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Special Feature: Implementing Kerslake – a progress report

Special Feature: Implementing Kerslake – a progress report

🕔17.Aug 2015

The Kerslake Review of Birmingham city council’s governance capabilities was published last December and contained eleven recommendations demanding a culture change away from a ‘we know best’ attitude towards a more inclusive partnership approach. In a special series on Chamberlain Files this week, chief blogger Paul Dale assesses progress so far.

If the bluntly critical tone took council leaders by surprise, the wide ranging nature of the review was entirely unforeseen. Kerslake’s study peered into almost every aspect of local authority life and turned out to be far removed from the ‘tinkering at the edges’ confidently predicted by most at the Council House.

In short, Britain’s largest local authority found itself accused of poor leadership over many years (Tory-Lib Dem as well as Labour to blame) where deep rooted problems were swept under the carpet, lacking any understandable strategic plan, and gripped by a culture that made it difficult to form meaningful partnerships with other stakeholders.

The implications of the review continue to this day to dominate political weather at the Council House. Chief executive Mark Rogers recently likened Kerslake’s findings to a “metaphorical vivisection” of the council.

Bob Kerslake’s CV, a former head of the civil service and Permanent Secretary at the DCLG, lent extra credence to the review. This was one report that was never going to gather dust on a shelf.

The recommendations alone ran to 1,450 words, and were accepted in full by the council and the Government, with a deadline of Christmas 2015 for delivery.

Eric Pickles, then the Communities Secretary, said:

The Kerslake report found a series of deep rooted and serious problems that are stopping both the city and the council from fulfilling their potential. It is essential now that the city council makes rapid progress if it is to serve the people and businesses of Birmingham as it should.

As the next public meeting nears and the improvement panel begins to prepare its next report to the Communities Secretary, Chamberlain Files takes a detailed look at progress for each of the recommendations. Today, numbers one to three.

Recommendation 1

The Secretary of State should appoint an independent improvement panel that is able to work with the council to provide the robust challenge and support the council requires. The council should draw up an improvement plan with clear dates for delivery. The independent improvement panel should provide regular updates to the Secretary of State and updates on progress should also be made to the city’s residents.

An independent improvement panel was formed early in 2015 under the chairmanship of Birmingham lawyer John Crabtree. Its other members are former Audit Commission managing director Frances Done, Leeds city councillor Keith Wakefield, and Chester West and Cheshire council chief executive Steve Robinson.

Recommendation 2

It will take some years for Birmingham City Council to address all its problems. However, Birmingham City Council should publish a report setting out how it has implemented our recommendations in December 2015. The independent improvement panel will provide their assessment of this report and on the council’s progress in setting a budget for 2016/17 to the Secretary of State.

The reports of the council and the improvement panel to Communities Secretary Greg Clark in December will be a crucial marker of the future governance of Birmingham. Two letters from Mr Crabtree to Mr Clark this year criticised a slow rate of progress and asked “whether the senior political leadership of the council fully understands the scale of change required”.

In July, the panel warned: “We are not yet seeing the radical shifts necessary to address the starkest of Lord Kerslake’s criticisms relating to the council’s culture.” A further report to Mr Clark will be made following a public meeting of the panel on September 11.

Although council leader Sir Albert Bore insists there is little likelihood of further Government intervention, further critical panel reports in September and December could force Mr Clark’s hand.

Recommendation 3

Birmingham City Council’s governance needs to be reset in the following ways:

The council needs to clarify roles, responsibilities, behaviours and ways of working expected in relation to that of the leader, cabinet, councillors, chief executive and officers. The strategic, executive, independent scrutiny and community roles of members needs to be clearly defined and better supported including with appropriate training. The council also needs to ensure there are shared expectations of capacity, capability and how performance will be measured between members and the senior officer team.

Birmingham city council should develop a simplified planning framework this should flow from the city plan.

In order to achieve strong corporate governance and coordination of the council’s required transformation support services such as finance, performance management, human resources, IT and property should be managed corporately. The corporate centre should be strengthened to enable this to be done effectively and provide greater support to the Chief Executive and his team. A senior post to lead the economic work of the council should be re-established to effectively carry out this role and at the same time to provide the capacity needed for the Chief Executive to play his corporate leadership role.

There should be a programme of culture change that is owned by both members and officers.

This recommendation gets straight to the heart of one of Kerslake’s central findings, that the roles of councillors and council officers have become confused in Birmingham over a long period of time. As he put it: “There is a blurring of roles between members and officers. The relationship needs to be reset and officers given the space to manage.”

Kerslake even managed to find a member of Sir Albert’s top team who was prepared to speak out:

In the words of a cabinet member, councillors pretend they are officers, and officers occasionally pretend they are councillors.

Kerslake continued: “Members need to have a realistic vision for the city and the council’s future that is achievable. Officers need to be honest about the tough decisions and trade-offs that will be needed to get there. Issues need to be confidently raised and dealt with rather than ignored or put off.”

It is this particular part of the culture change programme that has proved most difficult for senior council leaders to grasp. It is hard to change the habits of a lifetime.

In his latest letter to the Secretary of State, Mr Crabtree underlined continuing concerns:

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.

But parts of this wide-ranging recommendation have been achieved or are on course to be achieved.

Management consultant expert Sarah Homer was appointed early in the year to drive through organisational change at the centre, working closely with chief executive Mark Rogers. Advertisements have been placed for senior staff at director level to improve strategic capacity, although this only happened after the improvement panel lost patience with Sir Albert.

The positions are for two assistant chief executives on two-year fixed term contracts on salaries of £82,000-£91,000 and a strategic director for change and corporate services, £138,000-£153,000.

A new training programme for councillors has been adopted. The Future Council Plan makes it clear that the roles of the leader, cabinet, councillors and officers differ. Officers are now subject to improved rolling performance measurement systems and chief executive Mark Rogers has written enthusiastically about the new arrangements.

We look at the next set of recommendations and progress to date tomorrow.

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