Scottish Borders Council's legal team's efforts this past year to "unlock potential and deliver outside the box" are adding real value to the council, and have won recognition in a UK-wide award scheme

I am quite certain that our team here in the Scottish Borders is not the only in-house public sector team that has faced recent restructuring and all of the challenges/opportunities that brings. Nor will we be the last. But in 2009-10 we faced our most significant restructure of recent times.

That review was part of a much wider analysis by our council of its support services functions. The concept was simple – like every in-house legal team, we wanted to ensure that we are best placed to continue to provide the best possible advice to our council and ultimately the communities we serve. Easy to say, some might say; hard to actually deliver – especially in these austere times.

That, of course, is the challenge that I am sure is facing many legal colleagues right across the public sector at present. How do you actually deliver “better with less” while also ensuring that you are keeping pace with legal developments and ever-increasing specialisation going on around you? As you’ll see, we had a few ideas.

Regardless of whether you agree with them or not, we would argue our story proves two things; first, the increased importance at this time of sharing knowledge and examples of best practice across the sector; and, secondly, that people and true partnership/teamworking remain the vital key to success. It may sound trite, but we make no apology for that.

Our journey

From the outset, the whole of our team was actively involved by our management team, led by Ian Wilkie, in the restructuring process. We looked to modernise the way we provide our services, and eradicate duplication. To that end, we had detailed discussions, consideration of options, informal teambuilding and a series of business process re-engineering workshops. This allowed us to review not only what we were doing, but perhaps more crucially how we were doing it. We talked to our clients and customers and consulted fully throughout. A much slimmer, more focused service emerged – Legal and Democratic Services.

Of particular note, our Development Group (“DG”) also emerged from this process – with specific sub-groups responsible for driving service improvements in staff development, marketing and team development. The group has allowed us to unlock our potential by providing a forum within which the whole legal team can proactively explore new and more innovative ways of working. Our clients tell us that the work of the DG has already brought a number of real benefits for them in a relatively short period of time.

For example, this year (and I deliberately say this year: the process is ongoing) we have developed and subsequently launched our reciprocal “shadowing scheme” covering both our client departments and a range of external organisations from the public, private and third sectors. The scheme is enabling us to work more closely with our clients to help them develop solutions, rather than just have them coming to legal services when they are perhaps in trouble and looking to us to help them out of it. It is also providing cost neutral and relevant training/CPD for the whole team, as well as exposure to new ways of working. At the same time it’s enabling us to benchmark our services against others. We’ve been delighted with the support we’ve had internally for this initiative and already have a fairly impressive list of external partner organisations across the UK on board. (See end of article for details about how to join this network.)

A further initiative is the introduction of “webcasts” – video updates on key areas of our work which are published on the council’s intranet. Topics to date have included decision making, compulsory purchase, the Regulation of Investigatory Powers (Scotland) Act 2000, debt recovery, and the shadowing scheme itself. This is enabling us to reach out to officers at all levels of the council without the need for special meetings/briefing sessions, and at the same time helping us to break down barriers to accessing legal services and advice. We’ve even published our final MJ Award pitch (see panel, right), which took the form of a series of interviews with our clients and partners – from directors to project managers, teachers and the police. This has also significantly raised the profile of the work we do across the council, promoting an integrated approach to service delivery – the “hits” are speaking for themselves.

The opportunity for members of the team to become accredited specialists is another example of staff development in action, but is also providing value for money for our council now and in the future.

In 2010, we participated in the Audit Scotland/Commission pilot to develop performance indicators for the UK public sector legal service, which confirmed that our legal costs are now in the lowest quartile across the UK. At the same time, our customer survey results are very promising, proving that our policy of “doing better with less” is already working.

UK recognition

It goes without saying that we didn’t make these changes to win an award, but when entries were sought by the Municipal Journal (“MJ”) – the management journal for local authority business – earlier this year, their application form really struck a chord with us. Not only does it recognise and reward “Excellence in Legal Services”, with a specific emphasis on innovation, creativity and best value, but it’s prefaced with the comment that “the contribution lawyers make to transforming local government, services and communities should never be underestimated”. I’m sure many would agree that vital message can be all too easily lost, yet it is one that is arguably more important than ever to be received where it matters in the current climate.

We were delighted to find out that we’d made the final seven, and indeed are the only legal team in Scotland to do so. We’re up against some very impressive applications from other UK councils, including the legal team at Hackney Council who are supporting legal aspects of the London Olympics in 2012. Having made our final pitch to the judging panel, which is led by the renowned Dr Mirza Ahmad, Director of Corporate Governance at Birmingham City Council, we’ll have to wait for the winners to be announced in London on 23 June.

Regardless of the outcome, however, what has really been beneficial is that it’s provided us with another opportunity to take stock, talk to our customers, and gain insight into the other innovative and creative ideas and examples of best practice that are out there at present. We’re already looking at whether some of those can be implemented here in the Borders.

Above all, however, these applications are testament to one thing – the sheer drive and determination of in-house teams right across the UK to continue to deliver quality and innovative legal services even in times of adversity. And crucially, to ensure they continue to be seen outwith their own locality.

As we put it to the judges in Birmingham on 19 May, “It’s about so much more than law”.

Excellence in Legal Services Achievement of the Year

http://awards.themj.co.uk/index.cfm/award/awards.finalist/catid/71

“This year the team have transformed the traditional image associated with the legal service in the council from a regulatory, often constraining-type approach, to a much more modern and flexible service where partners engage with us much earlier on to help them develop the solutions, rather than just come to us when they are in trouble and look for us to help them out of it. We’re working together now on a partnership arrangement, rather than working separately and only coming together as a last resort.”

“In my capacity as Depute Leader with specific responsibility for finance, this project has made me understand and brought out more clearly just how cost effective our own legal advice team is for the council. We’ve been comparing costs of advice from legal counsel and costs of advice from independent advisers, which leaves me in no doubt that our own service provides a very cost effective and efficient service.”

  • If you are interested in discussing any aspect of the council’s award application/service improvement initiatives, or indeed joining its Shadowing Scheme network, you can contact Ian Wilkie, Head of Legal and Democratic Services (e: iwilkie@scotborders.gov.uk; t: 01835 825006) or Susan Shaw, solicitor (e: sshaw@scotborders.gov.uk; t: 01835 826618).
The Author
Susan Shaw is a solicitor with Scottish Borders Council Tracey Logan, Director of Resources, Webcast presentation to the judges in Birmingham, 19 May Councillor Neil Calvert, Depute Leader (Finance), also talks about his experience of the service over the last year via the Webcast presentation
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