Working Together
As had been hoped, the combination of the Units has enabled more joint working in areas which are common to both teams. For instance, both Legal staff and Democratic Services staff have an interest in supporting Members both through the Council’s Committees and informally, and it is helpful now that the Officers involved in these tasks are located in the same building and work for the same Unit. We have also been able to take on additional work areas through pooling resources, for instance, this year we were able to service the Education Appeals for Poole Grammar School, whilst previously we had had to refuse requests to do this due to lack of resources. This generates additional revenue for the Unit. The transfer of Civil Registration and Land Charges to Electoral Registration has also worked well.
As indicated above, the merger has provided opportunities for efficiencies to be secured, both in terms of working practices and in terms of the use of resources. It was possible to reinvest a certain amount of these savings in the operation of the Unit and, at the same time, revenue savings of approximately £45,000 were delivered up as part of the Council’s efficiency agenda. We continue to look for ways of operating more efficiently, although with current work loads being experienced, it is unlikely that any further reduction in resources will be possible if the Council is to achieve its agenda of involvement in significant projects, particularly in the areas of the Regeneration Scheme and Schools for the Future. On the whole though, the new Unit provides a more coherent approach to the group of services surrounding governance administration and legality than was previously available to the Council, and whilst it is not the intention of this report to in any way criticise the service delivered by the previous Units, it is considered that the current arrangements provide the service in a way which a modern high achieving Unitary Authority needs.
5.0 CURRENT ISSUES:
5.1As mentioned above, workloads are currently being experienced at levels above that which has been historically planned for. This is particularly true in the Legal Services area where a more proactive approach to enforcement by a number of other Service Units has led to additional work loads. This has, to some extent, been countered by an increase in resources applied to this area. However, we are currently experiencing recruitment difficulties in common with a large number of other Local Authority Legal Departments. We currently have two vacant posts and our first round of recruitment has failed to find candidates for either post. Unfortunately, this means that we are currently employing temporary Locum Solicitors who, although able and experienced, are costing us a considerable amount of additional money. We will shortly be advertising again and hope to be back to a full compliment of staff as soon as possible.
5.2 When the Unit was amalgamated, it had one of the higher rates of sickness absence, particularly compared with other ‘office based’ units. Our efforts to reduce staff sickness have met with considerable success, and sickness levels have reduced, although recently Legal Services have been hit by a number of unexpected and unrelated staff sickness issues which are also being managed appropriately.
5.3 We have also identified the need to apply more resources to the Overview and Scrutiny function if improvements in this area are to be delivered.
6.1It is felt that the merger of previous Service Units into the new Service Unit of Legal and Democratic Services has been a success. The new Unit is able to provide a more coherent service to Members and Officer, and has produced savings and efficiencies and has continued to build upon the good reputation of both previous Service Units.
T M Martin
Head of Legal and Democratic Services
16th August 2006