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Bore and Rogers to tell improvement panel Kerslake reforms having ‘positive impact’ on Birmingham council

Bore and Rogers to tell improvement panel Kerslake reforms having ‘positive impact’ on Birmingham council

🕔08.Jun 2015

The first public meeting of the independent improvement panel overseeing governance reforms required by the Kerslake Review will be a pivotal moment in the history of Birmingham city council, writes Paul Dale.

A presentation by council leader Sir Albert Bore and chief executive Mark Rogers, and the evidence they produce to support their case, will either convince panel chair John Crabtree and his team that sufficient progress is being made, or could even result in a report to the Government that Birmingham is not carrying out the reforms demanded of it quickly enough.

Kerslake makes it clear what is expected:

The Secretary of State should appoint an independent improvement panel that is able to work with the council to provide the robust challenge and support the council requires.

The panel should provide regular updates to the Secretary of State and updates on progress should also be made to the city’s residents.

And to leave no one in any doubt, Kerslake said it was essential the council carry through all of the changes identified in the review and if this did not happen then the Government was bound to return to addressing the size and structure of Birmingham city council.

In other words: do as we say, or you may be broken up into smaller authorities probably under an elected mayor.

It is worth recalling Kerslake’s main findings, which do not make comfortable reading for anyone with an interest in wanting Birmingham to succeed. I keep a little list on my desk detailing ten points from the review, and the stiletto-like expose of failure does not diminish with time:

The council is not doing enough to provide leadership and set out a positive vision for the city.

Deep rooted problems are all too often swept under the carpet under successive administrations.

The current devolution arrangements are confused and very few people understand them.

The council’s vision for the future of the city is neither broadly shared nor understood by officers, partners or residents.

The strategic role of workforce planning and HR should be vested in an existing cabinet member.

District committees should not be responsible for delivering services.

A damaging combination of a lack of a strategic plan and the lack of a corporate grip has created the space for a multiplicity of strategic plans and processes which has created unnecessary complexity and confusion.

Instead of a workforce strategy based on analysis of what capacity the council will need in future, head count reduction has been determined by the individual decisions of those staff that choose to take generous severance packages.

The HR committee is not operating as it should. There is no workforce strategy. The committee has failed in its primary responsibility.

Failure to form effective partnerships is creating significant problems for both the city and the wider area. The council’s attitude is, ‘if it is worth doing the council should be doing it’.

The tone of the language, the fact that the council is already working under two Government-appointed commissioners, and an urgent requirement to deliver a stellar improvement in performance if Birmingham is to to take full advantage of devolution through a West Midlands combined authority means this is a study that has to be taken seriously, and acted upon.

The initial response from the council’s political leadership at the beginning of 2015, driven perhaps by shock, anger and embarrassment, was to suggest that Kerslake hadn’t appreciated the finer points of the devolution plans or the many visions and strategies that existed. He simply didn’t understand Birmingham.

That approach was doomed because the council was no longer in a position to ignore yet another challenging assessment of its failings and expect to get away with it. Faint hopes of an easier ride from a Labour Government disappeared with the General Election, and although the new Local Government Secretary Greg Clark is no Eric Pickles there is no reason to suppose he will shirk tough decisions about Birmingham if such decisions have to be made.

The first progress report from the council to the panel last month indicated that some of the recommendations were being addressed, in particular restructuring the HR department and improving senior managerial capacity.

But other recommendations were not on track including setting up an independent Birmingham leadership group. Kerslake said this group should approve the new long-term City Plan and be used to hold all involved in delivery of the plan to account, so the formation of such a group in a timely manner is most important.

The report blamed the lack of progress on a lack of adequate resources, although quite how much resource you need to bring together a suitable leadership panel is far from clear.

A second progress report has now been published in advance of the panel’s public meeting.

In it Sir Albert and Mr Rogers argue that changes already put in place through the Future Council plan, which embraces the improvement plan, are having a positive impact on the organisation. They also seek to reassure the panel that the improvement plan has been drawn up following extensive discussions with opposition Conservative and Liberal Democrat members as well as Labour councillors.

They point to radical restructuring of the HR department, strengthening of senior management capacity led by interim service delivery director Sarah Homer, and a new performance development assessment system for staff.

Changes to the way devolution operates are planned with a new approach looking at “how we manage the demand for council services in an holistic way, do not assume that the council should be the direct provider of a service, ensure that we support those who are most in need or at risk, but empower citizens and communities to do as much as they can for themselves”.

As for the independent Birmingham leadership group, the council will be holding a “series of engagement events over the summer to gather views from a wider audience” about how best to take forward the development of what is now known as the city partnership group.

A “light touch” approach is required rather than a formal structure to cultivate a “self-sustaining and better networked city of partners and stakeholders – a network of networks – that results in a shared vision for the City and enables a shared approach to tackling big issues”, according to Sir Albert and Mr Rogers.

The council says it is developing a new communications strategy, following years of complaints about the authority’s poor PR record – something that was picked up by Kerslake.

A new communications and marketing strategy is being developed, underpinned by the desire to be open, honest and transparent. The strategy is being developed around the key concepts of ‘inform, engage, excite’ – making sure that we inform people about what’s going on, engage with them in a way that is meaningful, and encourage people to be excited about the changes taking place.”

Sir Albert and Mr Rogers state in their report:

We feel that the changes we have made so far are beginning to impact throughout the organisation – changes to councillor roles, a new performance management system for staff, additional capacity around the chief executive and within the HR function have all provided a greater degree of clarity.

The changes that we needed to make to our HR function were tackled in a way that might not have been done previously. The Big Conversation events have introduced the notion of putting values at the front of what people do and are supported and implemented through the new appraisal system.

The introduction of 360 assessment for our most senior staff is a more challenging appraisal process than anything we have done previously. There have been consistent and more concerted efforts to ensure a more cross- party approach to certain issues.

There is a greater level of engagement between officers and cabinet members, most recently with the design and development of the principles behind the Future Council.

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