Finance peer challenge: Dorset Council

Feedback report 21 June–2 July 2021


1. Context

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Dorset Council was founded in April 2019 from a merger of Dorset County Council with five of the six district councils covering the historic Dorset county area. In 2019 the total population of Dorset was 378,508 people, an increase of 3 per cent since 2012.

All newly-formed councils face challenges in their first years of operation to establish a fresh culture, new policies, new ways of working and to begin to deliver a full programme of service improvement. Dorset Council has been further challenged in its first two years by the advent of the global COVID-19 pandemic. This has manifested particularly on the council’s finances.

The council operates a net budget of circa £312 million for 2021/22, the vast majority of the council’s funding comes from council tax. The council collected 97.9% of all council tax due in 2019/20 – falling to 95.15 per cent in 2020/21. Council tax per head of population is within the top five of all single-tier English authorities. The council has opted, for the present, to increase council tax and take the social care precept. The council has an adopted Medium Term Financial Strategy (MTFS) which assumes growth in council tax income from £263.9 million in 2021/22 to £294.3 million in 2025/26 and an increase in business rates income from £44.3 million of just under £1 million over the same period. The council has a forecast MTFS deficit approving a budget for 2021/22 requiring net service savings of £7.4 million to be delivered. The council is currently reviewing its quarter one out-turn position for the year 2021/22 to understand the level of net service savings needed in 2021/22 and beyond.

Clearly, the council’s financial management and planning processes have only been in operation since 2019 and, prior to the pandemic, had not been stress-tested. Understandably, there has been some volatility in the council’s forecasts as, like all councils, officers struggled to predict the impact of the pandemic on services as well as affirm initial budget estimates for a new council. The council reported its unaudited out-turn position for 2020/21, its second full budget year, in June 2021.

The out-turn position for 2020/21 showed that on a net revenue budget of £304 million the council ended the year with a £15 million overspend, which was met by general funds reserve. However, the general funds reserve has been sustained at this level through allocations from earmarked reserves at each year end as the council understands its 'inheritance' from the former district and county councils, and currently stands at £31.5 million as of 31 March 2021.

This overspend is considerably less than was predicted at quarter three, but there are significant overspends and non-delivery of savings, in both people and place services. Offsetting the overspends were underspends on capital financing (£5.25 million) and on the contingency budget (£4.7 million).

The finance peer challenge has sought to understand the council’s current position and its approach to financial management, set within the five core themes of the finance peer challenge.

2. Summary of the peer challenge approach

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2.1 Scope and focus

The peer team considered the following five themes which form the core components of all corporate peer challenges. These areas are critical to councils’ performance and improvement.

  1. Financial leadership – Does the authority have plans for its long-term financial sustainability, which are owned by its members and officer leaders?
  2. Financial strategy, planning & forecasting – Does the authority understand its short and long term financial prospects?
  3. Decision making and governance – Are key decisions taken in the understanding of the financial implications, risks, and options?
  4. Financial outcomes and reporting – Are financial results (including those of the council’s investments and transformation projects) monitored and acted upon to realise the authority’s intentions?
  5. Partnership and innovation – Is finance at the cutting edge of what the authority is working to achieve, working with partners, and seeking innovative approaches?

In addition to these questions, Dorset Council asked the peer team to provide feedback on its finance business partnering model. Feedback on this is provided in the main body of the report.

Prior to the main finance peer challenge, an LGA peer team conducted a bespoke review of the council’s special educational needs high needs block budget, which is facing a significant overspend. Dorset Council is not alone in this, and many councils are struggling with rising demand and cost pressures in this service area. As part of this review the peer team also considered the council’s high needs block deficit recovery plan as well as its transformation plans in children’s services. A report was agreed with the council, and this was shared with the peer team for the finance peer challenge as background reading. This wider finance peer challenge does not therefore investigate this area in detail again, and the report from this is published alongside this report.

All the findings and recommendations proposed by the peer team are set within the challenge of responding to the COVID-19 pandemic. The peer team recognise that many of the impacts on the way the council plans and manages its finances and services might not yet be known. Equally, the peer team acknowledge that the impacts on the council’s capacity and resilience are not yet clear and will need careful management.

2.2 The peer challenge process

Peer challenges are improvement focused; it is important to stress that this was not an inspection. The process is not designed to provide an in-depth or technical assessment of plans and proposals. The peer team used their experience and knowledge of local government to reflect on the information presented to them by people they met, things they saw and material that they read.

The peer team prepared by reviewing a range of documents and information to ensure they were familiar with the council and the challenges it is facing. The team then spent time over a period of two weeks, virtually, at Dorset Council, during which they:

  • gathered information and views from more than 180 hours of meetings, in addition to further research and reading
  • spoke to more than 50 people, including a range of council staff together with members and external stakeholders.

This report provides a summary of the peer team’s findings. In presenting feedback, they have done so as fellow local government officers and members.

This report sits alongside the presentation shared with the council on 5 July 2021.

2.3 The peer team

Peer challenges are delivered by experienced elected member and officer peers. The make-up of the peer team reflected the focus of the peer challenge and peers were selected based on their relevant expertise. The peers were:

  • Dave Perry – Lead Peer, Chief Executive South Gloucestershire Council
  • Mark Wynn – s151 Peer, Chief Operating Officer, Cheshire West and Chester Council
  • Katharine Eberhart – Officer Peer, Director of Finance and Support Services, West Sussex County Council
  • Rob Waltham – Leader, North Lincolnshire Council
  • Clare Hudson – Peer Challenge Manager, LGA
  • Kathryn Trant – Adviser, LGA

3. Executive summary and key recommendations

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The council’s leadership has invested significant effort to foster a ‘one team’ culture. This culture is now beginning to mature and is evolving to provide a solid foundation for tackling the challenges the council is facing. The council has demonstrated resilience in managing the financial impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic and should be proud of its financial achievement to survive the last 16 months with immature budgets, a new senior leadership team and the challenges that remote working brings. This emerging ‘one team’ corporate culture is rooted in the council’s ambitions to deliver for its residents and community and is also reflected in the efforts the council is putting into developing strong relationships with its external partners, such as the integrated care system.

The council has realised savings as a result of convergence and the pooling of budgets, which increases useable reserves to £65 million. Whilst the council may have significant reserves it is also exposed to significant risk due to the scale of its dedicated schools grant (DSG) high needs block deficit, overspending by £16 million in 2020/21 resulting in a current cumulative deficit of £37.9 million. A further overspend of £17 million is predicted for 2021/22. There remains uncertainty over the future treatment of this deficit and the current statutory instrument which applies to how it is treated for accounting purposes is currently due to expire in 2023. Until there is clarity on its future treatment the council will need to consider to what extent this deficit should be met from earmarked reserves. Alongside the DSG deficit the council is seeking to manage considerable overspends in some budget areas, and the non-delivery of some of the 2019/20 and 2020/21 savings proposals. Senior leaders understand that the council needs to rapidly take mitigating actions to manage this so as not to build a financial culture in which dependency on reserves is the norm rather than delivering planned budgets. The foundations of sound financial strategy, financial management and budget planning are developing and evolving.

As not all of the planned savings were realised, the council had to use reserves to balance the budget in its first two financial years. To reverse this trend the council’s budget-setting process, including the council’s growth and savings plans, need to be more closely linked to the council’s corporate plan and finance strategy. Accountability for delivering those plans must also be improved. Tighter governance, clear accountability and faster pace are now needed to advance savings delivery. Whilst the council will have to carefully navigate this recognising that people’s personal capacity and resilience have been impacted by the pandemic, such actions are necessary if it is to achieve the financial grip it recognises it needs.

The reasons that not all savings have been delivered are numerous. These include: the impact of the pandemic; the budget setting process that identified the savings needing to mature; changes in senior leadership; as well as reporting and monitoring mechanisms not being robust enough. Progress in delivering savings and transformation is also being hampered by the limited integration of systems and financial reporting.

The council has focused on delivering savings from convergence. It has developed a corporate transformation programme that runs in parallel to service level savings plans. The council now needs to implement genuinely transformative change to deliver its ambition to focus on early help and prevention to improve outcomes and deliver further efficiency savings.

The overarching financial ambitions to deliver transformed services within the financial envelope the council can afford are being articulated amongst the council’s cabinet. To deliver this the council’s financial strategy and budget setting principles need revisiting and developing into a clearer strategic narrative. The peer team recommend the council:

  • develops a refreshed strategic financial narrative articulating the political aspirations of the council, recognising the true challenges faced, and driving the delivery of a sustainable medium term financial strategy
  • ensures that the narrative underpins Dorset’s council plan
  • develops and implements a communication and engagement plan to embed the narrative and associated strategies and plans
  • undertakes a coherent alignment of key strategies (capital, commercial, transformation) to deliver the narrative
  • identifies and delivers clear and clearly owned budgets and savings plans that enhance the council’s financial sustainability.

These fundamental building blocks should help the council to enhance its financial sustainability and deliver on its priorities for its communities.

There are a number of observations and suggestions within the main section of the report. The following are the peer team’s key recommendations to the council:

  1. Complete the quarter one baseline and get a true picture of implications of growth in demand, additional pressures, and savings delivered or not in the first quarter of 2021/22 and what this means for the future.
  2. Come together as organisational leaders to refresh the budget principles and develop a financial strategic narrative.
  3. Use the 2022/23 budget-setting process to test a refreshed budget process model and the financial strategic narrative.
  4. Invest time and capacity in communicating the above and embedding it across the council, and with partners.
  5. Be clear who is accountable for delivering what, and what the consequences of non-delivery are. Embed ownership of the budget challenge within services and clarify roles and responsibilities for delivery within clear reporting mechanisms that promote transparency.
  6. Link management reporting more closely to performance, reflecting value for money to underpin evidence-based decision-making.
  7. Explore opportunities for further convergence and efficiency savings, underpinned by more integrated systems and reporting.
  8. Clarify what the ambitions are around ‘being more commercial’ and align this to core strategies (capital, asset management and so on).
  9. Recognise the progress made to date. Be confident. Move the narrative on to who you are, not who you were.
  10. Embed putting delivering value for money at the heart of everything you do.

4. Feedback on the core themes of the finance peer challenge

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4.1 Financial leadership

We need to focus on the future and not what we haven’t done

The cabinet are cognisant of the council’s financial challenges and articulate an overarching ambition for the council to be financially sustainable within a refreshed service offer. There is a recognition that the current plan to undertake a baseline exercise at the end of quarter one will be absolutely critical to the council’s understanding of its financial position and what its options are. This was in progress at the time of writing, and its importance to the council and its future direction cannot be understated. This exercise must explicitly identify what the corporate and financial consequences of non-delivery of savings and non-attainment of budget targets are and their impact on current and future service plans. The quarter one baseline reporting must be used as a catalyst for the council to come together to clarify direction and lines of responsibility.

This is a young organisation with new staff and members who have inherited budgets and plans. The council’s budgets, savings and transformation plans reflect an organisation that is still maturing. Now, two years into existence, the council must take the opportunity of the quarter one baseline to be clear about how they will plan for the future. The tendency to lean on reserves needs to be reversed, members and officers understand this, they now need to put a greater emphasis on delivery.

There is optimism amongst members and officers that the council can do this. The finance team are viewed as supportive and are building the expertise needed to meet financial and accounting challenges associated with legacy systems and their integration. This is also a team with many new colleagues that has had to meet this challenge remotely.

There is a stated ambition, as agreed by cabinet in January 2021, that the council could be ‘more commercial’. From the wide range of people that the peer team spoke to, there is not a consensus on what this means. The council has not yet clarified what its risk appetite might be for potentially investing in commercial opportunities. It is still building its baselined position and further improvements in commercial income, procurement savings and contract management efficiencies should all continue to be advanced.

The council is investing in the provision of a school for special educational needs provision which will open in early 2022, and there is a commitment to a further £25 million of capital spend to increase provision. However, the council should take a wider perspective on commercial opportunities including using reserves to explore commercial opportunities that could underpin its future financial sustainability and service transformation, alongside the school. The council should establish how it might seek to identify and progress this, or not, within its strategic financial narrative.

As a new organisation, the focus has been on convergence and releasing efficiencies. This should be an ongoing process and part of the council’s drive to deliver value for money. There is an emerging appetite amongst members and some officers for testing how well the council’s services deliver value for money. Currently this is not consistent and needs capacity and commitment if it is to become integrated into budget planning and service planning.

Recommendations on financial leadership

  • Advance integration of systems to ensure that a ‘single version of the truth’ is developed, widely shared, and owned.
  • Embed the performance and budget monitoring structures (DARTboard) to ensure accountability for delivery of savings is widely understood.
  • Explore opportunities for further convergence and efficiency savings.
  • Deepen the pace of savings delivery.
  • Ensure the 'one team' approach can support strong lines of accountability for budgets and transformation delivery and does not become a misnomer for transferring responsibility or perceived accountability to others.
  • Clarify what is meant by the emerging appetite to be more commercial.

4.2 Financial strategy, planning and forecasting

We need to get a true picture of our current position at quarter one and what it means

The council needs a fundamental refresh of its core strategies that are the foundation of financial management if it is to be financially sustainable. These need to reflect the overarching financial ambitions expressed by cabinet. They also need to be aligned with the council plan and delivered at pace with clear lines of accountability. The council leadership must ensure that budget planning is owned and driven by the senior leadership team and based on achieving sustainable budgets.

There is a developing narrative that the council will know its underlying budget requirement once the quarter one baseline report is complete. This should be a catalyst for a fresh approach to budget setting going forwards.

The council knows that it must have a better understanding of the demands that are being placed on its people services because it has not been able to deliver within budget, and it needs to plan for future demand. To develop this, it will need to ensure it develops better systems integration to support service improvements and closely monitor demand management. More analysis will also be needed on anticipating and meeting the longer-term public health and economic development implications of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The council has delivered £10 million of convergence savings in its first year and is currently working to deliver tactical and transformational savings of £27 million. The scale of delivery or not of these savings will be clarified by the quarter one baseline report. Treasury management activities appear to be managed prudently, net debt as a proportion of net current revenue spend being less than 5 per cent.

As it moves forward the council must use data and forecasting techniques to gain a better understanding of what the future budget requirements will be within the services it is planning. Given the non-delivery of savings in areas of people services, the need for future growth in all budgets needs to be better understood within the context of the council’s aspirations around how it will lead better integration of services across its health system, and beyond. Future budget growth must be sustainable, without resorting to the use of reserves. To aid this the council should also invest in more systematic use of benchmarking to ensure its services, savings and transformation plans are thoroughly tested for value for money.

Recommendations on financial planning, strategy and forecasting

  • Financial and commercial strategies need to be refreshed, aligned, and delivered.
  • Build more involvement from service areas in budget planning.
  • Tighten the narrative and implementation of further tactical / convergence and transformational savings.
  • Utilise data and forecasting techniques to ensure the budget requirement for delivery of services is sustainable.
  • Invest capacity in benchmarking and analysis.

4.3 Decision-making and governance

We understand we need to make some difficult decisions; we need credible options to do that

The peer team heard about the way the leader and cabinet come together to discuss deviation from budgets and agree mitigating actions. This is intended to help build grip in the delivery of savings going forward. A recent ‘deep dive’ exercise into the progress of the transformation programme was an illustration of how tighter management of savings delivery is starting to embed in the council. At the time of writing, the council was reviewing the implications of this and what changes it may need to make.

The council has recognised that it needs to advance measures such as this to monitor delivery of savings and transformation more intensively and needs to make this business as usual.

There appears to be a mixed understanding of the council’s overarching financial ambitions throughout the organisation. As the former district, borough and county councils moved into unitarisation the message at the time that services would not be affected has, at times, become translated into a mantra understood by some officers that services should not be cut. The financial challenge the council is facing means that it is vital that financial narrative aligns the ambitions of the political leadership with the financial and transformation plans.

There needs to be greater investment in explaining and communicating what the council’s financial strategic narrative is, so that everyone in the organisation can understand it and deliver it. The current mixed understanding of the overall strategic direction of the budget extends to the reserves strategy. An updated reserves strategy was agreed in January 2021, and it needs to be more widely understood what this means for budgets and savings delivery so that the council can use its reserves to appropriately manage risk, and potentially explore commercial or other invest to save opportunities to advance true transformation.

Both officers and members need to collectively confirm their understanding of the council’s financial position. The peer team acknowledge that the impact of COVID-19, and associated funding, needs further analysis. The quarter one baseline report, and how it is communicated, must address this.

The council operates a relatively modest capital programme, for which there is now a clearer process for committing to capital spend. What is not clear is the longer-term plan for how capital expenditure can lever in the type of wider systems leadership the council should aspire to, in order to drive change, better integration of services, and manage demand.

The council operates a robust audit committee which is well regarded and viewed by external auditors as providing appropriate challenge. The peer team observed the audit committee and the confirmation of closure of the 2019/20 accounts. Whilst the council has received a qualified value for money opinion on these accounts, the reasons why appear to be understood, and external auditors are satisfied with the council’s response. Internal audit has a clear programme of work, linked to council priorities. Senior officers have solid engagement with internal audit and are responsive to findings.

The peer team believe there are further opportunities to enhance the engagement of scrutiny in the delivery of the transformation programme as the council matures. The peer team heard about the planned review of the role of members in the review of scrutiny of financial performance. This is a welcome opportunity to embed accountability. Equally, the council will need to assure itself that the newly introduced performance management group is serving its intended purpose to more closely monitor savings and budget delivery.

Whilst the appetite to explore the use of benchmarking is growing corporately, it is more advanced in some service areas to support decision making, such as waste services. This is encouraging but utilising benchmarking to drive forward service improvements and value for money is not yet part of the corporate culture. There is more to do to ensure the council’s decisions are rooted in value for money and developed through data and evidence using tried and tested tools such as business cases and savings trackers.

Recommendations on decision-making and governance

  • Invest time in sharing the overarching financial ambitions of cabinet across the organisation.
  • Ensure quarter one outturn report and its implications are widely communicated at officer and member level.
  • Clearly articulate respective responsibilities for savings delivery.
  • Make the tools of sound financial management such as business cases, and benchmarking, the norm.
  • Enable scrutiny to support the delivery of transformation plans.
  • Link the capital programme spend more closely to your existing council plan.

4.4 Financial outcomes and reporting

Our systems are clunky, they don’t always work, we can’t add the value we want to

The council’s approach to reporting on its corporate transformation programme is gaining visibility across the organisation. However, it is not clear enough what the relationship is between transformation savings and tactical / efficiency savings.

Monthly financial reporting is being increasingly embedded in the council’s culture and management of its resources. This will enable the organisation to respond more quickly to areas of concern, and ensure members understand what options they face.

The council comes together to discuss its financial outcomes using monthly reporting at cabinet. Based on the evidence shared with the peer team, these discussions can be too rooted in the delivery of savings plans, with service improvement plans running in parallel. There is a need for more integrated financial and performance reporting. The quarter one baseline report must be the opportunity to ensure the ‘single version of the truth’ is understood and provides clarity on the impacts of the 2020/21 outturn position, the in-year position and future options.

Financial reporting is evolving and is well supported by the finance team. Reporting is becoming more visible and accessible. The council needs to build on this to ensure that narrative reporting against financial outcomes for both savings and transformation plans is more consistent, and risk based. The business partners can play a pivotal role in building this understanding of budget position and outcomes. The council should also ensure it has a regular programme of training for budget monitoring and reporting – this will help to move the council to understand its present, and not focus too much on the past.

The council operates a self-service model for budget monitoring and reporting. The application of this was portrayed to the peer team as irregular. For example, it is not clear what the consequences for not utilising the self-service model were. There appears to be a tendency for workarounds to be accepted, partly in recognition of the legacy of different approaches used by the former county and district councils.

The systems used to report financial outcomes requires further integration. This is critical to ensure that systems and reporting can support the emerging corporate culture, a true self help/care model, and the ‘one team’ approach. The robustness of reporting is not where it should be, and there is too much discrepancy in the quality and timeliness of management information. For instance, the peer team heard about how children’s services colleagues obtain financial monitoring information from the client system, and that currently performance and finance data reporting is not yet integrated. This hampers the ability of the council to ensure it delivers against its ambitions.

The council operates risk reporting particularly on its savings and transformation programmes. The council should consider how to integrate these more clearly with financial reporting. The peer team also felt that a simpler approach to reporting headline risks, alongside the quarter one outturn report would help the council to be clearer about its current position and its options.

Recommendations on financial outcomes and reporting

  • Report the implications of the 2020/21 outturn and the quarter one 2021/22 outturn on the 2021/22 financial year and beyond.
  • Ensure the narrative accompanying savings and transformation delivery is more consistent and risk based.
  • Integrate systems further and develop their use to support clearer reporting and self help.
  • Test the embeddedness and effectiveness of the self-service model and identify mechanisms to improve this where needed.
  • Simplify risk reporting alongside the quarter one outturn report to establish to ‘single version of the truth’.
  • Ensure regular training on budget monitoring and management across service areas.

4.5 Partnerships and innovation

The council is good at problem-solving – what is best for Dorset

The peer team heard from external partners that the council was supportive in their relationships and responsive to needs.  The senior leadership team were perceived as being unified on key areas demonstrating strong communication across the council’s senior leadership, enabling collaborative relationships with partners.

The council is perceived as being solution driven and with a culture of problem solving. There is an opportunity for the council, working with partners, to have more strategic conversations to tackle problems and deliver further their role as a wider system leader to help integrate services, manage demand and move towards placed-based leadership across all parts of the public sector. In clarifying the council’s commercial ambitions, the council should consistently explore opportunities that could underpin its ability to deliver place leadership, including how it maximises existing assets and partnerships.

There are emerging examples of innovation that will be useful in challenging custom and practice and are a signal of the council’s ambition to be more enabling (for example: HomeFirst, children’s locality model). The council’s partners appear to share that ambition and are keen that the council take advantage of presenting opportunities.

There is an acceptance that the council is still young and that was consistently reflected back to us. Despite this, and the challenges of COVID-19, the council is developing good relationships with partners that can help it to deliver its priorities and improve outcomes for its communities.

Recommendations on partnerships and innovation

  • Ensure that in engaging with partners you consistently seek to get the best deal for Dorset taxpayers across all service areas – for example with the NHS and the clinical commissioning group, or with the local enterprise partnership driving economic development and skills development to aid recovery from the pandemic. Be clear about who is accountable for delivering what.
  • The integrated care system provides an opportunity to develop a clearer narrative about what the council wants for residents and how the integration could deliver service improvements, transformation, and savings not only in adult social care but also the wider preventative agenda.
  • Explore how you might use resources, alongside tighter procurement, and commissioning, to drive innovation across the wider health system.
  • Further develop understanding of public assets across Dorset and how these can be leveraged in delivery of community aspirations and ambition to be more commercial. Clarify the ambitions around being more commercial and align with other strategies such as capital strategy, asset management strategy.
  • Do not let youth hold the council back – assets, strong relationships with partners – freedom to innovate. Recognise the progress made to date, be confident and move the narrative on to who you are, not who you were.

5. Feedback on the business partner model

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The peer team heard of positive relationships with business partners and there is the opportunity to deepen and strengthen these as the council refreshes its strategic financial narrative. As the council moves forward, it should ensure business partners are part of the team assessing options of future delivery across the departments and determining the capacity and skills to support the organisation. These roles have a dual understanding of the challenges facing the directorate they support and the 'whole' council position.

One of the key principles of the model is that it builds strong lines of accountability for delivery of savings and transformation plans. It is hard to comment on the effectiveness of the model as the ownership of the 'financial strategy and delivery’ has not yet been sufficiently collectively developed. A clearer strategic financial narrative, more integrated systems, and a more collaborative approach to developing budgets are needed for the model to realise its potential.

Business partners are clearly a valued resource. There is opportunity to build clarity over respective roles and responsibilities between budget managers and finance. The peer team’s advice is to give the model in operation space to grow within a clear narrative and stronger ownership of budgets. This will also allow time to better assess the capacity and need within the corporate finance team.

6. Summary and next steps

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The council has achieved a huge amount in its first two years. It has provided unprecedented levels of support and leadership to its communities to support them through the pandemic. This is the second peer challenge the council has commissioned since its creation and its willingness to accept external challenge is commended as part of its improvement journey.

The council has not delivered all of its identified savings plans and has overspent against key service budgets in the last two years. Consequently, it has used its reserves but recognises it must move away from this. The council is developing a clearer picture of its current financial position. This is critical in allowing the council to develop a strategic financial narrative from which it can build a more collaborative and accountable approach to budget delivery. This can then be effectively communicated to staff and system partners and drive change.

The council is maturing in its approach to financial management. Set out below is a simple model that the peer team suggest the council could reflect upon where it sits within the evolution of the model, and how it will successfully transition through it.

It is recognised that senior political and managerial leadership will want to consider, discuss, and reflect on these findings. In order to support transparency, the council is expected to publish this report within six weeks of it being agreed. There is also an expectation that an action plan is publicly available within eight weeks of the report’s publication.

Both the peer team and LGA are keen to build on the relationships formed through the peer challenge. The corporate peer challenge process includes a six-month check-in meeting. This will be a short, facilitated session which creates space for the council’s senior leadership to update peers on its progress against the action plan and discuss next steps. This is due to take place in January 2022.

In the meantime, Paul Clarke, Principal Adviser for South West, is the main contact between your authority and the Local Government Association. Paul Clarke is available to discuss any further support the council requires. Contact Paul at paul.clarke@local.gov.uk or on 07899 965730.

Clare Hudson, Peer Challenge Manager, on behalf of the peer team

7. Annex 1: Full list of recommendations

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7.1 Key recommendations

1. Complete the quarter one baseline and get a true picture of implications of growth in demand, additional pressures, and savings delivered or not in the first quarter of 2021/22 and what this means for the future.
2. Come together as organisational leaders to refresh the budget principles and develop a financial strategic narrative.
3. Use the 2022/23 budget-setting process to test a refreshed budget process model and the financial strategic narrative.
4. Invest time and capacity in communicating the above and embedding it across the council, and with partners.
5. Be clear who is accountable for delivering what, and what the consequences of non-delivery are. Embed ownership of the budget challenge within services and clarify roles and responsibilities for delivery within clear reporting mechanisms that promote transparency.
6. Link management reporting more closely to performance, reflecting value for money to underpin evidence-based decision-making.
7. Explore opportunities for further convergence and efficiency savings, underpinned by more integrated systems and reporting.
8. Clarify what the ambitions are around ‘being more commercial’ and align this to core strategies (capital, asset management and so on).
9. Recognise the progress made to date. Be confident. Move the narrative on to who you are, not who you were.
10. Embed putting delivering value for money at the heart of everything you do.

7.2 Recommendations on financial leadership

11. Advance integration of systems to ensure that a ‘single version of the truth’ is developed, widely shared, and owned.
12. Embed the performance and budget monitoring structures (DARTboard) to ensure accountability for delivery of savings is widely understood.
13. Explore opportunities for further convergence and efficiency savings.
14. Deepen the pace of savings delivery.
15. Ensure the 'one team' approach can support strong lines of accountability for budgets and transformation delivery and does not become a misnomer for transferring responsibility or perceived accountability to others.
16. Clarify what is meant by the emerging appetite to be more commercial.

7.3 Recommendations on financial planning, strategy and forecasting

17. Financial and commercial strategies need to be refreshed, aligned, and delivered.
18. Build more involvement from service areas in budget planning.
19. Tighten the narrative and implementation of further tactical/convergence and transformational savings.
20. Utilise data and forecasting techniques to ensure the budget requirement for delivery of services is sustainable.
21. Invest capacity in benchmarking and analysis.

7.4 Recommendations on decision-making and governance

22. Invest time in sharing the overarching financial ambitions of cabinet across the organisation.
23. Ensure quarter one outturn report and its implications are widely communicated at officer and member level.
24. Clearly articulate respective responsibilities for savings delivery.
25. Make the tools of sound financial management such as business cases, and benchmarking, the norm.
26. Enable scrutiny to support the delivery of transformation plans.
27. Link the capital programme spend more closely to your existing council plan.

7.5 Recommendations on financial outcomes and reporting

28. Report the implications of the 2020/21 outturn and the quarter one 2021/22 outturn on the 2021/22 financial year and beyond.
29. Ensure the narrative accompanying savings and transformation delivery is more consistent and risk based.
30. Integrate systems further and develop their use to support clearer reporting and self help.
31. Test the embeddedness and effectiveness of the self-service model and identify mechanisms to improve this where needed.
32. Simplify risk reporting alongside the quarter one outturn report to establish to ‘single version of the truth’.
33. Ensure regular training on budget monitoring and management across service areas.

7.6 Recommendations on partnerships and innovation

34. Ensure that in engaging with partners you consistently seek to get the best deal for Dorset taxpayers across all service areas – for example with the NHS and the clinical commissioning group, or with the local enterprise partnership driving economic development and skills development to aid recovery from the pandemic. Be clear about who is accountable for delivering what.
35. The integrated care system provides an opportunity to develop a clearer narrative about what the council wants for residents and how the integration could deliver service improvements, transformation and savings not only in adult social care but also the wider preventative agenda.
36. Explore how you might use resources, alongside tighter procurement, and commissioning, to drive innovation across the wider health system.
37. Further develop understanding of public assets across Dorset and how these can be leveraged in delivery of community aspirations and ambition to be more commercial. Clarify the ambitions around being more commercial and align with other strategies such as capital strategy, asset management strategy.
38. Do not let youth hold the council back – assets, strong relationships with partners – freedom to innovate. Recognise the progress made to date, be confident and move the narrative on to who you are, not who you were.

View the report and action plan on the Dorset Council website