Council chief warns ‘we’re only making baby steps on road to Kerslake reforms’
The Birmingham Independent Improvement Panel wants to step back in order to give space to city council leader John Clancy and chief executive Mark Rogers to deliver culture change across the organisation, but no one is pretending that the size of the task ahead is anything other than huge.
Accompanying documents released by the panel confirm two rather inconvenient truths: the first is that much of 2015 was wasted and it was not until December, when Cllr John Clancy became leader, that the council showed it was serious about delivering the Kerslake reforms; the timescale between now and September when the panel will report back to the Secretary of State gives precious little breathing space to deliver the “significant shift in the wider council’s behaviour and approach to partnering” demanded by the Government.
Cllr Clancy, in his 2016-17 budget speech, said he hoped to “bid a fond farewell” to the improvement panel before too long. What he has actually got from panel chair John Crabtree is “we’ll meet again”, and the next five months will determine whether the October panel meeting proves to be the last of its kind.
The most important section in the panel’s latest letter to Communities Secretary Greg Clark gets to the heart of the dead hand of bureaucracy at Birmingham city council that was exposed by Kerslake.
The panel says it wants to be certain the council can “deliver on its commitment to sweep away all residual, over-complex, old-fashioned, time-consuming and risk-averse processes that are continuing to stifle creativity and which sap the capacity and energy of managers and staff.”
Mr Rogers made mention of some of these processes at the panel’s recent public meeting, in particular the number of officials required to sign off a report and the layers of red tape placed in the way of taking even the most routine of decisions.
It is little wonder given the length of time it takes to do almost anything that council officers at all levels of the organisation find their creative juices drying up and simply opt for a quiet life. The biggest challenge facing Cllr Clancy and Mr Rogers is to develop a slim-line decision making process and to send out the message that risk-taking is not necessarily a bad thing.
Progress has been slower than intended, partly because the council has not manifested the behavioural shifts that partners wanted to see consistently and partly because the work has necessarily been organic.
We are now taking this work ‘back to basics’ under the lead of the assistant chief executive, building on the insights gained over the last 12 months into what partners are looking for and now focused on rapid roll-out of tangible actions, notably the promotion of good practice and tackling poor behaviour.
With little more than five months to go until the panel reassembles, this is hardly the time to go back to basics and start again. But Mr Rogers and Cllr Clancy may feel they have no alternative.
Much of the summer of 2015 saw Mr Rogers conducting a frankly embarrassing stand-off with former council leader Sir Albert Bore over recruiting a new senior management team, one of Kerslake’s key recommendations.
Sir Albert said advertisements for the new posts were imminent, but there were lengthy delays before recruitment finally got under way, and that did not happen until the panel complained about the delay to Communities Secretary Greg Clark.
Mr Crabtree puts the matter firmly but fairly in his letter to Mr Clark:
It is regrettable that the long delays in building senior management capacity and in initiating and seeing through some of the major changes needed has resulted in the council being unable to demonstrate widespread positive impact fifteen months after the Kerslake Review was published.
The gap analysis picks up on the theme of slow progress:
We recognise that we have not made the strides in organisational development that we need to, more like essential first baby steps.
Certainly from both staff and partner feedback it is clear that there is a widespread perception that change has been slow to manifest. In particular, officers feel that there is a pressing need to simplify bureaucracy, effectively address non-compliance and support staff to take calculated risks.
Appendix one of the accompanying documents assesses progress so far against the recommendations in the Kerslake Review. No punches are pulled, particularly on the subject of re-setting the relationship between elected members and officers and transforming the council’s attitude to partnership working:
Crucially, the fresh opportunities that now exist to reset the relationship between members and senior managers have not yet been fully grasped. This remains a key and urgent task for members – on a cross party basis – and senior managers to undertake.
The development of whole city level work with partners has been disappointingly slow.
However, a thread that runs through the panel reports suggests that the arrival of Cllr Clancy as leader may just have saved the day:
The election of the new leader of the council has given new, and much-needed, impetus to this work. The new leader’s stated and evident outward-looking focus and his intention to work with a wide range of partners has bolstered the confidence and optimism of many partners.
There is a growing perception that the city council is at last serious about changing the nature of its relationship with the city. Although, understandably, many partners are eager to see what this will mean in practice and for the long term.
And again, in the gap analysis, we are told that the chief executive now has a harmonious and honest relationship with the council leader of the type that simply did not exist in the past:
The new leader has sent clear signal that members lead in the civic arena and officers run the business of the council. That has been reinforced with action.
The distinction of roles has been accompanied by the establishment of a relationship of trust and candour between the leader and chief executive.
Even so, the warning that the job is far from completed remains in place:
The leader has been working with the cabinet for just over two months, meaning that there has been little time to establish a preferred approach to leading the council.
If we do not embed a new way of working into our constitution and other arrangements, we risk backsliding into old patterns.
Cllr Clancy is aware that he cannot afford ‘backsliding’ of any sort if he is to bid farewell to the panel. So he will be redoubling culture change efforts and will do so with a sense of optimism. The panel’s decision to step back for a few months came as a welcome surprise to the council leader, who had assumed the current rigorous inspection regime would remain in place for several months.
He has a breathing space. He must turn the council’s baby steps into giant strides.
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