External Review of Alcohol Focus Scotland

The review was part of a rolling programme of reviews of voluntary sector agencies that receive more than £100k / year in grant funding from the Scottish Government. The main aim was to assess whether the Scottish Government is receiving value for money in relation to the grant it provides to AFS.

4 Strategic Planning

4.1 There was evidence that AFS has a clear strategy in place, that that strategy was developed through consultation with stakeholders, and that the organisation's activities and staffing have (in the past 12-18 months) been restructured to align with its strategic vision. This process was still ongoing at the time of this review, but it was clear that the organisation is moving in a positive direction and is able to demonstrate value for money.

Vision and leadership

4.2 AFS's mission statement is "to reduce the harm caused by alcohol". This mission statement is being used consistently across all AFS's corporate publications including their website, and it represents a change and a tighter focus compared to previous mission statement(s). For example, the mission statement on AFS's annual report for 2009-10 was: "Promoting responsibility, reducing harm, changing culture." Staff at all levels of the organisation knew the mission statement and could readily articulate it.

4.3 The retirement of the former Chief Executive was seen by AFS's Executive Committee as an appropriate time for the organisation to shift its focus. The Executive Committee identified the need for a new organisational strategy, and the individual appointed as the new Chief Executive was seen to be someone who had the vision and leadership qualities to take that forward.

4.4 When the new Chief Executive came into post in May 2010, her first task was to carry out an organisational review. This led to the publication of a two-year strategic plan. Previously, AFS had five-year plans. However, a two-year plan was felt to be more appropriate in the current rapidly-changing policy environment.

4.5 A report of the internal review was submitted to the Executive Committee in September 2010 making recommendations for a new strategic direction. AFS staff, Executive Committee members and Scottish Government representatives interviewed for the current review were in unanimous agreement with AFS's current direction.

4.6 The internal review process involved consultation with individual members of the Executive Committee and AFS staff, the Scottish Government, a selection of AFS's partner / peer agencies, and selected licensing boards and forums from across Scotland. Two service provider agencies and one ADP representative were also included.

4.7 In developing its strategic plan, AFS may have benefitted from including a wider range of stakeholders in the process. As part of the current review, interviews were conducted with representatives of ADPs, Local Councils on Alcohol (LCAs) and local licensing forums (LFs) (14 interviews in total).5 AFS states in its strategic plan that all these groups are its stakeholders. Those who took part were selected from lists provided by AFS which included ADPs, LCAs and LFs with whom AFS had had recent contact.

4.8 All but one of the 14 interviewees confirmed that they currently had contacts with AFS. However, fewer than half (5 out of 14) were aware that an organisational review had taken place in AFS last year, and just over half (8 out of 14) said that AFS had communicated with them about the recent changes to their priorities / strategy - either through email, briefings, or talks at conferences / events.

4.9 At the same time, these interviewees generally held a good opinion of AFS, and for the most part expressed high levels of satisfaction with the services or contacts they had had from AFS. Ten out of the 14 said that AFS was proactive in seeking to meet their needs, while the remaining four expressed uncertainty about what AFS could help them with.

4.10 These findings suggest that external stakeholders are benefiting from their contact with AFS but that AFS has not fully embedded partner and stakeholder consultation in their strategic planning processes. Engagement with a wider range of stakeholders would not only lead to a greater awareness among those stakeholders of the services AFS could offer, but could also identify a wider range of issues and stakeholder needs that AFS might wish to consider in its strategic planning processes.

4.11 Interviewees largely agreed that AFS's main target groups were: the Scottish Government / Parliament, licensing standards officers, local licensing boards and forums and, more recently, ADPs. Interviewees also largely said that the general public were a target group.

4.12 There is also a need to clarify AFS's relationship with local Councils on Alcohol (LCAs). These groups value the contacts they have with AFS (through training, mainly), and some would like AFS to revert to its former role as umbrella body or at least do more to facilitate increased communication and shared learning between local service delivery organisations.

Effective partnerships

4.13 This review identified some positive and productive experiences of partnership working (AFS's collaborations with SHAAP and the British Medical Association, for example), but also identified some areas where partnership arrangements may benefit from clarification, or clearer articulation of each side's expectations and commitments to the partnership.

4.14 Decisions about engaging in partnership work appeared to have been taken opportunistically - in some cases, on the basis of ongoing relationships with individuals in other organisations, or as a result of meeting someone from another organisation at an event, seminar or conference. Governance arrangements in particular, were not always clear, and examples were given of entering into partnerships that subsequently failed to produce any beneficial outcome for AFS. There were also examples of where a mismatch of expectations had led to misunderstandings.

4.15 Overall, however, there was generally a positive view from both sides (AFS and the partner organisation) about the experience of working together. AFS senior managers and representatives of partner organisations described the benefits of partnership working as: (i) the ability to reach a wider audience than each organisation individually could have done; and (ii) the ability to bring in additional expertise from the partner organisation.

4.16 Most participants in this review who had experience of working in partnership with AFS commented on the professionalism and knowledge of AFS staff, and that in the past few years the organisation had shifted its focus from "intervention" to "prevention".

Advisory Board

4.17 In early 2010, just prior to the appointment of the new Chief Executive, an Advisory Board was formed. The term "Advisory Board" is perhaps a misnomer, as this implies a formality of structure which does not in fact exist in relation to this group. The group comprises 11 individuals from across the UK who are considered to be expert in their fields. The group had its first meeting in June 2011 and this was attended by four of the 11 members.

4.18 Members of the Advisory Board interviewed for this review felt that the purpose and remit of the Board had not yet been fully thought through by AFS, and documentary evidence provided no explanation as to the strategic function of the Board. However, all interviewees agreed that the concept was potentially a helpful one. The main benefit for AFS was seen to be the collective expertise available within the Board to advise on particular policy developments. Nevertheless, AFS needs to consider how best to make use of this group. In addition, given that some members of the Advisory Board have had previous commercial / partnership links with AFS, there is a need to give explicit consideration in the Board's terms of reference to possible conflicts of interest.

Governance and accountability

4.19 The main governance body for AFS is its Executive Committee, although as discussed in the previous section, AFS is also accountable to the Scottish Government for the grant funding it receives. The Executive Committee meets quarterly, and all meetings are attended by the Chief Executive and senior managers as required. Other members of AFS staff have recently begun to attend on a rotational basis to report on their own areas of work. One former Executive Committee member now attends regularly as a non-executive member, in her capacity as financial adviser to the Committee. Individual members of the Committee participate in and chair two sub-groups: Finance and Operations; and Policy Review. In the past year, a Training Review sub-group has also been convened.

4.20 An examination of the minutes of Executive Committee meetings indicates that the group routinely considers costs when appraising options, and is fully involved in efforts to support and secure the long-term sustainability of the organisation.

4.21 Executive Committee members reported satisfaction with current reporting procedures and the nature of reports. Individual Committee members expressed confidence that they knew precisely what was going on in the organisation, including its current financial constraints, and felt that the organisation was clearly focused on delivering agreed outcomes. At the same time, however, there was also a view that, in terms of financial reporting, AFS needs to be collecting more accurate management data to get a clearer understanding of exactly what certain activities (such as training) are costing the organisation. It was also suggested that it would benefit AFS to have additional higher-level financial expertise available.

Use of resources

4.22 AFS has recently gone through a significant internal review and the organisation has been restructured in light of the outcome of that review. There are now well-defined programmes of work with timescales, and staff associated with those work programmes. Both financial expenditure and staff time are beginning to be aligned with the new strategic objectives.

4.23 However, the process of restructuring is still ongoing, and an ongoing review of the organisation's training function may lead to further changes in organisational structure and have implications for both income and expenditure. So far, all training courses and training resources have been updated to include information about the whole population approach to reducing the harm caused by alcohol. However, further intensive work is taking place to examine (i) the strategic fit of individual aspects of AFS's training function; and (ii) the cost-benefit for AFS of its different training programmes. The training review will report early in 2012.

4.24 AFS is currently experiencing significant financial constraints. A substantial projected deficit 2011-12 led to a decision to reduce the working hours of all staff working above half time by 20%, and making redundant two full-time administrative posts. However, it was also agreed that there would be flexibility in this arrangement to increase or decrease staff hours to ensure that the programmes of work were able to be delivered and income generating opportunities were maximized. At the same time, adjustments were made to salaries to ensure that individuals doing similar jobs were being paid at the same levels.

4.25 Following one-to-one discussions with all members of staff, this arrangement was agreed unanimously, thus averting a need to implement wider redundancies. Executive Committee members interviewed for this review expressed their admiration of staff for their response to this difficult situation. It was suggested that this could be attributed on the one hand, to the sensitive and transparent handling of the situation by the Chief Executive, and on the other, to the loyalty and commitment of staff.

4.26 However, the cut in staff working hours has had significant implications for the organisation's capacity. The point was made by staff that the work programme has not reduced by 20%, and as a result some senior managers have continued to work full-time hours with 20% less pay.

4.27 An income generation strategy has been developed for the period 2011-2013, and this would appear to be the first such strategy the organisation has had. The income generation strategy includes a review of income received in the period 2006/07 - 2010/11, and demonstrates how future funding will be aligned with the organisation's wider strategic priorities. This is a positive development, and AFS's attempts to begin to scrutinise the full-costs associated with activities such as training are also positive.

4.28 AFS has responded with determination to address its budgetary shortfall. However, fundraising is now a significant burden on senior management staff time. The Director of Operations (another new post created in the restructuring) has the lead role in identifying possible sources of grant funding and developing applications together with individual members of the senior management team.

Performance management

4.29 When asked whether the organisation was achieving its objectives, interviewees from the Executive Committee, the senior management staff and the Scottish Government all responded affirmatively and pointed to, among other things, AFS's work on minimum pricing, public health and licensing, and in training nursery / primary school staff to support children affected by parental alcohol problems.

4.30 However, it should be noted that AFS is currently developing a formal monitoring and evaluation framework in order to be able to provide the necessary evidence to show that it is achieving its expected outcomes.


Email: Iain MacAllister

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