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Kerslake panel presses Council on pace and political leadership

Kerslake panel presses Council on pace and political leadership

🕔20.Jul 2015

The independent panel set up by the Government to help Birmingham council improve has warned that the pace of reform is far too slow and raised doubts about the commitment of the city’s political leadership to radical change.

In a critical half-year report to Communities Secretary Greg Clark the panel said it was “not seeing the radical shifts necessary to address the starkest of Lord Kerslake’s criticisms relating to the authority’s culture” and questioned whether politicians understood the scale of the changes being demanded of them.

In his letter to Mr Clark (available to read in full here), panel chairman John Crabtree said:

We continue to observe a council where the politicians with most influence are focusing too much on the inner political workings of the authority rather than engaging widely and enthusiastically with external partners and the communities of Birmingham.

There are many very able and committed councillors and staff who welcome the potential for radical change. The so far unmet task is for the council to consistently provide the kind of political leadership that actively encourages challenge, innovation, energy and enthusiasm – a form of leadership that will enable all staff and councillors to take forward the change programme at pace, in a way that unifies everyone across the council and throughout the city.

Mr Crabtree continued:

The panel is pleased to report that progress is being made in a number of areas. But key risks and challenges remain relating to political leadership, communication and engagement and the pace of change.

While elements of the plan are on track there are a number of key areas where there has been less progress than expected.

While the panel commends the energy and commitment demonstrated by the chief executive and his team, there remain questions about whether the senior political leadership of the council fully understands the scale of change required.

City council leader Sir Albert Bore and chief executive Mark Rogers responded in a joint statement where they insisted the pace of change would accelerate. They said:

We accept that the council has taken some time to get out of the starting blocks in a number of areas but we are confident that we are now moving forward at pace and on all fronts.

There will be an acceleration of the actions required over the summer, which will include progressing the recruitment of senior officers to increase strategic capacity; running networking events with partners to develop a shared and long-term vision for the city; and completing a programme of workshops across all service areas to develop our financial planning for both the short and longer term.

The panel’s most serious concerns related to lack of progress over three key Kerslake recommendations.

These were the establishment of an independent city partnership group to oversee the council’s progress and develop an agreed vision for Birmingham, developing a long-term financial strategy for the council, and securing the senior management capacity necessary to boost the council’s performance.

Mr Crabtree reminded council leader Sir Albert Bore in March about the urgent risk relating to the lack of senior management capacity and was assured that steps were being taken to fill key roles.

But in the letter to Mr Clark, the panel chairman states:

At that time the panel received assurances from the Leader that this would be addressed urgently. Both opposition leaders also gave their support to boosting senior management capacity, including specific support to the chief executive.

However three months later the roles had still not been advertised. Since the public meeting at which the panel raised this issue with the leader of the council yet again, I have been advised that the new senior strategic posts will be advertised this month.

Our concerns about the senior management capacity issue reflect a wider concern. Namely that the senior political leadership of the council, in spite of assertions to the contrary, may still not understand the scale of the task facing the council, and the enormous culture change needed right across the organisation by politicians and staff at all levels if the residents of the city are to be well served.

Commenting on the failure to establish a city partnership group, the letter states:

The concern we expressed in March about this key development was that progress was limited. Very recently there have been more encouraging signs of progress and we hope that the successful partner event held in early July will herald the start of a new and transformed relationship between the council and its partners across the city.

Political leadership for this work needs to be active and consistent if the willingness of partner organisations to work effectively with the council is to be maintained over the long term.

The panel also criticised lack of progress in setting up an effective communications strategy to build a compelling narrative for Birmingham.

A comprehensive communications strategy is a vital component of the Future Council Programme to engage and inform both internal and external stakeholders. The Panel has been informed that this will not be ready until September.

Such delay does not inspire sufficient confidence that the council’s key stakeholders will be, or will feel, involved and informed.

The council’s stated commitment to transparency as part of a new approach to communicating with its residents and partners needs to be translated from words into action.

There is praise for the Future Council Programme, a strategic document setting out how the authority must change the way it delivers services to reflect pared down staffing levels and smaller budgets but the panel is suggesting the delivery programme be extended for a further year “in order to provide the panel with assurance that the council’s commitment to transformation is both robust and sustainable”.

There is also recognition of the “thorough and professional” approach by council officers to drawing up a new financial strategy to cope with spending cuts.

The council has recently got back on track with the challenging timetable and recognises the intensity of effort now required to achieve the planned multiyear programme of service reform in order to prevent the need for future rounds of ‘salami slicing’ cuts.

The letter is the panel’s second report to the Government.

In March, the panel issued similar criticisms of slow progress and raised doubts about the capacity of politicians to understand the scale of change required.

In view of concerns over the slow pace of reform the panel is to report again to Mr Clark in the autumn, raising fears of further Government intervention in Birmingham if the council cannot demonstrate improved progress.

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