Internal Mediation Services. Surrey County Council in partnership with South East Employers

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1 Internal Mediation Services Surrey County Council in partnership with South East Employers Introduction and Summary Surrey County Council s cultural strategy is clear it wants to create a coaching culture and a style of management that is based upon meaningful conversations and personal inter-action rather than rigid policies and procedures. This is no easy task in view of its well- publicised difficulties in recent years, including an interim Chief Executive report that accused various parts of the council as having an atmosphere of systemic bullying. One strand of its strategy is to set up a system of internal mediation and it has gone about this in an innovative way, separating it from mainstream HR activity and empowering mediators and those staff involved to access and find their own solutions within the mediation service. Benefits have been quick to arrive and have exceeded initial expectations by spinning-off into general management practices and staff inter-action. Benefits identified so far include: A very cost effective service that prevents costly and confrontational formal procedures Reduced workloads on HR resources Staff able to informally access a service and design their own solutions to issues A service that focuses on creating solutions rather than an adversarial contest as to who was right Creation of a team of trained mediators whose skills can be used across the council and in a variety of settings Job enrichment and development for mediators Mediation skills that have spun-off into general managerial skills and personal inter-action A support to the general cultural change within the council Although the service is flexible and informal in its approach, its creation required careful planning and the thinking through of some key issues. Surrey has identified significant learning points for other similar projects and will apply these throughout its cultural transformation programme. Background Surrey is a large county council covering a population of over 1.25 million people and 11 district council areas. Once rated as a four star authority under the former Audit

2 Commission Comprehensive Performance Assessment regime, it had fallen to one star by A report by its interim Chief Executive identified a management style frequently referred to by both backbench Members and managers as a macho style, a blame culture and bullying which is carried out and experienced by both Members and officers. Since then there has been new leadership at both political and officer level. David McNulty was appointed Chief Executive in 2009 and sees one of the central tasks of his job as talking to people. His aim is to create a management culture that is supportive and empowering of staff and based upon meaningful conversations rather than strict policies and procedures. He sees this as key to unlocking the potential of the organisation and creating a culture that is fit for purpose as Surrey (like all other authorities) faces severe economic pressures and new models of service delivery. Given that there are over 10,000 employees of the council (excluding school based staff), this is no easy task. An immediate object was to convince staff that the new approach was genuine and that the council would do all it can to support it. One of the most innovative ways of doing this was to establish an internal mediation service that could be accessed by all staff and is, in effect, managed by the staff themselves. How Success Was Achieved Key Principles The internal mediation service was championed by Abid Dar, the council s Equality, Inclusion and Wellbeing Manager and immediately supported by the new leadership. Some key principles were quickly established: Any scheme had to be tailored to the specific needs of Surrey County Council Mediators would be drawn from inside the council itself Mediators should be from all professional disciplines, levels and services within the council They should receive tailored training and on-going support Mediation should be available to all staff, but on a purely voluntary basis Mediation should be provided by mediators from outside the service area concerned There would be complete confidentiality regarding the scheme A partnership approach to establishing the scheme should be adopted and South East Employers were recruited to help design the course, supply the training and offer on-going advice and support. However, there was one other key principle that under-pinned the success of the scheme. This was that the scheme would be entirely separate from all other HR services and policies and would not be managed by the HR service directly. This was identified as crucial to encouraging staff to use the service and it not being seen as a first step towards formal grievance, capability or disciplinary proceedings. Following this principal, those people who wish to access the service go direct to one of a list of openly advertised trained internal mediators who will try to facilitate mediation between those involved. Only those directly involved will know of the circumstance surrounding the mediation, complete confidence is assured and no records are kept by the mediators or HR. In fact the HR service only has a

3 monitoring report from mediators as to the number of mediation cases that has taken place but does not know who is involved or the circumstances leading to the mediation. There was also an element of risk taking that was necessary if the scheme was to succeed. Obviously there was simply the risk that the mediation sessions would be ineffective and that the scheme would fall into disrepute or be seen as a token management gesture with no real commitment. Worse was the possibility that something could be said or happen during a mediation session that could later be used in a formal or legal proceeding and which could bounce back on the council. The risks were identified and the simple decision taken to go for it if the council wished people to be adult in their conversations with each other, it simply had to allow them the space and opportunity to have these conversations How Success Was Achieved Practicalities As the mediators were to be drawn from within existing council employees, it was essential that they were given formal training. A training programme was devised through discussion with South East Employers who then delivered a bespoke package of three day training that fitted the circumstances of the council. South East Employers adopted a partnership approach with the council and maintained an ongoing dialogue with them as the training progressed. This course has recently been endorsed by the Institute of Leadership and Management (ILM) The scheme was then publicised and volunteers to become mediators were invited from across the council. It was made clear that volunteers were welcome from any background, level and profession. Abid was clear right from the start that staff were not going to be pigeon-holed into which types of profession may possess the necessary skills. The qualities of the individual were seen as being most important and, in fact, it was hoped that volunteers would come from a wide a background as possible to create inter-service support and communication as part of the overall cultural change programme. The fact that mediators were eventually drawn from diverse backgrounds such as Trading Standards, Legal, Care Homes etc. was testament to the success of this approach. It was also recognised that mediators would need on-going support. This is provided through regular six monthly refresher sessions with South East Employers and a buddying system for mediators so that they can draw upon each other for support. Mediators are also free to withdraw from the scheme at any time and for whatever reason it is not a requirement of their job. The next crucial step was to publicise the service to staff and gain their acceptance of it as a genuine independent resource. The new conversational style within Surrey was seen as the way forward with this rather than a hard-sell campaign. Although publicity was given it was recognised that the success of the scheme ultimately rested upon the feedback of those who accessed it. A patient approach was taken and the council was prepared for a small start with the eventual feedback going viral through the staff involved themselves publicising its benefits. To encourage the perception that this is a voluntary and non HR scheme another principle that was adopted was to keep it simple and not over formalise the scheme. This means that there is a deliberate lack of forms, protocols, records etc. Although each mediation is intended to result in an agreement between the parties

4 involved the process is kept informal and mediators are empowered to adopt whatever process best meets the needs of those involved. There was also a need to ensure that the service was able to provide a high speed of response. This required ensuring that there was a critical mass of mediators and the council has ensured that there are 30 mediators ready to be de-ployed which means that the start of the mediation process can be undertaken within 2-3 days of the initial enquiry. The Skills Piece The key skill requirement was obviously to ensure that all the mediators had the basic personal qualities required and that these were supported by a thorough understanding of the concept of mediation and the practical techniques involved. As all mediators are volunteers it is not surprising that their motivation was high but it is worth remembering that they have to fit their mediation activities in with their other duties and that no additional remuneration is made. Mediators also spoke of a huge sense of responsibility. They are aware that they are involved in issues which are of huge importance to the parties involved, in many cases the issues also affect the whole team in which the individuals work, that the issues involved may be complex and ambiguous and that they may be required to mediate with people far more senior than their own personal position. This is no easy task and mediators identified that to develop the following skills was essential: To understand the philosophy of mediation and the mediator s role within it A mixture of empathy with the parties involved but coupled with a detachment that allows non-judgemental exploration and solutions to be found A range of questioning techniques Boldness to talk about the elephant in the room and manage difficult conversations Ensure that all people in the mediation session are treated as equal, regardless of their position in the formal organisational structure Active listening Ability to summarise clearly and bring things to a resolution Ensuring personal gravitas and credibility Strict adherence to confidentiality Detach personal emotions and be able to handle the emotions of others Awareness and sensitivity to group and individual inter-actions Physical stamina All mediators spoken to are enthusiastic about the scheme and the benefits it has brought to the council, the parties involved and themselves individually. These are discussed further in the benefits sections below. The skill requirements of the project team establishing the scheme were also very significant. To establish such a scheme against the backdrop of the history of Surrey and to allow such a degree of self-management required many qualities including: Understanding of the cultural transformation programme and how the mediation scheme could sit within it

5 Having a clear vision for how the scheme would operate and identifying the key principles that would make this happen Ability to work with partners to ensure the scheme matched the particular requirements of Surrey County Council Publicity skills to create awareness of the scheme both for mediators and those seeking mediation To be able to support mediators, particularly in the early stages of the scheme, and to make sure on-going support is available to them Project management and resource management Willingness to take risks, accept the possibility of failure but go for it anyway Ability to sit back from the scheme, not over manage it and to stick to the principle that this is a voluntary service for individuals and there must be a large degree of self- management The Benefits Surrey County Council had a clear idea of the benefits it envisaged from the scheme. In reality not only have these benefits been realised but there have been many others for the council, mediators and those involved in mediation. These include: Council A cost effective dispute resolution scheme. The council estimates that over two thirds of all conflict is now resolved informally using either mediation or other support. Some on-going formal cases have been able to be replaced by mediation by mutual consent A major contribution to the meaningful conversations and coaching culture Issues resolved include manager/ subordinate relations, returns from long term-sickness, whole team relationships etc. Alleviating strains upon HR services arising from formal procedures Reduced litigation costs Mediators Mediators were very enthusiastic about their work and the tangible successes they had seen. Observations about the benefits to themselves included: Tangible skill enhancement through training and practical experience in mediation techniques Increased self-confidence in being able to tackle complex issues, sometimes mediating in cases where senior staff are involved A feeling of job enrichment A feeling of empowerment mediators are trusted to manage the process and bring about resolutions. There is support given to them but not oversight Possibly one of the most important benefits that mediators reported is that they cannot turn off being a mediator. The skills and approaches they have used spill over into their own management style, relations with colleagues etc. This also means that in their team situations they are far more conscious of team dynamics and potential difficulties and are more likely to be nipped in the bud.

6 With all the above, quite naturally, there has also been a greater sense of selfawareness and how the mediators conduct relations in all aspects of their life both within and outside work. Staff Using the Service Probably the final acid test is how staff using the service feel about it. Not surprisingly some were uncertain of its value when first proposed but feedback now is very positive. Some of the key points identified are: The separate identity of the mediation service means that there is no stigma about using it it is not perceived as meaning you are the subject of a formal process It is solution based rather than blame based. There does not have to be a right or wrong finding all there has to be is a mutually agreed way forward It draws a clear line under the past It allows for an equality of views of those involved The voluntary nature of the service is a huge advantage. The fact that both parties agree to try mediation was viewed as an important first step in resolution The benefits run even deeper. At least some of the people involved in mediation reported that it had made them think about their own behaviours, forced them to be honest and put responsibility on them to help try to find a solution. This was seen as key in ensuring that any agreement entered into would be lasting. Lesson Learnt Surrey County Council has learnt a lot from this project. Most importantly that such initiatives have to form part of and be consistent with the overall cultural change programme of any organisation. Carmel Millar, Head of HR and OD, is certain that the scheme would not have proved successful unless a wider cultural strategy was underway as staff would not have trusted the principles and intent behind the service. As a result the scheme has in turn now helped support the wider cultural programme. The willingness to take a risk both in terms of establishing the scheme and in letting it have a wide degree of self management was a very positive step. This was coupled with the keep it simple, keep it informal, keep it voluntary approach that trusts people to have meaningful conversations with each other. Making sure mediators are supported is also vital. Their responsibilities are large and in some cases fall upon relatively junior positions. One aspect that mediators did comment upon was that they would like greater feedback upon their performance and this is an aspect that perhaps needs to be looked at, but within the overall concept of complete confidentiality. Also important was to make sure that people who access the mediation service know what it involves and what their own responsibilities will be. This is a key issue and Carmel is clear that participants must approach it with a true purpose of seeking solution rather than blame and that this may include managers abandoning traditional power structures during the mediation sessions.

7 Finally, think through the key principles first and then stick to them! The Future Almost, perversely, having established the scheme there is a hope that the need for the service will decrease. However, there is bound to be a need for it for some time and the demand for the scheme remains, boosted by the positive feedback from staff who have used it. The scheme has been shortlisted for the Personnel Today Awards and already the county council has received requests from some districts councils for mediation services to be supplied to their own staff and it is happy to support these requests. Even when demand does eventually reduce, the skills learnt and cultural attitude will remain as will the ability to have meaningful conversations

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