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Rogers on council culture change: ‘Political class gets it, but jury still out on progress’

Rogers on council culture change: ‘Political class gets it, but jury still out on progress’

🕔24.Mar 2015

The jury is still out on Birmingham council’s ability to drive through a culture change in the way it operates but the ruling political class does grasp the scale of challenges that lie ahead, city chief executive Mark Rogers has said.

In an interview to mark the end of his first year in the job Mr Rogers also admitted he wasn’t sure “anyone has fully got their heads” around what the council must do to address the widespread criticism levelled in Lord Kerslake’s review of the authority’s governance capabilities.

Speaking on the day it was confirmed an improvement panel had signed off an action plan, Mr Rogers stressed that no other council had attempted transformation on the scale required in Birmingham and that other core cities were not under the microscope in the same way “because they haven’t got themselves into the difficulties that we have”. And he insisted:

We are not in abject failure, let’s be clear. It’s relative.

The post-Kerslake panel under the chairmanship of former Wragge & Co senior partner John Crabtree eventually gave its backing five days after meeting council leader Sir Albert Bore and Mr Rogers to discuss the plan, but also expressed doubts about the political leadership and managerial capacity to drive through a culture change in behaviour.

Panel members 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.

Mr Rogers, who took over as chief executive in March 2014, accepts one of Kerslake’s central criticisms that the council is lacking a single, understandable, plan for the future, or as he puts it “no one knows what the golden thread is”.

Kerslake commented rather more starkly and found that “a damaging combination of a lack of a strategic plan and corporate grip” had produced “a multiplicity of strategies, plans and processes which has created unnecessary complexity and confusion”.

The review also referred to “organisational disobedience” and criticised councillors who behaved as if they were officers and officers who behaved as if they were councillors. In addition, the council was castigated as believing it always knew best and being poor at forming effective partnerships.

Mr Rogers said:

We have lots of plans but there isn’t a single plan for the place. It’s been difficult politically and managerially for people to know exactly what the golden thread is.

Some people would read organisational disobedience as wilful misbehaviour by people who don’t necessarily toe the line. For me organisational disobedience is not having done a good enough job to keep people focused on the golden thread. No one has given them a single coherent medium term plan.

The political leadership has set a high level agenda around prosperity, fairness and democracy. The truth is that staff do not have sufficient detailed understanding of what they can contribute specifically to prosperity, fairness and democracy.

As officers we haven’t done a grand plan which we need to do to help them with that.

He stresses that the acute financial problems facing the council, with spending cuts amounting to about £830 million between 2010 and 2017, make change a necessity rather than an optional extra.

He wonders whether there will be enough money come 2020 to carry on delivering all statutory services and points to the pressure coming from an ageing population as well as growing demand for children’s social services.

Rogers says Birmingham council will have to move rapidly to a position of commissioning services from others rather than doing everything itself. At the same time he states that the duty of any council is “to understand the needs of its population”. He adds:

I don’t think you should be driven solely by the statutory requirement.

There are some things we should do for citizens because their needs require it. Deprivation in this city hasn’t changed for 25 years. We need to skew investment to tackle deep-seated issues around deprivation. This will make it a challenge to offer to do anything else.

We have to follow need. Not post code based, but needs based.

Quite how the needs of the population are to be squared with dwindling financial resources and soaring expectations is probably a matter for the action plan to consider, or the Future Council Plan in Rogers-speak.

Council staff will have to be retrained and must understand what the future council looks like. This will be an enormous task because people don’t have change management skills at the moment, although they are very adept at issuing Section 188 redundancy notices.

He supports the call for a culture change.

Kerslake is saying we must change our behaviour, but it will take a little time. There is a need for us to learn how to lead from the front, middle and back.

A need to be magnanimous in our leadership and stop the tendency to see the democratic mandate as the justification for us leading everything.

Giving power away is as powerful as keeping it.

He defends the approach taken to drawing up the draft action plan, which excluded backbenchers from the process. Mr Rogers says he “led the spade work” because there wasn’t enough time between publication of the Kerslake Review and the improvement panel’s desire to sign off the plan by March to involve others. He admits:

The breadth and depth of engagement had to be calculatedly limited within the timescale.

As for criticism of the process: “It is disingenuous (for backbenchers) to say ‘we know nothing’. Even if they weren’t directly involved the stuff has been out there long enough for people to know where it is and they can look at it.”

The biggest question of all of course is ‘does Birmingham really get it?’ Is there sufficient understanding of the radically different direction of travel required by Kerslake and the Government?

Mr Rogers said:

I think the political ruling class as well as the top echelons of the opposition groups do understand the scale and depth of the challenge. The scale of the cultural change must be very difficult for them. Crabtree is absolutely right to focus on how difficult it is going to be to secure change.

A lot is being asked of Birmingham, more than is being asked of other places because they haven’t got themselves into the difficulties that we have. Manchester children’s services are failing for the fourth time in 10 years but you don’t hear about that.

We got ourselves into a lot of difficulties. We have to prove ourselves more than other places.

He believes Birmingham’s politically combative nature isn’t helping.

Birmingham’s failings are issues across administrations. The challenge that the administration in power has is a really difficult one. How do you get cross-party commitment and involvement in delivering change?

Dealing with denial or resistance is the biggest jobs we have got. I’m not sure anyone fully has fully got their heads around what we have to do. No one has experienced being in this position.

Birmingham isn’t a place where consensual politics is deep rooted. A lot of engagement takes place along political lines.

There has to be a much greater level of engagement going forward. Crabtree is saying the jury is out.”

Mr Crabtree, meanwhile, appears to have something of an admirer in Mr Rogers.

The way John is managing the panel is different from other forms of intervention we have experienced. He sees the solutions as being Birmingham-centred solutions and he doesn’t see himself as an agent of DCLG.

I think sometimes national inspectorates are looking to see where the faults are. My impression of John is he is looking to see where the strengths are and saying ‘build on these’.

One area where improvement can’t come quickly enough is children’s safeguarding services which have been in special measures since 2009. The latest Ofsted inspection of the new Multi-Agency Safeguarding Hub suggests there is still a long way to go.

Mr Rogers states that social services are in the first year of a three-year improvement plan and there are signs that the MASH is making a difference.

We are still unsatisfactory, but not as unsatisfactory.

Having “opened up the front door” to deal with supressed demand the council is facing thousands of new cases of suspected child abuse and domestic violence. A rapidly unfolding national agenda around child sexual exploitation suggests the current volume of work is the tip of the iceberg.

The council’s controlling Labour group has agreed to put an additional £21 million into safeguarding services, something of a brave decision in the current financial climate. This means there will be even less money to deliver non-statutory services and tougher decisions down the road for Mr Rogers and the politicians.

The year ahead would appear to be as challenging as the year just gone for Birmingham city council’s chief executive.

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