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The Choir: Birmingham City Council gets singing

Sue Weekes

Brimingham City Council, The Choir

Gareth Malone’s Bafta winning series The Choir is a popular TV series, but is it also a model for how to engage your organisation? Sue Weekes speaks to Birmingham City Council, who took part in the most recent series, about how it’s affected their employees

“If I could have bottled that massive level of engagement and morale the morning after the programme was shown, I’d be sorted for 30 years,” says Raffaella Goodby, head of organisational development, engagement and wellbeing, equalities and human resources at Birmingham City Council, when talking about the impact of appearing on Gareth Malone’s television show, The Choir: Sing While You Work.

The council’s appearance on the BBC2 show in November, watched by 2.6 million people, came about after policy officer, Rachel Hinton, speculatively wrote to the programme makers, Twenty Twenty. She explained that the council, the biggest in Europe with 46,000 employees, was trying to set up a choir but also detailed some of challenges that local government was facing because of cuts and the impact they were having on morale. A year later Twenty Twenty got in touch and invited the council to apply to take part in the new series. “A year on we still had the same challenges,” says Goodby. “We were also aware that the local government brand and working in local government was taking a real hit and wanted to demonstrate to everyone how many talented, passionate and committed people work here and give them a platform on which to shine.”

From the outset, Goodby says participation in the programme was intended as part of an engagement programme. “What Gareth does so beautifully is bring people together from different parts of an organisation and uses music and song to break down hierarchies and barriers,” she says. “We were really interested in that element and were also keen for employees to benefit from the physical and mental health benefits of singing.”

Joining in at all levels

The project succeeded in immediately generating a buzz within the organisation, with more than 200 employees responding to the invitation to create a video or voice file. Among those was the chief executive, Stephen Hughes, which Goodby says helped the cause by giving members of staff at all levels “a sense of permission” to take part. From all of these, 120 people were chosen to audition in front of Malone which Goodby says proved an excellent vehicle for bringing the organisation closer together. “We had a cleaner sat next to a trampoline coach who sat next to the chief executive who sat next to a grave digger who sat next to a traffic warden,” she says. There was always going to be disappointment when the final 22 were chosen but Goodby says those who didn’t make it remained extremely supportive of colleagues. “There was real camaraderie and lots of people who auditioned together stayed in touch,” she says. “And taking part certainly wasn’t a jolly. The approach was highly professional and rehearsals were hard work.”

The HR team was involved in managing the process and worked with line managers and senior management to ensure there was no impact on frontline services when members of staff were involved in filming. Goodby admits that there was a level of risk attached as nothing was scripted. “No-one was told to say or not to say anything. It was all based on trust: trust that our employees would say and do the right thing and trust in the company who filmed it in that they would truly reflect what happened,” she says. “It was quite a leap of faith but it paid off as the results were fantastic.”

Goodby and her team are currently capturing and analysing data on the sustained impact of taking part but immediate benefits are already being felt. “From initial analysis we’ve seen a big understanding of the different work areas within the council which is critical for us when it comes to working together in the future and breaking down silos,” she says. “We also have pages and pages of qualitative analysis about how it made people feel, how much they enjoyed taking part, how much singing has helped their confidence, how it has made them more productive at work and how it made them feel more motivated and chirpier with customers. We’ll work on the quantitative analysis next and analyse the impact on employee engagement.”

Improving the local government brand

There are also signs that it has had a positive effect on the local government brand and even specific roles within the organisation. “A lot of members of the public and other organisations have contacted us. Our soloist, Siobhan Patton, who is a social worker, has been inundated with messages including from a colleague who said that her 16-year-old daughter now wants to be a social worker.”

Goodby agrees that taking part in The Choir did represent a risk but it was a “managed one”, and for similar initiatives stresses the importance of securing support from elected council members and the chief executive from day one. Following the choir’s appearance on television, the council has been keen to recognise and reward not just those who took part but all staff for the part they have played in supporting the project.

As part of the legacy, it has set up a community choir which anyone can join, alongside its television choir which now progresses to the knockout stage of the competition. Both choirs will be involved in events around the city. “Taking part created a shared sense of purpose, as well as pride,” she says. “And we don’t want the motivation, energy and great practice to be lost.”

Birmingham City Council are next in The Choir: Sing While you Work quarter finals on BBC Two, 9pm, Monday 9 December

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