Changing From Command to Consultative, Firefighter Style

Last Updated Mar 23, 2010 10:45 AM EDT

Peter Dartford knows how Staffordshire Fire Service works, perhaps better than most bosses know their businesses, because he worked up through the ranks, joining the service in 1982. He's well aware of the hierarchical culture that is systemic in the service, which has a tradition of command and control when dealing with staff.

Talking with me at the Public Sector Transformation Summit in Birmingham, Dartford said he had often been frustrated by this culture as a rank-and-file firefighter, because like many of his colleagues, he could see where prescribed process made no sense in the real world but could do nothing about it.
It's this culture he was determined to change when he became CEO in 2008, seeing that it is out of step with new staff, who are more accustomed to challenging their superiors than older generations.

He points out that in certain areas â€"- emergency situations fire fighters are expected to deal with day-to-day â€"- doing what you are told is still important, but it's no longer necessary for managers to adopt this approach through every part of the service.
On seeing the results of an employee audit, conducted shortly after he took the top role, Dartford realised there was a dominant culture of fear and, surprisingly for a fire service, risk aversion. People in the service were afraid of disciplinary action if they tried to do anything in a different way from the one they had been trained. This was a cause for concern because it meant the service couldn't adapt fast enough to meet the changing needs of the communities it served.

Dartford called for a series of consultation sessions to be held by different parts of the service with the task of defining clear mission statements for the organisation based on:

  • Purpose
  • Vision
  • Culture
  • Values
  • Leadership style
These consultation sessions gave staff the opportunity to have a say in how the service was defined. At the end of the process, staff representatives presented him with the leadership messages they thought he should be spreading.

The consultation sessions also recommended tangible changes that they wanted the leadership to implement:

  • Everyone was to be issued with a name badge, where previously, only key people had name badges
  • All staff were to be issued with a new uniform, where previously only firefighters wore a uniform
  • A staff representative was to sit on the management board
  • The management board was to report decisions on the service intranet, for everyone to see.
These are not sweeping changes, but small differences in practice which all helped to make all staff feel they were involved in the way the service was run. As signs that this had been achieved, Dartford saw an increased interest from employees in attending the service working groups and sickness absence dropped from 9.5 shifts to five missed shifts per annum.

Staff have started to offer innovations in the service's processes that save money and improve speed of response to emergencies in its area of operation. The changes Dartford pushed through are saving lives.

Perhaps more tellingly, one firefighter recently went to the management for help overcoming dyslexia, after hiding it from colleagues for decades -- for fear that he would be dismissed.

Dartford has these tips on changing an entrenched command and control culture to a more consultative regime:

  • Nothing is achieved overnight. Process innovations shouldn't be assessed on a pass/fail basis. If something hasn't been achieved at the end of the review, it hasn't been achieved â€" yet.
  • Be aware of the group-memory within the organisation. A tendency to do things in such a way because it was always done that way before is very strong, but it's the people within the organisation that are keeping that memory and so can potentially learn to do things in a different way.
  • Be overt about your cultural change programme. Let everyone know what is happening. Don't let them assume that this is just another change that is being done to them.