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Action Stations: Now it’s Serious.

Action Stations: Now it’s Serious.

🕔18.Feb 2015

Slowly but surely, Birmingham City Council is coming around to Sir Bob Kerslake’s recommendations. It may have taken a few weeks, with the content and tone of pronouncements changing almost daily and dependent upon who was speaking and to which audience, but there’s no doubt now that a serious response is the only game in town, writes Kevin Johnson.

We have gone from a moment in time; we knew all this anyway (tell us something we don’t know); I don’t think dear old Bob really understands and we don’t have to follow everything he says to an interim senior director appointed before you could blink; a serious looking Improvement Panel in place and an action plan that accepts all old Bob’s recommendations.

It would be easy to criticise the Council – and we’ve generated quite a few pages devoted to matters Kerslake here – but the action plan published this week should be welcomed.

Culture change is at the very heart of the plan. It’s clear that Mark Rogers, soon to mark a year in post, appreciates the scale of change required and that whilst of course services have to improve, underlying everything is culture and behaviour. That’s quite some supertanker to turn around – not least with significant financial as well as organisational challenges.

As Sir Albert told the Chamberlain Files recently, the Action Plan is very much the work and responsibility of the Chief Executive. That shines out from the Plan.

The Plan is very managerial – very process in nature – as is currently stands. For the large part, that’s quite understandable. The casual reader of the Plan could be forgiven for not realising the document is about improving a Council – it could be almost any organisation which has drafted in some expensive, management consultant types. In its next iteration, I would like to see a sense of the subject being a Council and the place and people it serves.

There is little mention of communication and, if I’m not mistaken, no mention of brand. I am confident the Chief Executive and his new director already appreciate there is a significant challenge with the way the Council communicates – and I don’t just mean to the media or even to a few unruly bloggers. It is much deeper – yes, it is cultural.

However, the Plan does state that the Council will be:

Deliberately creating a more positive narrative for the council and the city.

To have mentioned the word brand, or even re-brand, in the Action Plan would have set hares running. If appointing a director, in line with Kerslake recommendations, was enough to light up the Twittershpere, just imagine a line saying the Council will embark upon a re-brand. However, cultural change of this magnitude should go hand in glove with consideration of the Council’s brand. In this case, it will also need to take account of the move to a Combined Authority, wider devolution plans and the re-positioning work being undertaken for GBSLEP by Marketing Birmingham and Heavenly.

The make up of the Improvement Panel is a win for the Council – but these are not people to be taken for granted. They have reputations to protect and will want to do a professional job – and one that is deserving of the City of Birmingham.

They say journalism is the first draft of history. Historians will therefore probably have a better perspective on the response to Kerslake and quite why the Council leadership has adopted the strategy it has to date.

So far, the approach has been strange. Beyond the initial response (both formal and the mood music), even the formation of the Action Plan has caused controversy. Apparently, it’s not something to trouble the body politic. Sir Albert, the CEO, a few strategically chosen members, then Cabinet and then the Improvement Panel are behind its creation. It generated no real comment at Cabinet and there was no room for a scheduled debate about Kerslake’s report at the last full Council meeting.

A plan that Kerslake said the whole council should own has been met by a process that has minimised involvement of Labour backbenchers and the wider council. It is strange that the response to a report that said the Council was not very good at partnership has been met by what amounts to a fait accompli to some pretty important stakeholders.

The resulting Action Plan states that a feature of the future Council will be:

Solutions are sought through cross party dialogue.

Something apparently pretty piffling does now have a radical Action Plan to deal with its recommendations. The committee dealing with employment, the districts and in turn the payroll vote – as we reported yesterday – are just a few of the immediate casualties, not to mention all out elections and, in all likelihood, fewer councillors.

So, as the Council embarks on finalising and implementing the Action Plan, it is appropriate to welcome it – and in the spirit of partnership – offer to support the Chief Executive through what will be a very challenging few years ahead.

PS. Paul Dale reports on Mark Rogers’ latest blog describing how the Action Plan was pulled together and why it’s now time to drop the K word.

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