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Who should be blamed – sorry, held to account?

Who should be blamed – sorry, held to account?

🕔21.Nov 2016

As council leaders and senior officers prepare the 2017/18 budget for its first test – Birmingham’s Labour Group this weekend – Chris Game ponders questions of accountability in the wake of the improvement panel’s recent letter to the Communities Secretary.

The point with which Kevin Johnson concluded his recent analysis of the latest disquieting letter from the Birmingham Independent Improvement Panel (BIIP) to Communities Secretary Sajid Javid seems both a fair and important one: that it is chief executive Mark Rogers who is now “arguably under more pressure than the political leader [Cllr John Clancy]” for Birmingham City Council’s ongoing financial and other management failings.

From the outset of his council leadership, Cllr Clancy has been emphatic that he sees his role as “leading the city, rather than running it”; that he would “spend as little time as possible in the Council House, and had told chief executive Mark Rogers to get on with running Birmingham”.

The disputes over the Council’s renegotiation of its Service Birmingham IT contact with Capita, and its contribution to the WM Pension Fund are rather different. These are both issues with which Cllr Clancy has long engaged personally and is therefore open to any criticism that comes his way.

But look at the BIIP’s major worries, positioned pointedly right up front in its roughly 4-page letter and phrased, for a public communication, in unusually forthright language:

  • “the slow pace of change in the Council’s organisational culture”;
  • “that flawed planning and insufficient delivery of the Council’s 2016-17 revenue budget will result in a serious overspend for the year”;
  • that “as a consequence the Council faces a mammoth task to prepare a budget for 2017/18 [with] very limited general reserves available”;
  • that to deliver its “highly ambitious transformation agenda … the Council must simultaneously make savings, invest in new ways of operating and develop an organisational culture that is fit for purpose”.

Transforming organisational culture, budgeting and financial management – if that’s not “running Birmingham” stuff, it’s hard to imagine what is. Moreover, as the BIIP letter notes later, these problems have arisen or continued “despite the Panel … bringing to the attention of the CEO and corporate leadership team [the CEO, Assistant CEO and six Strategic Directors] its concerns about, and the risks associated with, many of these matters.”

The panel members are not happy bunnies, and it’s clear they weren’t greatly reassured by the Council’s 38-page ‘Progress Report’ – Strengthening the Foundations – to which their letter was responding.

Even skim-reading the two documents together reveals their apparently diverging views of the seriousness of the Council’s present position, and of its claimed progress in remedying the corporate leadership and management defects that the Kerslake Review identified nearly two years ago.

Were I still teaching undergraduates, I’d be tempted to give them the Council’s opus, explain that it was prepared for an independent Improvement Panel, and ask them what they reckoned the report’s authors were hoping to achieve, and how they’d assess their chances.

And I’d be surprised if collectively they didn’t conclude that the Council’s report looked and smelt like a desperate attempt to pad out and paper over a record of limited concrete advance and a scary current financial position by blitzing its readers with rehearsals of familiar history, gobbets of good news and minor achievements – that couldn’t seriously hope to convince.

The cosmetic signs are everywhere, and immediately spottable by essay-writing students: the inflationary adjectives – ‘resets’ (of which there are many) invariably radical or fundamental; responses thoughtful and considered but also pro-active, political decisions always tough, examinations “no holds barred”, etc.; pages from past reports on “where we have come from”, including a surely redundant rehearsal of Kerslake which is what brought the Panel into existence; lists of minor reforms and “achievements” that prompt only the thought that, if this is progress, things must have been even worse than we imagined.

Surely most telling, though, of the report’s misjudgements was to delay until page 21 any detailed reference to the Panel’s known concerns about the 2016/17 and 2017/18 budgets, the Council’s current financial plight, and its overall financial management.

They can’t be avoided, so why not at least confirm that you too fully recognise the seriousness of these matters by addressing them head-on upfront, rather than leaving them until you’re more than halfway through?

But there were other matters too, later in the Panel’s letter, that must be particularly perturbing for a CEO with Mark Rogers’ professional background and record in social work and children’s services.

There’s what the Panel feels was the Council’s “late recognition” of the need to work with its health partners “to develop a more integrated approach to commissioning and delivering health and social care to residents”, and the slow progress “on the improvement programmes relating to education and children’s social care, including the development of plans for a Children’s Trust.”

It would be hard, therefore, for any outsider reading the BIIP letter not to conclude that our council’s CEO is currently under pressure on not one but several fronts – as, it might be suggested, must be an occupational hazard for one with this CEO’s apparent relish for multi-tasking.

Before coming to Birmingham in 2014 Rogers combined for several years his CEO duties at Solihull Council with that most demanding of modern-day local government portfolios, Director of Children’s Services. And in his spare time held the Presidency of SOLACE, the representative body of local authority chief execs – a normally one-year role from which Rogers stood down only last month after holding it for three.

By which time he was several months into a third job as what has come to be known, somewhat delphically, as System Leader for [the] Birmingham & Solihull footprint.

It sounds like something out of the Dinosaur Hunter’s Guide or possibly the manual of Freemasonry, but these footprints are the 44 bizarrely named areas in which joint NHS and local government bodies have been tasked with developing five-year Strategic Health and Social Care Sustainability and Transformation Plans (STPs).

That last sentence alone should convey the historic significance and aspiration of these STPs: England’s first serious place-based attempt to have the different parts of the NHS and traditionally local authority-run social care services – GPs, hospital specialists, district nurses, social workers – work co-ordinatedly together to improve care for people with long-term conditions. That’s the theory, anyway.

So what’s not to celebrate?  Well, ask NHS England, which throughout has sought to micro-control this supposedly collaborative planning initiative, turn it into a hospital and A&E closure blueprint, and to keep it secret, not just from us mere patients, but from many of its own frontline staff like clinicians, GPs and primary care providers.

The whole STP process has operated to what, given the medical context, must be termed a breakneck timetable: from the selection of the footprint leaders in May to the submission of NHS-revised drafts in October.

No necks, as far as we know, were actually broken, but then we’re still not supposed to know anything at all, as NHS England didn’t want any STPs published until it had decided that we were ready to be ‘consulted’ about the alarming news and proposals most of them would contain.

And, with the great majority of STP leaders being senior officials of NHS trusts or CCGs – bodies that evidently find alien the concept of public accountability that in local government is a daily operating reality – more than half are still unpublished, even by their constituent councils.

To its credit, and presumably owing something to Rogers being one of only four STP leaders from local government, Birmingham/Solihull was the first footprint to challenge the NHS’ ruling and publish.

The NHS insists that, although the frightening savings targets driving the whole STP exercise derive from its own projected 2020/21 financial gap, social care funding hasn’t suffered disproportionately, and anyway none of the plans are set even in plasticine and will, sometime, be subject to consultation.

Crucial as these matters are, though, they are not the main reason for this blog. Its purpose is simply to wonder out loud how the BIIP, patently concerned about the financial and managerial performance of the biggest metropolitan council in the country, is likely to view that council’s CEO having spent at least a proportion of his recent time away from his day job on another also vital but massively demanding project.

Doubtless there’s a complementarity, but perhaps also a blurring of accountability?

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