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There is a long way to go on the Council’s transparency agenda

There is a long way to go on the Council’s transparency agenda

🕔11.Sep 2015

Whilst Birmingham city council representatives at today’s public meeting looking at the progress of implementing the Kerskale Review were at pains to stress the improvements being made in terms of communications, engagement and transparency, the evidence is somewhat different writes Kevin Johnson

The thing that struck me most when reading Sir Albert Bore’s letter to John Crabtree last week was the number of references to material that was contained in an ‘evidence pack’ or otherwise shared with the Birmingham Independent Improvement Panel, but which was not being opened up to the wider public. In particular, the sophistication of a new evaluation framework for ‘Measuring the Impact of What We Do’  was so magical, only the eyes of the panel were allowed to see it.

At today’s meeting, as chief blogger Paul Dale will describe in more detail, Conservative Group leader Councillor Robert Alden was at pains to point out that he was not yet convinced by the council leadership’s approach to transparency and cross party working, This included the matter of the evidence pack and that it had neither been published online or given to all councillors. He had checked, via his phone, that was still the case in terms of the Future Council pages just moments before rising.

A clearly annoyed council leader, Sir Albert Bore, sought to correct matters of fact, as he saw them, in his opposite number’s remarks to the public meeting. He indicated that the evidence pack had been emailed out to members and that it was, indeed, on the dedicated set of web pages.

I checked again. It wasn’t and isn’t.  (See Update at foot of this story). 

There is a statement and a link through to the comprehensive progress letter from Sir Albert. But no evidence pack or any part of it (redacted or otherwise).

All this raises two points. The Council still has some way to go in adopting a transparency agenda – a default position that you make everything available and only hold back when there is good reason: national security, commercial confidentiality, child protection, data protection or other sensitivities. Not, as is so often the case, a default to hold back and adopt an approach that believes ‘knowledge is power.’ The Council has form, as if we could forget, from Service Birmingham contracts to filming protocols in council meetings.

The second point is, in a way more troubling. Did Sir Albert confuse the letter with the accompanying evidence pack in the point made by Councillor Alden? Did he believe that the pack was made available, but officers had let him down? Or something else?

Whichever, the pack should be made public – and/or the reasons for all or part it being kept confidential should be clearly stated.

There is much work still do on Kerslake, notwithstanding the undoubted increase in pace over the last two-three months. I am looking to chief executive Mark Rogers – who is perhaps the most open CX in the Council’s history – and new Interim Strategic Communications Assistant Director James Flynn to turn transparency talk into action.

UPDATE: The main Birmingham city council twitter feed replied to this story on Friday evening to tell us that the documents are available and were posted on Tuesday.

However, the documents were posted in an area of the main council website – not the separate Birmingham Newsroom site which has been used for making Future Council information available to the public and media. They were also, apparently, uploaded two working days after the statement and progress letter were published – even though the Council is committed to publishing material a week in advance of public meetings. As far as we can tell, there was no media notice or tweet to let anybody (including the Opposition Group leader) know the documents were now available and where to find them.

Now the magic has been revealed, we’ll be looking in more detail at the evidence. In the meantime, we hope Mr Flynn has sorting out the Council’s awful main website on his long to do list.

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