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Cabinet passes Kerslake improvement plan ‘on the nod’, but silence speaks volumes

Cabinet passes Kerslake improvement plan ‘on the nod’, but silence speaks volumes

🕔21.Apr 2015

Implementing fully the reforms demanded in the Kerslake Review is the single biggest challenge facing not just Birmingham’s political establishment, but also the city as a whole writes Paul Dale.

The future of the authority in its current shape depends on the council fundamentally changing the way it operates. And as Kerslake insists, at the heart of a better method of doing things must lay a new commitment to openness and partnership working.

Put simply, if the council truly signs up to Kerslake it will have to drop decades of a “we know best” attitude and a tendency to clam up and withdraw into secrecy when the going gets tough.

The Kerslake action plan, signed off by a Government-imposed improvement panel, has been given a few additional bells and whistles and is now known as the Future Council Programme.  It sets out what must be done to “redefine the council’s role and relationship with the city, its citizens and its partners”.

The arrival at cabinet of the Future Council Programme was therefore a landmark moment.

After all, the cabinet was to approve the programme’s “vision and purpose, high level structure and governance arrangements”.

Any member of the public attending the meeting or watching on the live webstream hoping to get the views of council leaders about what has to be done to achieve the momentous culture changes that are required would have been sorely disappointed.

In what appeared to be a pre-arranged deal between the three political parties, there was no discussion other than perfunctory remarks welcoming the plan, almost as if the council had always thought it a good idea to implement change and would have done so in any case.

The item came and went in about four minutes, if that.

The most important strategic document for 50 years or more was passed on the nod.

Mark Rogers, the chief executive, who has been leading on developing the plan, said nothing.

Sarah Homer, the interim service delivery director charged with delivering the new-look council, was not at the meeting and has not, as far as I am aware, appeared at any public venue where she might be asked challenging questions since her appointment in January.

Sir Albert Bore, the Labour council leader, spoke of embarking on a journey “that will help us meet unprecedented financial challenges and redefine the role of the city council to make sure there are services based on the needs of our communities”.

Paul Tilsley, the Liberal Democrat group leader, pointed to Kerslake’s criticism of “the political environment in which we work”, which Tilsley noted “wasn’t a positive comment”. He called for “statesmanlike” behaviour from the politicians, even during the election campaign.

It transpired that all council members had been briefed last week about the Future Council Programme, which perhaps was one reason why the cabinet didn’t think it necessary to discuss the matter.

Could it also be the case, even at this late stage, that councillors and council officers would rather keep a low profile as far as Kerslake is concerned because, despite what is said in public, privately they disagree with much of the review’s wide ranging criticism of the council’s performance and are embarrassed about drawing attention to the changes being forced upon them? It may also suit the political parties not to give Kerslake the oxygen of publicity during the local and general election campaign.

The obvious reluctance of the cabinet to discuss the improvement plan, and Sir Albert’s refusal earlier in the year to allow a full-scale Kerslake debate to take place in the council chamber, suggests to me that this is an organisation that makes the right noises about culture change but does not yet really appreciate what needs to be done to bring that change about.

It is worth reminding ourselves what Kerslake had to say about the council’s method of doing things:

Above all, the council has to change its corporate culture. The initial response to governance problems in the city’s schools was symptomatic of a culture, under successive administrations, that has too often swept deep rooted problems under the carpet rather than addressed them.

Partnership working needs fixing. While there are some good partnerships, particularly operationally, many external partners feel the culture is dominant and over-controlling and that the council is complex, impenetrable and too narrowly focused on its own agenda.

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.

Kerslake talked about “a lack of a shared vision for the future of the city and of a citywide partnership needed to create it”. He recommended setting up a civic leadership group “chaired and strongly represented by credible independent voices” to work with the council.

He thought the group should approve the new long-term city plan and hold all involved in delivery of the plan to account.

The idea was accepted by the Government and the council, although the name of the body has been changed to the city partnership group. But that group has still not been defined almost five months after Kerslake reported, and the Future Council Programme sets a leisurely deadline of the end of July for the group to be formed.

The Future Council Programme, which incidentally lasts only for six years, refers to a longer term ambition where the council’s partners and communities “see us as approachable and easy to engage with”.

The aim, as approved by the cabinet, is to create one strategic change framework so that there is a “single, straightforward narrative for citizens, members, partners and staff”.

The programme notes that it will be “challenging to join together all this work and manage it effectively, especially when a key element is that the council needs to redefine its role and relationship with the city, its citizens and its partners”. The document continues:

We need to take a whole-council view so that the impact of change in one part of the organisation on the rest is understood and we create, wherever possible, joined up solutions so that we can leverage economies of scale and be consistent.

This is the only way to create a sustainable organisation that functions effectively. The Future Council programme is the vehicle for doing this and delivering the changes we need to make.

This will require everyone to support the activity and process to deliver a sustainable organisation that puts local people and communities at the heart of everything it does, and focuses on positive outcomes for citizens based on fairness, economic prosperity and democracy.

Discussions about the plan with the council’s external partners will begin on April 21 – a day after the cabinet approved the document.

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