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The Kerslake Report – not the work of a one-Knight band

The Kerslake Report – not the work of a one-Knight band

🕔10.Dec 2014

Local government expert Chris Game, from the University of Birmingham, turns the tables on Kerslake but finds the peer challenge model behind his Review leads to recommendations which are big, demanding and complex.

To quote Paul Dale’s headline, the Kerslake report is indeed, a “withering attack.”

The institutional target of the attack:

does not monitor the impact of funding reductions on an ongoing basis or in a co-ordinated way. It is reliant on others to alert it to individual service failures. It prioritises its interest in service delivery on services that spend the most money, (which) means it risks only becoming aware of serious problems of financial sustainability after they have occurred.

And plenty more in the same vein. So serious is the questioning of competence and fitness for purpose that the leading local government practitioner journal is already calling for abolition in its present form.

But all that was three weeks ago now. How time flies, and how roles change – in Sir Bob Kerslake’s case from object of criticism to chief purveyor.

For that quotation comes in fact straight from a National Audit Office report (p.9).  And the ‘institutional target’ is actually the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG), whose Permanent Secretary for the past four years, Sir Bob Kerslake, has been spending much of the time pending his imminent retirement reporting about Birmingham City Council’s problems.

The practitioner journal is the Local Government Chronicle, whose editor noted that:

interaction with the Treasury or Department for Business, Innovation & Skills regularly proves more fruitful for councils than that with the DCLG, and it was no surprise when Greater Manchester’s mayoral deal was hatched with the Treasury, not Eric Pickles’ department. The time has come to abolish the DCLG and invest the savings in efficient local services.

OK, I readily concede that this smacks of the Yes, Minister tactic of deflecting attention from the content of a critical report by attacking the author, but I’d question whether it’s as cheap a shot as all that.

I can do really cheap shots – like wondering out loud whether the PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) condemned on Monday by the Commons Public Accounts Select Committee for a “mass-marketed tax avoidance scheme”  – is anything to do with the PwC hired by the DCLG to investigate alleged malpractice in Tower Hamlets.

Here, though, I’d suggest that introducing the NAO’s almost systemic and coinciding critique of the DCLG – architect and deliverer of so much of local government’s present financial plight, and its supposed monitor – does have a pretty direct relevance to at least some of the other Kerslake Report’s criticisms of Birmingham.

The report makes clear that some of our city’s biggest problems are deep-rooted and by no means the creation of the present Labour administration. But, in respect of those for which that administration is judged responsible, part of its retort, and echoed by many other particularly urban authorities, could be that it’s hardly been well served by the one Whitehall department whose supposed job it is to be on their side.

OK, sniping over. The fact is that the Birmingham Kerslake report is not a Whitehall production, and we’ll be doing ourselves no favours, if we pretend it is.

Kerslake’s own career background is solid local government – indeed, some might say, marked by greater achievement than his more recent spell at the DCLG and for a period as Head of the Home Civil Service.

Certainly, he was a highly effective and admired Chief Executive of Sheffield City Council for over ten years, overseeing – in a different but comparably visionary role as Sir Albert Bore’s in Birmingham – the outstanding transformation of a recession-wrecked city economy and run-down city centre.

These are two of their generation’s biggest local government players, and it is hard to believe that their ambitions for the future of our city are fundamentally at variance.

It’s more than just Kerslake’s background and leadership, however, which make this certainly not an uncritical report, but one that I believe is overall more positive and supportive than negative and hostile.

Kerslake was not a one-knight band. He had an eight-piece backing group or advisory panel drawn entirely from the senior reaches of big and mainly metropolitan local government – albeit in a slightly odd mix of four women chief execs and four male councillors.  Put plainly, none of these are people who are going to spend their time delivering even coded ministerial directives.

My last piece of evidence is the direct influence and involvement of the Local Government Association (LGA) – personally through its CEO, Carolyn Downs, as a panel member, and methodologically through the review’s adoption of the LGA’s peer challenge model of organisational improvement.

Peer challenge was developed by the LGA as a more positive and effective means of assisting under-performing councils to improve themselves than the target-driven, punitive interventions favoured by some ministers and civil servants during the last Labour government.

Since 2011 the LGA and its members have delivered more than 400 of these peer challenges and they have become the accepted local government way of improving councils’ performance and impact and thereby transforming their service provision.

I venture to suggest, at least at this early stage, that the proposed independent – though ministerially-appointed – improvement panel should be seen as part of a peer challenge model.

Birmingham, undoubtedly, will be one of the approach’s biggest challenges and transformation will take time. The review’s recommendations are big, demanding and in some instances, like those for establishing a new model of devolution, complex. They all deserve considered responses, which is one reason why I’m stopping, temporarily, now.

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