Away with away days

Corporate bonding?

As regular readers will know, we at WLLG love a good guest post, and today’s submission is all about the council away day. If you’ve got an article or topic you’d like us to share with our readers send it in to, but not until you’ve enjoyed this.

The TaxPayers’ Alliance (the soi disant independent, grassroots campaign for lower taxes) have fixed their sights on another example of public sector profligacy – council awaydays.

This is based on research carried out by Sky News. Sky News are playing their part in exposing the scandalous extent to which councils fritter away the taxes of hard-working families by launching a blog to investigate these issues, called Waste Watch.

Councils up and down the land are spending huge sums of money financing jollies for staff – some of the more interesting items include £80 for laser tag (Rutland DC), Leicestershire County Council, who apparently “splashed out” on £231 for a barge, and Basingstoke and Deane BC who spent the princely sum of £111.55 on a portable toilet. Presumably this was for quite a small awayday – you can only fit three or four people inside one of them, at a push (believe me).

It’s good to see that the press and campaigning groups are zeroing in on this expenditure, which adds up to £2 million across every council in the land, rather than concentrating on less pressing concerns such as defence procurement and the cost of policing reform.

The TPA finish their article by saying:

Councils need to make better use of their own resources and learn from councils that have managed to arrange away days but at no or very little cost to the taxpayer. Councils keep telling us they’ve made all savings possible, these findings tell us this is not the case.

Leaving aside the last sentence (the figures almost certainly are 08/09 or 09/10 ones – I doubt whether a single authority is spending anything like the sums quoted during this financial year) this sounds pretty sensible. It is also interesting because it tacitly admits the utility of awaydays – the attack is not on them going ahead in the first place but how much they cost.

So how useful are they?Why are they so popular and why have costs for them apparently “spiralled out of control”? Like most local government employees (current and former) I have been on my fair share of awaydays – ranging from a two-day extravanganza in a country house retreat in Surrey to five hours in a Civic Centre committee room where we had our lunch bought for us from the canteen by the boss.

But whatever they look like they are meant to perform the following functions:

  • Getting people to think creatively about their work;
  • Getting people to talk to colleagues with whom they wouldn’t normally work and share ideas;
  • Giving people a safe place to suggest new, dangerous or unusual ideas;
  • Giving people an opportunity to think long term about the future of the authority and its place in the community.

Not all awaydays meet these lofty goals. I’ve been on awaydays that have consisted of series of senior management presentations, explaining how fantastic chief officers are and how we ought to be jolly grateful that we are lucky to work for such a high-performing authority. But the best awaydays challenge those present to think differently about the work they do.

How do you do this? How do you challenge mindsets? Well, part of it involves removing yourself entirely from the day-to-day routine of your job – which is why the “away” part is so important. A game of laser tag, or other alleged “team building” activities may seem stupid, or a waste of money. But what if ideas come out of that day that end up saving the council many thousands of pounds – what if by the mere act of stepping outside of your normal comfort zone you’ll be more prepared to think of, and agree to, ideas that would never have seen the light of day in a normal office environment.

To really get the most value out of this process, you need to mix people up from around the authority – get people from different departments talking to each other. Which means that successful awaydays could need to be big events – with all the expense that entails of hiring a venue and incidental costs. These kinds of awayday – which may be intended to involve everyone in developing the authority’s service priorities for the next three years (for example) will be expensive. I’m not an organisational psychologist so I don’t know how much this is really backed up by evidence – all I can talk about is my anecdotal experience.

But I’ve been to some awaydays that, while they will have cost money to lay on, have resulted in some significant organisational changes which have, in turn, led to efficiencies. It’s one of those “invest to save” arguments, related to value and effectiveness, that are so popular at the moment. We shouldn’t automatically not run large internal events – but we should challenge ourselves about the value they bring.

If the value and impact is marginal, it’s an argument for changing our approach. But if the organisation, staff and, ultimately, local people are getting something out of the process, councils should not feel guilty in continuing to finance and run these events, as part of their commitment to finding efficiencies and working more effectively.

Welovelocalgovernment is a blog written by UK local government officers. If you have a piece you’d like to submit or any comments you’d like to make please drop us a line at:

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One Comment on “Away with away days”

  1. localgov Says:

    Yet another reason for me to dislike the TPA…

    As said, the money spent on these things is usually tiny in the grand scheme of things, and the value enormous. Getting away for a single day to work with your team and tackle tricky issues from a fresh perspective is invaluable, and has led to some real breakthroughs for my own projects in the past; where before I was stuck, through workshops at away days colleagues have helped me get through barriers and I have helped them to do the same.

    And it may be simple, but you really do need to get away from the office. If you sit in the same environment for a day then you don’t break out of that mindset, and an away day simply becomes an extremely long meeting.

    Maybe each Council could host away days for neighbouring Councils – meaning people would end up away from their own office, but overall costs nothing in terms of room hire?

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