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More questions than answers as panel damns Kerslake improvement plan with faint praise

More questions than answers as panel damns Kerslake improvement plan with faint praise

🕔23.Mar 2015

The Kerslake improvement panel has backed Birmingham city council’s action plan for reform, but also expressed grave doubts about the political leadership and managerial capacity to drive through a culture change in behaviour.

Endorsing an improvement plan as “a reasonable basis to proceed” the panel questioned whether the council’s political leadership realised “what a major programme of work” would be needed to address the failure of leadership identified in the Kerslake Review.

While the panel was pleased to see some “green shoots” of change appearing, it warned that the huge and lengthy task of implementation should not be under estimated.

There is implied criticism of council leader Sir Albert Bore over the failure so far to involve all councillors, regardless of party colour, in drawing up the improvement plan. Sir Albert provoked a backlash in February when he insisted compiling the plan was largely a job for himself and Mr Rogers, and not for the “body politic”, even though Kerslake had demanded all 120 councillors should “own” the improvement plan.

Mr Crabtree notes:

The development work behind the consultation paper seems to have been confined to a small group of officers and members.

The level of involvement of individual councillors outside the leadership in the development of the improvement plan has so far been limited. In moving to the implementation stage the council must enable the active engagement of all councillors who have much to contribute.

The Kerslake Report makes clear that the council needs to change its corporate culture to change the way it does business with its partners and those it serves, including the city’s residents. It needs to be a listening and learning council, replacing insularity for a willingness to learn from others.

For this to be achieved all 120 City Councillors need to be involved and the positive contribution of the opposition parties should be both welcomed and expected. The level of involvement of individual councillors outside the leadership in the development of the improvement plan has so far been limited. In moving to the implementation stage the council must enable the active engagement of all councillors who have much to contribute.

In a lengthy report assessing the improvement plan, Mr Crabtree questions time and again the true commitment to becoming a “learning and listening” council and asks for assurances from Sir Albert that “the very firm political leadership” required to find more than £253 million in budget savings at the same time as embracing culture change on a hitherto unknown scale is in place.

The panel praises the performance of the council’s new interim director for service delivery, Sarah Homer, but also warns that further action is required to improve senior management capacity and to give more support to Mr Rogers.

It’s emerged that two new senior interim managers are to be hired, working for Ms Homer – one to deliver core business and one to deliver the transformation programme.

Mr Crabtree’s report is sprinkled with faint praise:

BCC appears to have struck the right balance between being ambitious about the changes it is planning and is realistic about the time that implementation and embedding of change will take…

but invariably questions are then raised about what is actually happening on the ground.

The panel is keen to explore how ownership from elected members and partners will be secured, and how ownership and buy-in across all service and central directorates will be ensured. The panel is also keen to understand better how all the changes will be led, and by whom.

Also who will take responsibility for implementing each of the key elements of the programmes, including how capacity and capability will be drawn together from BCC service directorates, other councils, partners and other relevant stakeholders, to achieve synergy, buy-in, ownership, partnership alignment and engagement.

Mr Crabtree says panel members have been encouraged by the decision to bring in experienced interim managers into senior roles to help the council make progress, but goes on to warn: “Capacity remains extremely stretched and there is a severe risk to the delivery of the improvement plan if the council does not also address for the longer term the need for permanent senior managerial capacity appropriate to the size of the organisation and the task.

“All directorates and services of Birmingham city council must be engaged in cross-council cultural change and service transformation, led by the chief executive. His ability and commitment are not in doubt, but the Council will risk failure if it does not recognise the need for enough skilled and experienced senior managers.”

And while Mr Crabtree praises the enthusiasm of senior staff and cabinet members for change, he continues:

Energetic political support and ownership for the programme will also be essential if it is to succeed. There is a question as to whether the council’s political leadership realises what a major programme of work this is?

This programme is extremely ambitious but urgently necessary. There is clear financial management leadership for this work, but whether sufficient corporate management capacity is in place is, as yet, unclear given the huge range of activity that the chief executive is leading on.

This element of the improvement work is high risk, given the nature of the change. The panel will be very keen to see the costed and timetabled programme of work for the redesign of support services as soon as possible and will wish to be reassured that it will be resourced sufficiently.

One of the most critical sections of the report deals with the piece-meal approach to delivering Kerslake’s recommendations, apparently without proper thought being given to a long-term financial strategy. The report hits out at an absence of interdependence,  joining together the various strands of Kerslake.

The improvement plan is inevitably divided into different elements which address the Kerslake recommendations. However, there is a serious risk that the interdependence of these elements will not be sufficiently recognised and this is evident from some of the time-scales planned, which may be overambitious.

For example, important aspects of the community governance and devolution developments cannot sensibly be considered independently of the major piece of work being undertaken to develop a long term financial strategy which will involve quite fundamental service transformation. This issue needs to be addressed in the finalisation of the Future Council programme plan and it may require some elements of the plan to take longer but with a benefit to overall coherence.

The council’s approach to improving devolution – Kerslake demanded a “new model for devolution, focusing on getting basic services right, and organising them in a way which is most efficient” –  has not impressed the panel.

It is questionable whether these potentially major changes are being worked on on a whole council basis. It is doubtful many members have been involved in discussions about it, in either the controlling group or opposition.

The development work behind the consultation paper seems to have been confined to a small group of officers and members. While the council is at a consultation stage and nothing yet has been set in stone, this does not seem an appropriate way to go about a successful development of a new approach to community governance and devolution.

We understand that the next stages will take place soon after the elections but there is little time for the management team as a whole to be engaged, let alone members across all parties by then.

There is a risk of these developments taking place in isolation from other interdependent strands of the improvement plan and it would seem advisable for these to be progressed on a timetable consistent with other significant changes.

This would enable the chief executive to oversee the whole process of development, and ensure that all members are engaged, before the council decides its approach for the future.

The council’s communications strategy, or lack of a strategy, comes in for special criticism:

There is a risk that with the necessary focus on the improvement plan and the fundamental changes needed, the council will fail to communicate the positive aspects of what is happening in the city and to engage successfully with its residents and partners. It will be helpful to discuss with the council the view that priority should be given to developing a proactive communications strategy, including a consistent and compelling narrative about how the council is responding to the Kerslake Report.

In a press statement, council leaders welcomed the panel decision to sign off the improvement plan.

Council leader Sir Albert Bore said:

We have acted quickly to produce our action plan and get on the front foot in making changes. Since it was published three months ago, good progress has been made on all of the recommendations set out in the original [Kerslake] review. And, just as the panel notes this progress, so we are also mindful of the risks to the implementation of the plan they have drawn our attention to.

Chief Executive Mark Rogers has taken to YouTube to explain the latest stage of the improvement process.

In a statement he said:

We have worked in a determined manner to deliver a detailed and comprehensive plan by the deadline. I’m grateful for the panel’s advice which has helped ensure today’s most welcome approval. I also appreciate the panel’s recognition of our commitment to move forward and change the way we do business both inside and outside the council.

Our values-based approach to designing the ‘Future Council’ is setting us in good stead to effect the cultural change required of us.

We do want to engage differently with our citizens; we do want to collaborate more effectively with our partners; and we do want to be more open and transparent – seeking to be the best we can, not only as a city council but, more importantly, as a city.

A new section of the Council’s Newsroom website has been established to cover the Future Council plan. 

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