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Northamptonshire 2021/22

People

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

Last updated 27/07/2022
Requires improvement

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

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

The service has taken some action to respond to the areas we identified in our first inspection, but it still needs to make significant improvements.

Senior leaders show strong strategic intent to improve the culture, embed values and promote EDI. But the service isn’t making enough progress in this area. We found that it is failing to implement the objectives outlined in its strategies to make sure it effectively looks after its people. Staff widely misunderstand the benefits of a diverse workforce. Despite a high proportion of staff members understanding the service’s values, there are still examples of behaviours that are contrary to those values.

The service has a range of appropriate policies and procedures to manage workforce concerns such as grievances and disciplines. But it inconsistently applies these policies and there are managers throughout the organisation who don’t understand them.

Since our last inspection, the service has made some improvements to its promotion process. This is now more structured and has improved staff members’ understanding and perception of fairness. It could still take more action to identify and develop high-potential leaders to meet its long-term needs.

The service has positively responded to our cause of concern about its processes to provide, record and monitor risk-critical training. It now has appropriate systems in place to make sure skills are maintained and that there is effective corporate oversight of this process.

 

Questions for People

1

How well does the FRS promote its values and culture?

Requires improvement

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

Northamptonshire 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 promoted effectively, and staff should have access to a range of wellbeing support that can be tailored to their individual needs.

Areas for improvement

  • The service should make sure it has effective absence and attendance procedures in place.
  • The service should formally monitor overtime and secondary contracts to make sure working hours are not exceeded.
  • The service should assure itself that middle managers are visible and demonstrate service values through their behaviours.

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

Service values are not fully embedded

The service has well-defined values, which staff know. In our staff survey, 97 percent (193 of 200) of respondents were aware of the service’s statement of values. The service is making progress in embedding the new national Core Code of Ethics. We heard how it is integrating the code into policies, training and performance conversations.

Despite this, values are not translating into an effective culture throughout the organisation. We found that the visibility and approachability of managers varied across the service. Some staff members told us that if an issue could not be resolved locally, they would not feel comfortable approaching middle managers with a problem at work.

Through our staff survey, 38 percent (73 of 193) of respondents said senior leaders don’t consistently model and maintain service values. Although many staff told us during the inspection that they are individually prepared to challenge unacceptable behaviour, we also heard examples of situations that the service hadn’t resolved. The results of our staff survey showed that 44 percent (87 of 200) of respondents felt unable to challenge freely.

Staff can access services to support mental and physical health

The service continues to have effective wellbeing policies in place that are available to staff. A significant range of wellbeing support is available to support both physical and mental health. The service’s outsourced occupational health unit and several other external providers can give specialist support. It has also introduced an internal wellbeing team. This is made up of staff from across the organisation who have all trained as mental health first aiders and give support to colleagues, particularly following exposure to traumatic incidents. Most staff we spoke to were overwhelmingly positive of the benefits the welfare team has brought about.

In our 2018 inspection, we found that although wellbeing provisions were in place, not all staff understood how to access them. The service has made good progress to improve this and to actively promote the way it supports staff wellbeing. This includes making information available through internal communication networks and displaying it in buildings. In our survey, 95 percent (189 of 200) of respondents told us they feel able to access services to support mental wellbeing. To ensure these provisions remain effective, the service should make sure it holds wellbeing conversations with all staff; 31 percent (62 of 200) of respondents told us they discussed their health and wellbeing with their manager less than once a year or not at all.

There is a positive culture of health and safety management

The service continues to have effective and well understood health and safety policies and procedures in place. It uses a systematic approach to report, record and investigate accidents and near misses. We found examples of the service positively using the learning and recommendations from investigations to inform future practice and reduce the likelihood of re-occurrences.

These policies and procedures are readily available and effectively promoted to all staff. It also makes sure all staff receive a basic level of health and safety training, and those with line management responsibilities must complete an Institution of Occupational Safety and Health course. Our survey showed that 90 percent (179 of 200) of respondents felt their personal safety and welfare is treated seriously at work.

The service also robustly manages the fitness testing of operational staff and has procedures in place to support those who don’t meet the required benchmark.

The service needs to improve the way it monitors staff working hours

The service doesn’t effectively monitor staff who have secondary employment or dual contracts to make sure they comply with the secondary employment policy and don’t work excessive hours. It has procedures in place to make sure staff have enough rest between duties, but it doesn’t have a system in place to monitor the total hours they work. During our inspection we saw evidence of an audit the service had recently completed of overtime hours. But this wasn’t a structured or regular process. It also didn’t consider dual-role contract staff.

The service doesn’t consistently apply its absence management procedures

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 staff and managers don’t widely understand it. From the files we reviewed, we saw several inconsistent decisions made because of lack of guidance or because managers hadn’t used their discretion well. Managers don’t always follow policy. For example, they don’t always complete return to work interviews or make occupational health referrals, even for long-term absences. The way managers keep in touch with employees during periods of absence is inconsistent and subject to no formal recording in many cases.

2

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

Good

Northamptonshire Fire and Rescue Service is good at getting the right people with the right skills.

Northamptonshire Fire and Rescue Service was inadequate 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.

Areas for improvement

The service should assure itself that staff with managerial responsibilities are appropriately trained for their role.

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

Workforce planning ensures the required skills and capabilities are available

In our 2018 inspection we identified that the service didn’t have a workforce plan in place and that training plans weren’t linked to the IRMP. The service now has a workforce strategy that assesses succession planning and establishment requirements. It translates this into plans for recruitment, training and promotion. The workforce plan is based on various scenarios, particularly relating to possible variations in the retirement profile. This makes sure skills and capabilities align with what is needed to effectively deliver the IRMP.

Workforce and succession planning is subject to consistent scrutiny in the form of regular meetings to discuss requirements. This involves managers from across the organisation. The service may wish to consider how it could better use these meetings to make sure its on-call stations have the right skills and capabilities. We found evidence of a lack of skills (for example, fire engine drivers) inhibiting operational performance. There was no clear plan to resolve these problems either locally or through the establishment meeting.

Most staff told us they can access the training they need to be effective in their role. The service’s training plans make sure they can maintain competence and capability effectively. Of the staff who responded to our survey, 73 percent (145 of 200) agreed they have received sufficient training to effectively do their job.

The service has improved the way it records and monitors risk-critical training

Our last inspection identified a cause of concern that the service didn’t have systems in place to effectively provide, record and monitor risk-critical training. We are pleased to find it has made significant progress in this area.

The service uses a single electronic system to monitor staff competence. It records centrally provided training (for example, breathing apparatus refreshers), e-learning and station-based maintenance of competence. Both operational and non-operational staff use the system.

The service regularly updates its understanding of staff members’ skills and risk‑critical safety capabilities through a dashboard tool, where managers have a clear view of any outstanding training needs. This is reviewed at a competency board, which forms part of the service’s performance management framework. This approach means the service can identify gaps in workforce capabilities and resilience. This helps it make sound and financially sustainable decisions about current and future needs.

Throughout our inspection we found that managers were confident in the system and actively used it to maintain their teams’ skills and capabilities. We reviewed a range of training records and found that compliance with training frequencies is very high. For example, of all the files we reviewed for wearing breathing apparatus in live fire conditions, 100 percent of employees had completed the training within the required timescale. This was replicated across a range of skills.

The service provides a range of learning and development resources

A culture of continuous improvements is promoted throughout the service and staff are encouraged to learn and develop.

We are pleased to see that the service has a range of learning and development resources in place. Although operational, prevention and protection staff receive adequate training, we heard that not all non-operational staff have access to the same opportunities as their colleagues. Of the staff who responded to our survey, 39 percent (78 of 200) told us that they aren’t satisfied with the learning and development opportunities available to them.

The service has recently increased the leadership and management training it gives its supervisory and middle managers. Through continuing professional development sessions, it covers subjects such as grievance processes, workplace diversity and talent conversations. But not all staff have attended these sessions and some managers told us they have never had any form of leadership and management training. This was reflected in our findings around how well the service resolves workforce concerns.

The service should make sure it has a structure in place to ensure all managers receive the necessary training to perform their role, in particular the application of HR policies and procedures.

3

How well does the FRS ensure fairness and promote diversity?

Requires improvement

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

Northamptonshire Fire and Rescue Service required improvement 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 equality, diversity and inclusion are firmly understood and demonstrated throughout the organisation. This includes successfully taking steps to remove inequality and making progress to improve fairness, diversity and inclusion at all levels of 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 EDI.

Recommendations

By 31 August 2022, the service should develop an action plan to:

  • engage with its staff to develop clear EDI objectives and training to increase awareness of EDI and its importance across the organisation, including understanding and addressing the impact positive action is having on staff;
  • make sure it has robust processes in place to undertake equality impact assessments and review any actions agreed as a result;
  • make improvements to the way it collects equality data to better understand its workforce demographic and needs; and
  • support staff and managers to confidently challenge and manage inappropriate behaviour.

Areas for improvement

  • The service should make sure that policies used to handle grievance and discipline cases are applied in a consistent and timely manner across the workforce, that staff have confidence in the process, and that those involved in these processes are appropriately trained.
  • The service should make sure problems identified through staff feedback mechanisms are appropriately addressed and that actions it takes are communicated to staff in a timely way.

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 feedback from staff, but this is not always meaningful

Since our last inspection, the service has developed several ways to engage with staff on issues and decisions that affect them. This includes methods to build all-staff awareness of fairness and diversity, as well as targeted engagement to identify matters that affect different staff groups. Members of the leadership team visit fire stations regularly and the chief fire officer hosts a monthly video conferencing call, which all staff members can join.

We found during our inspection that some staff are able to openly share ideas in these forums. But we also found the feedback methods don’t have credibility with some of the workforce. Also, leaders don’t consistently give feedback in response to suggestions. The results of our staff survey showed that 52 percent (103 of 200) of respondents don’t feel confident in the mechanisms for giving feedback. For example, even though staff trialling a new variable crewing system at two fire stations have been involved in extensive consultation exercises, we heard that the service hasn’t responded to many of the issues raised.

The service doesn’t consistently resolve workforce concerns

The service should improve staff understanding of bullying, harassment and discrimination, including their duty to eliminate them. In our staff survey, 17 percent (34 of 200) of respondents told us they had been subject to harassment and 24 percent (48 of 200) to discrimination over the past 12 months. Of these staff, only 25 percent thought reporting their concerns had led to or would lead to a meaningful response.

The service has clear policies and procedures in place. But we found that where behaviours were robustly challenged, it was usually because of senior leadership involvement. Overall, we found that staff have limited confidence in the service’s ability to deal effectively with cases of bullying, harassment and discrimination or other grievances. Many do not view the process as confidential or impartial. During our inspection we found inconsistencies in the way the service applied policies, for example:

  • cases raised with supervisory and middle managers take a disproportionate amount of time to resolve;
  • staff don’t always understand the outcomes of grievances and how they can appeal;
  • staff don’t always feel they receive sufficient welfare support while going through the process; and
  • it is unclear how the service makes sure the outcomes of investigations are consistent and proportionate.

The service should make sure it applies the contents of its policies more consistently in all cases. It should appropriately train those involved, and its HR function should give them appropriate levels of support and expertise.

The workforce doesn’t understand the purpose and benefits of diversity

The service takes some action to understand and remove the risk of disproportionality in recruitment processes. For example, it has a reasonable adjustments policy, which it applies throughout selection processes. We found evidence of the service using it well in a promotions process.

The service undertakes some positive action to make sure its processes are fair and accessible to candidates from a range of backgrounds. Staff from across the service were involved in a range of targeted events before its most recent wholetime firefighter recruitment campaign.

In our 2018 inspection we found that staff didn’t understand the benefits of positive action or a diverse workforce. Disappointingly, this continues to be the case. Throughout our inspection we consistently found that operational staff don’t support the service’s efforts to improve workforce diversity. We heard several examples of staff using gender-inappropriate and unacceptable language to describe the service’s work in this area. Many staff we spoke to incorrectly believe the service lowers its entry standards to recruit individuals with specific protected characteristics. Some were explicitly not supportive of positive action events. The service needs to do more to make sure its existing staff understand and support the action it is taking.

The service has made some progress to improve gender diversity for all staff in the organisation. At 31 March 2021, 18 percent of the workforce were women. The England average at that date was also 18 percent. The figure for Northamptonshire is a 10 percent increase since our last inspection. The service can’t accurately say how well its workforce represents the residential population from minority ethnic backgrounds as it doesn’t hold ethnicity data for a high proportion of its workforce. Of the service’s staff members, 37.6 percent haven’t declared their ethnicity to the service (against an England average of 9 percent).

The service knows it needs to go further to increase workforce diversity, especially in middle and senior management roles. But it is unclear what plans the service has in place to address this. We found no evidence of any positive action taking place in the latest watch and station manager promotion processes.

The service is making slow progress in implementing improvements to EDI

The service needs to improve its approach to EDI. Senior leaders show a strong strategic intent and there is a detailed strategy in place, but this isn’t yet resulting in the improvements the service needs. It has taken steps to establish a staff network group, but it isn’t using this to its fullest extent. Much of the service’s work focuses on gender equality, as opposed to the full range of protected characteristics.

Although the service has a process in place to assess equality impact, the impact on each protected characteristic isn’t properly assessed or acted on. We reviewed various equality impact assessments, which were poor in quality and detail. The service hadn’t consulted with the staff network group on any of the assessments we examined. And it doesn’t hold good enough workforce equality data to inform its impact assessments. This means it can’t effectively understand how potential changes may affect its workforce.

As with positive action, we found that some staff don’t understand or support the service’s intent to promote equality and inclusion. The service should continue to make improvements to its processes in this area and make sure staff at all levels of the organisation understand the contents of its EDI strategy.

4

How well does the FRS manage performance and develop leaders?

Requires improvement

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

Northamptonshire 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 staff and improving diversity into leadership roles.

Areas for improvement

  • The service should improve all staff understanding and application of the performance development review process, ensuring it uses this to develop talent within the organisation.
  • The service should put in place an open and fair process to identify, develop and support high-potential staff and aspiring 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 doesn’t consistently manage individual performance

The service has an inconsistent process in place for performance and development. Staff don’t all have specific and individual objectives or have had their performance assessed in the past year. In the year to 31 March 2021, 71 percent of wholetime staff, 81 percent of support staff and 61 percent of on-call staff received an appraisal. And 33 percent (66 of 200) of staff have a performance conversation once a year or less.

Many staff we spoke to don’t view the appraisal process as meaningful or effective. Managers told us they don’t feel it effectively links to organisational objectives. Once completed, appraisals are stored locally and not submitted for review. This results in an inconsistent approach, meaning development needs are identified but not always actioned.

We are aware that the service is introducing a new personal development review system in April 2022. It should make sure it uses this as an opportunity to formalise its appraisal process, introduce central quality assurance and tangibly develop talent within the organisation.

The service has improved its promotion processes

We are encouraged to find that since our last inspection, the service has put considerable effort into developing its promotion and progression processes so they are fair and understood by staff. The promotion and progression policies are comprehensive and cover opportunities in all roles.

The service’s workforce plan includes a detailed annual promotion timetable. We found most staff understand this timetable and can use it to plan and prepare for future opportunities. This has improved staff perceptions of fairness and consistency in the process. The service uses temporary promotions appropriately to fill short-term resourcing gaps. At 31 March 2021, the average length of a temporary promotion was 192 days. This is reflective of the structured annual promotion process.

We found that the templates and tools the service uses to manage and record promotion processes at different levels are inconsistent. The service may wish to consider standardising them.

The service has effective succession planning processes in place, which allow it to effectively manage the career pathways of its staff, including roles needing specialist skills. This is considered by the establishment group, which determines future promotional requirements. The service has introduced a separate talent conversation process to help those seeking promotion. But we found that not all managers are using it effectively.

The service could still do more to identify and develop high-potential leaders

In our last inspection we identified an area for improvement that the service needed to put in place a process to identify, develop and support high-potential staff. We found it has since taken some limited steps to address this, but it could still do more.

It has some talent management schemes in place to develop leaders and high‑potential staff. This includes a talent pool process, where staff receive some additional development opportunities. It isn’t clear how the service uses this, other than to fill projected vacancies at station manager level in the short term.

The service should consider putting in place more formal arrangements to identify and support members of staff to become senior leaders in the longer term. The service has detailed information in its workforce plan on the expected vacancies at each level of the organisation up to 2025. But it isn’t using this information to drive succession planning and identification of future high-potential talent at all levels.

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