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Summer Report: Deputy Leader Ward

Summer Report: Deputy Leader Ward

🕔19.Aug 2014

The latest in our special series taking stock of Birmingham City Council, blogger-in-chief Paul Dale turns his attention to the biggest Ward in the Council, Bore’s quiet but effective deputy. 

Ian Ward can be forgiven for feeling rather pleased with himself.

Against all the odds the deputy leader of Birmingham City Council succeeded in putting the running sore of Capita-Service Birmingham to bed and in doing so repaired a gaping split in the Labour group.

This time last year the chances of Ward successfully renegotiating the Service Birmingham contract and substantially reducing the £120 million a year paid to Capita for running the council’s ICT services did not seem to be very good.

Ward and city leader Sir Albert Bore were under mounting pressure from backbench leadership contender John Clancy and his cheer-leader-in-chief, Prof David Bailey from Aston University, to answer claims that Capita were taking the council to the cleaners.

Stories abounded of huge profits for Capita with ridiculous mark-ups for simple IT work, and it was suggested by Clancy and Bailey that the £120 million cost could be at least halved by axing Service Birmingham and awarding contracts to smaller local IT firms instead.

Ward and Sir Albert agreed under pressure to publish the contracts the council has with Capita, although anything of interest about the financial arrangements was redacted and hidden from view.

Ward was given the task of negotiating a £20 million a year reduction in Capita’s fees. But talks to achieve this went on, and on, and on. A target to agree a new contract by December 2013 was missed and it was not until June 2014 that Ward and Bore were able to reach agreement with Capita about a new approach.

Even the most hardened of Labour critics were impressed by the deal Ward came up with.

The council will save £150 million over the remaining seven years of the Service Birmingham contract and will keep a clause allowing the agreement to be ended ‘at will’ within 60 days. A 17 per cent mark-up on equipment provided by Capita has disappeared.

But the icing on the cake indicated a deft political touch from Ward. Under the new Service Birmingham contract, operation of the Birmingham call centre will revert to city council control.

Ward must have known that this would be a hugely popular move, for there are few if any among the 120 city councillors not acutely aware of an avalanche of public complaints about the mixed performance of the call centre.

“We have regained control of our own shop window,” Ward told cheering Labour councillors.

Of course, it remains to be seen whether a council-run call centre runs any more efficiently than a Capita-run call centre. But Ward has at least bought himself some valuable breathing space and can expect a year’s grace while the new working arrangements bed in.

More importantly from his point of view, Ward has dramatically increased his profile among Labour councillors who at one time doubted whether the quiet deputy council leader was the right person to play hardball with Capita. They know he is now.

At Birmingham City Council, however, when one would-be crisis is averted another difficulty lurks around the corner. Ian Ward, who also has overall responsibility for ensuring that the council is meeting its improvement targets, has presided over what is, on the face of it, a fairly woeful performance. Only 20 out of 60 targets were achieved or exceeded during 2013-14.

Ward and chief executive Mark Rogers attempted to explain this away by pointing out that most of the missed targets revolve around areas where the council has always struggled – social services and sickness absence, for example. These are the most problematic areas requiring significant improvement, to quote Mr Rogers.

Unlike some of his predecessors, Ward rarely attempts to disguise failure with tricky spin. He simply told a cabinet meeting that performance against the key indicators was not good enough.

In particular, the so-called channel shift requiring 34 per cent of customers to deal with the council through its website rather than in telephone calls or face-to-face interviews is nowhere near being met. This is important because substantial cash savings identified in the business transformation strategy from a far smaller workforce depend on a rapid switch to internet communications.

Ward will be looking for a significant improvement in performance this time next year. At a personal level, though, his star has never been higher.

He easily swatted away a challenge for the deputy leadership from Cllr Barry Henley, winning by 57 votes to 16. The fact that the scale of his victory was significantly greater than that of Sir Albert Bore, who saw off contender John Clancy by 47 votes to 27, did not go unnoticed in the Labour group.

Should Sir Albert decide to stand down when he celebrates his 70th birthday in a couple of years, Ward would be odds-on favourite to succeed. If he wants the job, that is.

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