Sunderland City Council delivers more than 700 key public services to around 300,000 people. It faced one of the biggest challenges in its history: to find a way to continue delivering the same services but for £100 million less.
As well as meeting a tough three-year deadline, the council was determined to make the savings without compromising on its values. And that meant no mass redundancies.
Dave Rippon, head of organizational development at Sunderland City Council, comments: “As one of the largest employers in northeast England, mass redundancies would not only prove devastating to the local community but also come with their own financial overhead. We were keen to find an alternative strategy that would enable us to safeguard frontline services and jobs.”
As part of a groundbreaking business transformation program, the council wanted to tap into existing resources and talent to ensure it was maximizing productivity and service quality. “We imposed a freeze on external recruitment, which meant any frontline vacancies that came up had to be filled by redeploying current staff,” explains Rippon.
For this approach to work, the council needed to identify the personal strengths associated with each vacancy and then match them to internal candidates—many of whom often worked in completely different disciplines.
By replacing external recruitment with internal talent identification, we have achieved our cost-saving goals without impacting vital frontline services.
Sunderland City Council worked with our team to develop a single online assessment that would uncover employees’ true potential—whether they worked in waste management, planning, or a library. It took just three months for the assessment to be developed and rolled out.
“It was vital that we were up and running as quickly as possible. Every month of development delayed the freeze on external recruitment and represented extra external expenditure,” explains Rippon.
Internal candidates now complete an online assessment comprising a range of SHL personality and ability tools. This has been integrated with a job-match system, developed by partner AES Digital Solutions, to enable the council to identify potential candidates as vacancies become available. The integration also minimizes the administrative overhead for the council’s HR team.
“The assessment is embedded in our recruitment process and enables us to establish an active and effective Internal Jobs Market,” comments Rippon. “When an employee applies for a vacancy or their role is discontinued, they complete the online questionnaire and are matched with suitable vacancies.”
By evaluating an employee’s personality, values, and aptitude rather than prior experience and existing skills, the assessment reveals future potential as well as current capabilities. It also includes modules focused on verbal and numerical reasoning capabilities to ensure candidates are suitable for specific roles (e.g., in accounting or communications).
Since the assessment went live more than 4,500 online questionnaires have been completed and more than 2,000 jobs filled via the Internal Jobs Market. “By replacing external recruitment with internal talent identification, we have achieved our cost-saving goals without impacting vital frontline services,” comments Rippon. “We are delivering services to the same or a higher standard with 2,500 fewer staff.”
Sunderland City Council is now rated in the top 20 percent of UK organizations for employee engagement1—despite a recruitment and pay freeze. Before the business transformation and talent identification initiative, it was below average.
“The assessment has helped us put round pegs in round holes. With staff now working in roles that make the most of their talents, they are thriving: They are happier, more engaged, and more productive.”
With full support from trade unions, other councils are now following in Sunderland City Council’s footsteps to deliver similar benefits to their organizations. Not content to rest on its laurels, Sunderland City Council is continuing to improve and refine its processes to deliver an additional £100 million in cost savings.
1 HSE Management Standards.