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Buckinghamshire 2021/22

People

How well does the fire and rescue service look after its people?

Last updated 15/12/2021
Requires improvement

Buckinghamshire Fire and Rescue Service requires improvement at looking after its people.

Buckinghamshire Fire and Rescue Service was good in its 2018/19 assessment.

Buckinghamshire Fire and Rescue Service’s staff are committed to their work and are proud to work for the service. The service’s values are well defined and well understood and it did a good job of working with its staff during the pandemic. Despite this, there are some areas where it needs to improve.

We acknowledge that the service has fewer available opportunities for staff progression compared to other bigger services, but staff feel frustrated that prospects for developing their career and being promoted are limited. Some feel that their workloads are too great and are unsure about whether the service has any plans to deal with this in the future.

Equality, diversity and inclusion doesn’t appear to be a priority for the service. Its policies and action plans in this area are limited and it relies on its staff to keep themselves informed and resolve issues locally. It needs to do more to engage with both its equality, diversity and inclusion working group and with external networks to inform this area. It should particularly focus on its promotions process and how it develops future leaders. Accordingly, our assessment of this area has dropped from ‘good’ in our previous report to ‘requires improvement’.

Questions for People

1

How well does the FRS promote its values and culture?

Requires improvement

Buckinghamshire Fire and Rescue Service requires improvement at promoting the right values and culture.

Buckinghamshire Fire and Rescue Service was good in its 2018/19 assessment.

Fire and rescue services should have positive and inclusive cultures, modelled by the behaviours of their senior leaders. Health and safety should be effectively promoted, and staff should have access to a range of wellbeing support that can be tailored to their individual needs.

The service could do more to ensure a positive and inclusive culture for all staff. Accordingly, our assessment of this area has dropped from good since our first inspection.

Areas for improvement

  • The service should assure itself that senior managers are visible and demonstrate service values through their behaviours.
  • The service should make sure that it effectively communicates its absence/attendance procedures for consistent application.

We set out our detailed findings below. These are the basis for our judgment of the service’s performance in this area.

The service has clearly defined values, but these are not always demonstrated

The service continues to have well-defined values that are understood by most staff. Work is underway to communicate how the new national Code of Ethics aligns with the service’s current values. Staff told us that they were proud to work for the service and do all they can to keep communities safe under difficult circumstances.

The service adapted its plan for working with its staff during the pandemic and this was well received. Virtual communication and weekly newsletters kept the service well involved. Staff reported that senior leaders have become less visible since face-to-face station visits and the chief’s birthday forums had to stop during the pandemic. The service should continue to adapt its communications to respond to the changing environment and use all available methods.

We are not certain that the culture of the organisation always aligns with its values. Some behaviours we saw or were told about didn’t meet the service’s stated expectations. For example, some staff reported managers not taking action to tackle poor behaviour. The staff survey results also showed that 30.8 percent of respondents felt that senior leaders don’t consistently model the service’s values.

The workforce’s wellbeing, both mental and physical health, is supported by the service, but requires review to fully meet the needs of its staff

The service continues to have well understood wellbeing policies that are available to staff. A significant range of wellbeing support is available to support both physical and mental health. For example, an employee assistance programme is widely promoted for use at any time by any employee to support problems outside work that might affect their wellbeing. The service has trained members of staff in mental health first aid. Staff can access a range of support via its occupational health team, but staff said this does not always meet individual staff needs.

There are good provisions in place to promote staff wellbeing. This includes a dedicated welfare officer, about whom we heard overwhelmingly positive feedback. Most staff reported they understand and have confidence in the wellbeing support processes available. Of those who responded to our staff survey, 96.6 percent reported that they are able to access support services for their mental health and 93.1 percent of respondents said they felt confident that the service would provide support following an incident.

Line managers could do more to involve the workforce and to understand what else they need to support the individual needs of staff, as there has been no review or change to the internal support staff can access, such as employee networks. Of the staff who responded to the staff survey, 31.5 percent said they had either never or only once in the last year spoken with their line manager about their personal health and wellbeing.

There is a positive health and safety culture within the service

The service continues to have effective and well understood health and safety policies and procedures in place. The health and safety documents we reviewed were in date and comprehensive. The interviews we conducted with staff were positive about the health and safety culture within the service. The service has a health and safety management board that is attended by a representative of the fire authority. Reviews of the information that supports the health and safety culture take place regularly.

Policies and procedures are readily available and effectively promoted to all staff. It is pleasing that of those who responded to the staff survey, 97.3 percent said that they feel their personal safety and welfare is treated seriously at work. Additionally, 74.1 percent agreed that they have access to the time and equipment needed to maintain operational fitness. The representative bodies for the service also reported that the service provides a supportive approach to health, safety and wellbeing for staff. Both staff and representative bodies have confidence in the health and safety approach taken by the service. The service needs to continue to monitor secondary contracts (staff taking on extra shifts or other work) and lone working to further limit breaches of the working time directive. They also need to consider the implications this may have on staff.

Absence is not consistently managed within the service

As part of our inspection, we reviewed some case files to consider how the service manages and supports staff through absence. The service has an absence policy, but it isn’t widely understood by all staff and managers. From the files we reviewed, the policy wasn’t always followed – for example, there were instances when the service’s absence triggers had been met but no follow-up action or discussion was shown in the return to work log.

The service has an intensive support process for employees on long-term absence, which is managed centrally. This has several positive impacts on the service’s employees.

Overall, the service has seen a slight increase in staff absences over the last 12 months. Many of the additional absences were linked to COVID-19. The service should make sure that it effectively communicates all of its absence processes to managers so that they are consistently applied.

2

How well does the FRS get the right people with the right skills?

Requires improvement

Buckinghamshire Fire and Rescue Service requires improvement at getting the right people with the right skills.

Buckinghamshire Fire and Rescue Service was good in its 2018/19 assessment.

Fire and rescue services should have workforce plans in place that are linked to their integrated risk management plans, set out their current and future skills requirements, and address capability gaps. This should be supplemented by a culture of continuous improvement that includes appropriate learning and development across the service.

The service could do more in this area and accordingly, the grade has dropped from good since our first inspection.

Areas for improvement

  • The service should review its succession planning to make sure that it has effective arrangements in place to manage staff turnover while continuing to provide its core service to the public.
  • The service should assure itself that all staff are appropriately trained to fulfil their role.

We set out our detailed findings below. These are the basis for our judgment of the service’s performance in this area.

The service needs to do more to ensure its future workforce planning

There was very little time for this service to implement change between publication of our first inspection report and the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. The service has made some progress in developing its succession plan beyond 2020, given the area for improvement identified in 2019. The service should not be too cautious in its approach and should put in place an achievable succession plan for the whole organisation so that it has effective arrangements to implement its IRMP.

The service currently models the number of staff due to retire and assumes there will be additional leavers in the year ahead. It is positive that the service supports promotions and secondments externally from the service, but recent moves have left gaps in capability that now need internal staff to be upskilled. Temporary promotions are used appropriately to fill short-term resourcing gaps. But more is needed by the service to improve how it considers future needs and undertakes succession planning.

The service has a positive learning and improvement culture, but could do more to make sure all staff receive necessary training

A culture of continuous improvement is promoted throughout the service and staff are encouraged to learn and develop. For example, all protection team members and two of the prevention department have been encouraged to complete the level 3 (and above in some cases) qualification in fire safety.

We are pleased to see that the service has a range of training resources in place. These include practical and e-learning-based theory development for incident command, safeguarding and other main areas.

Although learning and development is provided by the service for many areas of its work, it doesn’t always meet the needs of staff or indeed the service. For example, there is no ‘in-house’ IT training available to staff for existing or new software and computer use. The service relies on project or departmental managers to implement training on new systems and technological processes, which can result in staff completing forms and processes inconsistently. Training in prevention, management of staff absence, resolving workforce concerns, equality, diversity and inclusion and completion of site-specific risk information could be improved.

The service has a focus on risk-critical training, but could do more to make sure it continues to have the right capabilities to carry out the integrated risk management plan

Risk-critical training is given a high enough priority by the service. Staff training is monitored via an electronic system that ensures that annual validation of main skills in operational firefighting is effective and up-to-date. The service identifies training-themed months throughout the year to support operational learning and development. This allows staff to undertake their operational roles effectively and for the service to actively monitor immediate shortages in specialist skills. The service has robust measures in place to temporarily remove staff – those who have not demonstrated the required level of competence – from risk-critical roles, affording them time to retrain, develop and be re-assessed.

The service is aware of a current shortage in competent emergency response drivers, incident commanders and some staff are waiting to validate their breathing apparatus competency, which can have a negative effect on fire engine availability and need constant staffing changes.

3

How well does the FRS ensure fairness and promote diversity?

Requires improvement

Buckinghamshire Fire and Rescue Service requires improvement at ensuring fairness and promoting diversity.

Buckinghamshire Fire and Rescue Service was good in its 2018/19 assessment.

Creating a more representative workforce will provide huge benefits for fire and rescue services. This includes greater access to talent and different ways of thinking, and improved understanding of and engagement with their local communities. Each service should make sure that equality, diversity and inclusion are firmly embedded and understood across the organisation. This includes successfully taking steps to remove inequality and making progress to improve fairness, diversity and inclusion at all levels within the service. It should proactively seek and respond to feedback from staff and make sure any action taken is meaningful.

Cause of concern

The service hasn’t made enough progress since the last inspection to improve equality, diversity and inclusion.

Recommendation

By 31 January 2022, the service should:

  • give greater priority to how it increases awareness of equality, diversity and inclusion across the organisation;
  • make sure it has appropriate ways to engage with and seek feedback from all staff, including those from under-represented groups;
  • make improvements to the way it collects equality data to better understand its workforce demographics and needs;
  • ensure it has robust processes in place to undertake equality impact assessments, implement and review any actions required; and
  • be more ambitious in its efforts to attract a more diverse workforce which better reflects the community it serves.

We set out our detailed findings below. These are the basis for our judgment of the service’s performance in this area.

The service seeks staff feedback, but it does not always act on this to make positive changes

Although the service does have some means of gathering staff feedback, they are inconsistent and not wide-ranging. For example, representative bodies and staff associations reported that they would like to see improvements in the way in which the service works with them, and there is an opportunity for the service to better promote challenge from the workforce. Also, the return rate from on-call staff to the staff survey was much lower than we had hoped for, despite the service promoting it to them. This suggests that the service needs to find other ways to work with on-call staff.

Staff have limited confidence in the service’s staff survey feedback mechanism and don’t think this is effective. There was a mixture of feelings from the staff we interviewed about the impact that the service’s own culture survey of 2020 had on improving the service. The survey received a 77 percent return rate from which it could take positive and meaningful challenge. The survey identified main points for improvement within the service, but progress on these has been interrupted due to COVID-19, and we saw no evidence that implementation of action plans was being monitored centrally to make sure improvements are made.

The service needs to improve its approach to equality, diversity and inclusion

The service hasn’t made enough progress to improve its approach to equality, diversity and inclusion. The service’s understanding of the diversity of its workforce is insufficient to formulate an effective diversity plan. The current policy and associated action plan for this doesn’t focus on effectively gathering workforce information, training and development or staff support opportunities, and the monitoring of improvements and developments in this area is limited. The service relies on its staff keeping themselves informed about issues and concerns about inclusion and leaves issues to be dealt with locally. The equality, diversity and inclusion group could have better alignment with strategic management and does not provide enough opportunity to seek the views and feedback from the service’s under-represented groups.

Although the service has a form to use in equality impact assessments, the effect on each of the protected characteristics wasn’t being properly assessed or actioned. More could be done to work with both the internal equality, diversity and inclusion working group and external networks to inform this. The service has a consultation process for developing policies, process and practices, but the equality impact assessment may not be reviewed by those with a specialist knowledge of equality principles, which could lead to the service not making appropriate changes. For example, we were informed that some stations do not have gender-appropriate facilities and staff weren’t aware of plans to change this. Many of the completed equality impact assessments we reviewed identified few or no impacts with regard to protected characteristics.

The service needs to improve its approach to recruitment

More still needs to be done by the service to increase staff diversity. According to Home Office data, since 2017/18, 6.7 percent of new joiners self-declared as being from a black, Asian or minority ethnic (BAME) group and 23.2 percent have been female. According to the service’s data, for firefighter apprenticeship recruitment specifically, 14.6 percent of all new apprentices were women, while 93.5 percent declared they were from a white background – the remaining 6.5 percent didn’t declare an ethnicity and no apprentices self-declared as BAME. In relation to the service’s entire workforce, 4.4 percent are BAME and 19 percent are women. While the service has made some progress in recruiting more women via its apprenticeship scheme, this is only a marginal change and so the area for improvement identified in 2019 remains.

Recruitment campaigns aren’t always directed at or accessible to under-represented groups and the service’s approach isn’t leading to changes in this area that would increase the diversity of its workforce. For example, the service has used various radio advertisement opportunities and holds ‘have a go days’, but these have not greatly increased the numbers applying to the service and there is no evaluation of the effectiveness of these approaches. The service could do more to understand all the available opportunities it has to actively promote its vacancies and recruit a more diverse workforce. Our staff survey showed that 29.4 percent (43 of 146) feel that the service is not effective in ensuring that recruitment processes are fair and accessible.

The service has made some progress to promote fairness in its internal promotion and progression processes

In the short time since our previous inspection, the service has put considerable effort into developing its internal operational promotion and progression processes for some levels of the service. These processes are well understood by staff, who see the selection board process for promoting operational staff to middle management as fair.

The promotion and recruitment policies are comprehensive and cover opportunities to develop into operational roles. Staff reported wanting this process to be applied throughout the service to all roles and opportunities, including support staff. Our staff survey showed that 54.1 percent (79 of 146) of those who responded don’t agree that the promotion process in the service is fair.

The service needs to do more to make sure its internal promotion processes are fair for all roles. The current process for promotion only covers operational roles from firefighter to station manager. We were unable to assess whether the policies had been followed in the recent promotion process for station manager to group manager or group manager to area manager. The service should evaluate this process to make sure all staff involved are receiving feedback as per the guidance and it is seen as a fair process by all staff.

The service could do more to make sure that its policies for tackling bullying, harassment and discrimination are being followed

Although the service does have clear policies and procedures in place, staff have limited confidence in the service’s ability to deal effectively with all cases of bullying, harassment, discrimination, grievances and discipline. In the staff survey conducted during our inspection in 2021, 89.4 percent of staff who reported feelings of bullying, harassment or discrimination felt either unable to report the situation or that little had changed resulting from the report they made. The service does not routinely collect information from exit interviews. These would allow the service to gather significant information that could help it to better understand how to retain staff – this is currently a problem for the service.

The service could go further to improve staff confidence in the handling of bullying, harassment and discrimination. In our staff survey, 13.7 (20 of 146) percent of staff told us they had been subject to harassment and 18.5 (27 of 146) percent to discrimination over the past 12 months. Of these staff, only 10.6 percent thought their concerns had been properly dealt with by the service and the majority of these respondents identified someone more senior than them as being the cause of the bullying, harassment or discrimination A more consistent approach could be taken to providing continuing training in these areas.

4

How well does the FRS manage performance and develop leaders?

Requires improvement

Buckinghamshire Fire and Rescue Service requires improvement at managing performance and developing leaders.

Buckinghamshire Fire and Rescue Service required improvement in its 2018/19 assessment.

Fire and rescue services should have robust and meaningful performance management arrangements in place for their staff. All staff should be supported to meet their potential and there should be a focus on developing high-potential staff and improving diversity in leadership roles.

Areas for improvement

  • The service should put in place an open and fair process to identify, develop and support high-potential staff and aspiring leaders.
  • The service should put in place a system to actively manage staff careers, with the aim of diversifying the pool of future and current leaders.

We set out our detailed findings below. These are the basis for our judgment of the service’s performance in this area.

The service has introduced a good process for managing individuals’ performance

There is a good performance management system in place, which allows the service to effectively develop and assess the individual performance of most staff. Staff felt confident in the performance review arrangements. For example, the revised personal development review (PDR) reflects the service’s corporate plan. It was well understood throughout the service and most staff reported having completed the process with their line manager within the last 12 months. Home Office data shows that the number of staff with a completed PDR has increased each year up to 2020/21, when 60 percent of wholetime staff completed a PDR, in comparison to just 43 percent in the year 2019/20. This is a significant improvement, but we heard from some staff that they felt the continuation of any positive results and support of this process were dependent on their line manager’s involvement with it.

Through our staff survey, it is positive that 94.5 percent of staff reported that they have received regular discussions with their manager, but only 69.7 percent said that these were meaningful. Staff informed us that they have individual goals and objectives, and regular assessments of performance.

The service should do more to develop leaders and high-potential staff at all levels

The service needs to improve how it actively manages the career pathways of staff, including those with specialist skills for leadership roles. We are concerned about the process not being fairly applied throughout the whole workforce.

The service has some talent management schemes in place to develop leaders and high-potential staff, such as project roles, shadowing and development centres, but they aren’t managed in a way that is open or fair for all levels of the service. For example, 54.1 percent of responses in the staff survey said the processes for promotion are unfair and 41.8 percent said that they didn’t feel as though they received the same level of opportunity to develop as others. This has resulted in inconsistency and undermines staff perception of fairness in the process.

The service is considering putting in place more formal arrangements to support members of staff to become leaders, based on guidance from the National Fire Chiefs Council on leadership. We reviewed a business case for the implementation of leadership and management training for all middle and senior managers and concluded that the service could still do more to be clear about how it identifies and supports those with high potential. As such, the area for improvement grade is still appropriate

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