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Dale’s Diary: ‘Improvement panel satisfied’ claim examined, and what’s Birmingham Partners for?

Dale’s Diary: ‘Improvement panel satisfied’ claim examined, and what’s Birmingham Partners for?

🕔23.Sep 2015

The Birmingham Independent Improvement Panel is “broadly satisfied” with the city council’s progress so far in delivering radical governance reforms demanded by the Kerslake Review.

Well, that’s the view of Interim Director for Service Delivery Sarah Homer and the Future Council Programme Manager Gillian Connolly in a risk update report to the audit committee.

You’d expect Homer to put the best possible gloss on all matters Kerslake, she is after all overseeing a culture change programme which aims to transform the council from an insular “we know best” organisation to a welcoming, inclusive authority working closely with partners.

But is it really fair to say the panel is “broadly satisfied” with the way things are going?

Here’s what panel chair John Crabtree had to say about the council’s efforts in a letter to Local Government Secretary Greg Clark in July:

The panel is pleased to report that progress is being made in a number of areas. But key risks and challenges remain relating to political leadership, communication and engagement and the pace of change.

While elements of the plan are on track there are a number of key areas where there has been less progress than expected…..there remain questions about whether the senior political leadership of the council fully understands the scale of change required.

We are not yet seeing the radical shifts necessary to address the starkest of Lord Kerslake’s criticisms relating to the council’s culture.

The pace of change certainly needs to be accelerated if sufficient impact and assurance about the sustainability of any progress is to be evident by December 2015.”

Mr Clark responded earlier this month by stating he would consider very carefully the panel’s next report in the autumn before deciding “whether any further measures may be needed to secure the long term improvement in Birmingham we are all seeking” which suggests he, for one, isn’t broadly satisfied with progress.

Council leader Sir Albert Bore responded defiantly by insisting he understands the need for change and that he is “personally really pleased with the progress we have all made in the last couple of months or so”. Sir Albert will discover shortly whether the panel, and Mr Clark, are also really pleased with the rate of change.

To be fair to Homer and Connolly, they do classify the current risk level of not delivering the Future Council programme as medium to high. It’s unlikely the improvement panel is going to be broadly satisfied with a high risk rating, although you have to admire the honesty.

The independent Birmingham leadership group recommended in the Kerslake Review is busy running ideas up flagpoles with some blue sky thinking, but what it’s actually for is anyone’s guess.

Even the organisers candidly admit Birmingham Partners, as the group is now known, is something of a work in progress. Austin Rodriguez, a Future Council programme project manager at the Council, has appealed for ideas in an email where he admits “this is new, its emerging and developing into something still to be defined”.

Some 43 organisations have agreed “to lead conversations, host events, provide information and become part of a communications team for Birmingham Partners”, according to council leader Sir Albert Bore. The group is working on a What Makes Birmingham Great campaign.

Unfortunately, the Birmingham Partners website lists only a handful of the 43 – including the Centre for Voluntary Action, Sport Birmingham, Birmingham community Healthcare and Birmingham City University. It doesn’t yet list Files publisher RJF Public Affairs which has applied to be a partner.

As for developing a shared vision for Birmingham, the site offers up three messages from partners in the form of a timely reminder to book a flu jab, a warning that “mobile app encourages youngsters to share secrets” and a puff for “rare and iconic punk images unveiled at exhibition”.

This is all very well, but it’s not what Kerslake wanted.

Recommendation eight of his review is clear: “The council should facilitate the creation of a new independent Birmingham leadership group. The group should approve the new long-term City Plan and be used to hold all involved in delivery of the plan to account.”

Sir Albert has said Birmingham Partners will not be a standing committee and will “add value rather than oversight”. It remains to be seen whether this approach satisfies the improvement panel, because it appears on the face of it that the council has sidestepped an important Kerslake recommendation.

The Yes Minister scriptwriters would surely be impressed by the following exchange at the Commons Public Accounts Committee, where Birmingham city council leader Sir Albert Bore was giving evidence:

Karin Smyth MP: The discussion yesterday with your teams was very useful. A number of issues came up, particularly around skills, which we would like to talk about, but it would be helpful to get a sense of how you in Birmingham feel the democratic accountability issues are working for you.

Councillor Sir Albert Bore:

I think you have to see a number of these agendas as part of a wide agenda. The city council, and the city council with its partners in the LEP, generally see skills as an issue for the West Midlands economy and for the Greater Birmingham economy.

In a number of different ways, we set that skills agenda out as an objective of individual authorities and indeed of the LEP. So if you are talking about a growth deal and its relationship with skills, that is simply a small component of that skills agenda; it is not the complete agenda. Therefore, your question is really answered by looking at the skills agenda in more general terms.

Well, I’m glad he cleared that up.

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