Monthly Archives: May 2014

Another quiet week in Birmingham…

polling stationElection Day

Thursday is polling day for both local and European elections and part of my role at the City Council is to be the Returning Officer for both. I have been involved in election management for some time now (I can say “I do hereby declare that … is elected” in my sleep), but this is my first time as regional RO for the Europeans and, inevitably for a first timer, I’m a little nervous. However, I’m very ably aided and abetted by an experienced and highly committed election team, led by Rob Connolly, and the 22nd will, I’m sure, go smoothly.

As well as being on the inside of the democratic process I am, of course, also a voter and will be making sure that I express my preferences at 7.00 am sharp on Thursday morning before heading into the office. In Birmingham alone, the largest electoral authority in the UK, there are more than 755,000 registered electors and it would be my ambition that each and everyone of them put their crosses on the two ballot papers. This may fall into the territory of putting expectation before reality but, at the very least, I expect that each and every registered voter who works for the City Council casts her/his votes. We are a politically-led organisation and we should all show support and respect for the democratic process by taking advantage of it and putting that little pencil to work.

And to galvanise us, remember that the world’s biggest democracy – India – has just held general elections and achieved the nation’s highest turnout ever. What India can do, so should we.

Local elections 2014 – background briefing pack

Horticulturally Speaking

“I think the whole thing’s just wonderful” – Carole Klein.

My wife has just called me into the lounge to catch coverage on BBC 1 of our garden at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show:

I have to concur wholeheartedly with Ms Klein. This is a beautiful and touching display commemorating the forthcoming 100th anniversary of the start of the First World War. I imagine some of you may be lucky enough to be going to Chelsea. If so, you must visit this garden – and Tweet with a picture please (@MKMRogers).

Fingers and toes crossed for news of a top award this week. Irrespective of the judges view, the BCC team has my vote.

Birmingham: Twinned with the BBC

And mention of the BBC brings me to last Friday’s big news. On top of exciting announcements a few months back, Lord Hall – the Director General – made public that “Birmingham is to become home for the BBC’s UK skills and talent centre, helping to create the programme makers and stars of tomorrow”.

This is spectacularly important for the City as the BBC Academy is the Corporation’s in-house and industry-wide centre for training. It will also work along local businesses to develop the talent base of City and the wider West Midlands and, pinch yourself, it’s in Birmingham. Not London. Not Salford. Not Bristol. Birmingham.

And there is much, much more which you can read about here:

This is a major fillip to the City’s reputation as a vibrant creative hub, especially when it comes to digital thinking, research and development. Digbeth is rapidly becoming the country’s worst kept secret as the best place for innovation and creativity – and this reputation will only be enhanced by the arrival of a Digital Innovation Unit for the invention of next generation technologies. Be excited, very excited.

Sharp As A Needle

This coming Friday is also hugely significant in a sobering way as Ofsted publishes its latest report on the quality of the City Council’s safeguarding services.

We are clear – from our own analyses, the work of last October’s Local Government Association peer review, and the Professor Julian Le Grand Review earlier this year – about the need to move from inadequacy. It is our hope, therefore, that the inspectorate adds something to our understanding and efforts.

The report, whatever it says, must be put into context.

Firstly, we already have an agreed and mandated direction of travel for our improvement journey. Professor Le Grand’s report, the Minster’s response and the most recent guidance, support and challenge from our Commissioner Lord Norman Warner mean that we have a clear plan of action that we are busily executing. Given the City Council’s history of not having a single plan and sticking to it, we are determined to learn that lesson.

Secondly, uppermost in my mind is building on the hard won, but undoubtedly fragile, sense of calm, composure and “we can do it” attitude that The Leader, Cllr Jones and Peter Hay have been instilling since last summer. It is recognised, not least by our Commissioner, that having steadying and steady hands has been essential to giving colleagues in children’s services – and more widely across the organisation – the confidence to believe in themselves. These are essential building blocks for improvement to begin to take root and flourish. I truly hope, therefore, that this report does not set that confidence back. Therefore, I will be doing all I can to remain focused on the journey we have now started – as well as supporting anyone that needs it to take this report in their stride. We must keep moving forwards.

In doing this, I look to colleagues far and wide across the City Council, and within partner organisations, to help keep morale on its upward curve. This for the sake of the children and young people across the City who need us to excel at keeping them safe and promoting their wider wellbeing.

And Finally …

Next Saturday, as brief respite between declaring the local elections (early Friday morning), reacting to the Ofsted report, and announcing the results of the European ballot (Sunday evening), it is Birmingham Pride.

Be there. I will be, celebrating this great City’s diversity and vibrancy.

Hit The North

The North road sign

It’s four years since my wife and I went to a best friend’s 70th Birthday party in Bebington, Wirral (not The Wirral; just Wirral I’m reminded). I spent what seemed like all of that May Bank Holiday on the ‘phone due to a “planning matter”.

This time it’s the 74th we’re up for (yes, I can do basic maths) and I find that the refrain “how’s Meriden then?” has – at last – been replaced with what I suspect (and, of course, hope) will be a longer running refrain of “how’s Birmingham then?”. Our friends, and their friends, have seen me on the news (“nice tie Mark; make sure you have a good supply of different ones – ha, ha!”) and tend to view my not-so-new job almost entirely through a media prism. You can’t blame them: other than our six monthly visits back to the North West, they only see me when something’s in the glare of publicity and I’ve been caught on TV/radio.

So, how to answer the question? What do I pick out to tell them that won’t kill the party dead? “Hey, Mark – great to see you. How’s Birmingham then?” How about: “well Mike – you know I had this really interesting meeting last Thursday about the transfer of 0-5 public health commissioning from NHS England to the City Council. Doesn’t actually happen until October 2015, but we’re seriously thinking about the planning implications now …”

Mike, turns to the red wine and mushroom vol au vents in desperation.

But I do need an answer. I’m two months in, so nearly two thirds of the way through the fabled 100 days, after which conventional wisdom has it that my senses will start to become dulled and I’ll stop seeing things for the first time.

So, “how’s Birmingham?”

You’ll know by now that I believe that it’s the people that make the place and I so I’ve been telling my inquisitive friends (as I’ve also been saying to colleagues) that I am getting out and about and meeting many tremendous people. Committed, collegiate, imaginative, resourceful and, crucially for me, bestowed with that all important humour gene. I tell them I am also meeting some who do not share any, many or all of these characteristics and that I’m thinking what I always think in this situation: “what’s made this person less than satisfied with their work and outlook on life – and what, if anything, can be done about it”. Because, if we’re truly to succeed in making a difference to people’s lives then playing lip service to the values of empathy, respect and trust won’t wash.

I believe passionately that it is entirely possible for a very large council such as ours to lead with its values, but previous experience tells me that, to succeed, we all need to deliver on a small number of key approaches. For starters, therefore, I expect colleagues to sign up to two key ways of working: active distributed leadership; and a positive commitment to self-awareness and courageous conversations.

Active distributed leadership is all about you (and me) taking responsibility for promoting and living the values of the council. This is not someone else’s business; it’s ours. I can’t do it all on my own. I need your support and I need you to help me ensure that the values are known and in evidence every day. And where they’re not, do something about it.

Which is where positive self-awareness and courageous conversations come in. Some people won’t yet be sighted on or, in a few cases, willing to sign up to the corporate values. However, it must no longer be acceptable for such people to opt out of the council’s corporate ambition here. Consequently, we have to have, or learn and be encouraged to have, the confidence and skills to support and challenge each other, and tackle issues when we see them or hear about them. I know this isn’t always easy and for many doesn’t come naturally, but I think all of us know that that there are two things that really get people wound up at work: one is when they see others not pulling their weight (and I include in that not living the values of the organisation); and the second is when they see that this “offline” behaviour isn’t tackled.

So, how I’m going to start helping is by re-establishing and/or putting in place some of the pre-requisite diagnostic, support and development systems that, if deployed systematically, will reduce the likelihood of you and me falling into the trap of talking a good talk, but not walking the good walk. I am going to ask colleagues in Organisational Development to lead this work, supported by Human Resources and anyone else that wants to contribute, so that by September a 360 degree appraisal scheme can be re-launched that ensures all leaders across the council take up the opportunity to know how they are perceived by those who work alongside them – their strengths and the areas that need development. And, additionally, we will refocus some of our existing training resource to provide learning that helps all staff develop the confidence and capability to have courageous conversations that enable professional challenge and support to be the norm.

To show that I’m serious, once the programmes are ready I will be starting with my team, along with the senior leadership from OD and HR and a number of other volunteers (or is that “volunteers”) from across the council.

In this way, when I go back up to the North West for our regular New Year’s reunion and my friends again ask me “how’s Birmingham?”, I’ll know what I’m going to say. “It’s an organisation determined to lead from its heart and support those doing a great job to keep up their high standards and ambitions. And it will challenge those who need to be challenged to get it right – for the people of the City and their work colleagues.

I really must go to Bebington more often!

Best wishes,