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Council: ‘time is running out,’ but when?

Council: ‘time is running out,’ but when?

🕔29.Jun 2018

“Time is running out and we need to see real progress.”

So says John Crabtree OBE, chair of the Birmingham Independent Improvement Panel (BIIP), on Birmingham city council in its efforts to implement recommendations in Lord Kerslake’s review of corporate governance.

But when does time run out, exactly, asks Kevin Johnson?

The logical conclusion of time running out is, presumably, some form of dramatic Government intervention. Whitehall imposed Commissioners or a break up of the local authority seem highly unlikely given the pressures already faced by Government and the political consequences.

So the Panel is left to work “collaboratively” rather than standing over the Council. Without a ‘drop dead’ date or clear consequences, it’s only bullet is stronger and stronger language in reports to the Secretary of State. Chamberlain Files understands the Panel does not expect to step away anytime soon.

It has been 4.5 years since Lord Kerslake published his withering assessment of Birmingham city council. The careers of politicians and officers have been broken on the back of the report in one way or another.

Kerslake’s withering attack on Birmingham council: ‘Lack of vision, paternalistic and poor decision making’

Arguably, Sir Albert Bore didn’t take the report seriously enough. John Clancy spent too much time trying to convince the Panel to leave, rather than tackling the issues identified by Lord Kerslake. Mark Rogers invested in improving culture and partnership working, but poor financial management continued.

Secretaries of State have come and gone. Sajid Javid, now Home Secretary, did not seem to take anywhere near the level of interest that his predecessor, Greg Clark, had done. James Brokenshire has impressed people in the local government sector in his early days. It is noticeable that the report says his officials will be involved in regular meetings with the Council and Panel.

The only constant, of course, has been Ian Ward. Twice deputy and now leader, Cllr Ward has had overall political responsibility for the improvement agenda for the best part of a year. No politician understands the council and its finances better than him. He is the last person standing. Will he be the politician that finally delivers on Kerslake and says goodbye to Panel once and for all?

We have had ‘frank’ and ‘honest’ assessments of progress before. ‘We know we have not made sufficient progress – we must go deeper and quicker’ might characterise almost every update in the last few years. Is this report a change of rhetoric or a change of reality?

Council: this time we’re serious

The Stocktake Report, jointly issued by council leader Ian Ward and Mr Crabtree, makes for familiar reading. Its themes are well trodden.

In their joint letter to the Secretary of State, they say

…the Council acknowledges that it has not sufficiently gripped the improvement challenge set by Lord Kerslake and is now, with new political and permanent managerial leadership, committed to do so with vigour

But there is a dash more honesty and a hope, given more political and managerial stability, that Cllr Ward – and his more diverse and younger Cabinet – and chief executive Dawn Baxendale will make faster progress.

More senior managers are on the move and posts are beginning to be filled by permanent, rather than interim, postholders at the senior level of the local authority. The Stocktake says:

…it is accepted that the Council was not proactive about redesigning and implementing its redundancy and other human resources policies which prevented it from retaining and developing the talent and experience needed in the way other councils have managed to do so.

Several other parts of the report stand out. Anyone not familiar with the workings of Birmingham city council or the Kerslake crisis might be shocked at the state of affairs it describes.

senior officer advice given to Elected Members prior to decision-making has been variable and there have been failures to implement the difficult decisions that Elected Members have taken

The report highlights the judge’s findings in the waste management dispute:

“neither party (officers or members) comes out of this sorry saga with any credit at all”.

The report also draws on findings of last year’s review by INLOGOV (Institute of Local Government Studies at University of Birmingham) and says politicians still need to address a tendency to operate in a “BCC bubble”, a blurring or Member, officer and partner roles and the need to work in new ways.

The report acknowledges both the austerity driven cuts – equating to a budget reduction of nearly £650m over seven years – and the demand pressures on Council services, but says this is no excuse “for failing services or lack of moral purpose.”

There is a commitment to “priority-based budgeting approach that will align the use of financial resources with its policy priorities” but the Council has form when it comes to making and implementing hard political choices.

The report states:

If the Council is to achieve long term financial sustainability, it must ensure that it develops and delivers robust spending and saving plans consistent with its spending priorities. To achieve this there will need to be much greater accountability for Directors and Cabinet Members and an enhanced role for EMT in overseeing financial performance.

The report contains a damning verdict on performance management:

current KPIs are not all outcome-focused and the Council does not make sufficient use of available customer insight data or consistently compare its performance to other core cities or leading council benchmarks.

The council performance appraisal system – reviewed and updated in 2016 …is currently misaligned and inconsistently applied. Despite historically leading to performance-related pay increments, the model has limited quality assurance and no peer-validation or strategic talent management arrangements.

The report concludes by outlining how success will be monitored:

the Council intends to deliver a ‘mixed methodology’ approach to evaluation. In part, this will rely on formal performance management using industry-standard metrics and comparing Birmingham with peers nationally.

There will be monthly performance monitoring of the delivery against the Council Plan and improvement plans through CMT and the Council’s Cabinet, and all such information will be transparently shared with the [the Panel] and MHCLG (Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government).

The Council and [the Panel] will monitor early indications (the ‘tracers’) of improvement in social outcomes, through our adherence to the 2018-19 budget, and stronger grip on issues such as homelessness, skills, community cohesion, waste and equal pay.

The Council says it will use targeted pieces of evaluation work and will regularly “take the temperature” among citizens and stakeholders.

The question as to what happens if the temperature remains stubbornly cold – and real progress does not transpire – is left hanging in the air.

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