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Birmingham Partners to develop ‘the vision thing’, but who’s in the club and how do you join?

Birmingham Partners to develop ‘the vision thing’, but who’s in the club and how do you join?

🕔14.Sep 2015

A Birmingham leadership group bringing together major organisations and community groups is being established to help the city council improve its partnership working.  But the new body seems to be more concerned with the ‘vision thing’ than leading, says Paul Dale.

Recommendation eight of the Kerslake Review could hardly be clearer in its intent:

The city council should facilitate the creation of a new independent Birmingham leadership group.

Kerslake sets out precisely what this body is for:

The group should approve the new long-term City Plan and be used to hold all involved in delivery of the plan to account.

And by way of background, the review sums up a poor record when working with others:

The council has an attitude to partnerships of if it’s worth doing, the council should do it.

This paternalism alienates partners, means the council is failing to reconfigure services effectively, and is missing opportunities to work with partners and communities to deliver the services people need.

Nine months after publication of the review, the city finally has its independent leadership group, although perhaps not quite in the manner Kerslake set out.

Significantly, there is no mention of leadership in the title of the group, which has become Birmingham Partners. Nor is there any mention of approving the City Plan, or holding those involved in delivery of the plan to account.

Birmingham Partners will be a campaigning group responsible for developing a “shared vision” and developing the What Makes Birmingham Great campaign which is kicking off this autumn.

In the words of council leader Sir Albert Bore to the Birmingham Independent Improvement Panel, Birmingham Partners will campaign and “add value rather than oversight”. It will not be a permanent committee as such, but a series of campaigns he said.

Kerslake urges the council to develop a:

simplified planning framework which should flow from the City Plan, include a medium term (3-5 year) strategy developed with the council’s partners, a strategic workforce plan and annual business planning and budgeting.

This group should be used to help guide and deliver both the vision for the council and the partnership approach across the city. The group should be independent of the council, representative of the city’s communities and should also take on work to engage with the city’s communities to provide two-way feedback.

So while, yes, the group does have a role in delivering an agreed vision for a future Birmingham, it should also have direct responsibility for approving the long-term City Plan and holding all involved in delivery of the plan to account.

That begs the question: what happens if the independent leadership group doesn’t like the plan it is presented with by the council? And if it is to hold councillors and officials to account, what sanctions are available to deal with under-performance by the council?

Birmingham city council has finally published the evidence pack it presented to the improvement panel, detailing proposals for setting up Birmingham Partners. A lengthy document, some 2,500 words, sets out the aims and principles in a “confidential update briefing”. Quite why a council accused of being rotten at partnership work should decide proposals to improve partnership work should be confidential is unclear.

The document accepts that existing partnership models “have not been fit for purpose or complicit in a system that has not been fit for purpose and that new ways of viewing and delivering partnerships need to be considered”.

It goes on to lay down ground rules for Birmingham Partners:

We should also be clear about what Birmingham Partners is not. It is not a hierarchy. It does not seek to replace or override the democratic accountability of elected members. It is not responsible for the performance and functions of the city’s existing partnerships.

It is not an exclusive group of the ‘great and the good’. It does not allocate funding. It does not have a formal budget. Rather, it is an attempt to ‘wire a network’ of existing partnerships from the city to district to community level, harness the potential of collaborative working and move the city forward into a more positive, shared and connected future.

It attempts to explain how the group will work:

Once a shared vision is agreed, Birmingham Partners can then begin to ‘influence the mainstream’ – linking organisational objectives, strategies and policies to provide more coherence and synergy across the public, private and voluntary sectors.

As the group evolves, we envisage that it could become more forward-looking, anticipating 5,10 and 20 year positions for the city and identifying emerging cultural, scientific, technological and economic trends and breakthroughs that would benefit Birmingham the most.

Birmingham Partners has a website www.birminghampartners.coma steering group and some high profile members including the city’s universities, the community healthcare trust and the Centre for Voluntary Action. There are apparently other members, but they are not listed on the site, nor is there any explanation as to how an organisation, big or small, gets into this club.

RJF Public Affairs, publisher of Chamberlain Files, applied to join Birmingham Partners and was subsequently required to set out why it wanted to join.

We are assured, however, by Mark Rogers, city council chief executive, that this is not a collection of “the usual suspects” and it would be an insult to suggest it is.

The role of the steering group is “to help develop a new narrative for Birmingham, which reflects the many positive aspects of the city and to provide a collective and inclusive approach to leadership”.

Membership of the steering group remains a mystery since the website makes no mention of its existence, although there is an oblique reference in the council’s report to the improvement panel:

The current membership of the steering group is broadly representative of the various sectors within the city that Birmingham Partners is seeking to attract. It is comprised of a group of interested individuals who have come forward to work with the Council to launch this initiative.

The website features some recycled press releases about Birmingham’s heritage week, the benefit of giving up smoking and the ‘Super September’ calendar of city sports and leisure events.

We learn from the council evidence pack that there have been 43 commitments to lead conversations, host events, provide information and become part of a communications team and that the website will be the coordination and focal point for the What Makes Birmingham Great campaign.

To make sure everyone understands that the independent leadership group will have no hold over elected councillors, the evidence pack states:

BPG has no formal duties or responsibilities (including financial) other than to develop and agree a city vision. It is underpinned by enlightened self-interest to achieve mutually beneficial objectives and its purpose is to develop a consensus and coalition around the City vision.

The key function is to influence the mainstream and the member organisational objectives and policies to provide more coherence and synergy across the public, private and voluntary sectors. In doing this it needs to be forward looking and thinking, anticipating and planning for future scenarios, operating environments, opportunities and challenges.

There is no hierarchy where BPG is responsible for the performance and functions of the city’s existing partnerships. In part because this is not the model BPG will be operating and in part there would be no mandate or authority to perform this function.

It remains to be seen whether the evolution of Birmingham Partners satisfies the Birmingham Independent Improvement Panel. Panel members will have to decide whether Birmingham Partners truly satisfies the Kerslake recommendation for an leadership group, and if it doesn’t whether that matters.

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