Update on the financial challenge
Email sent to all staff
I imagine you will have now read, or read about, the Leader’s statement to Full Council on Tuesday (16 September).
If not, you should do so: http://birminghamnewsroom.com/2014/09/update-the-financial-situation-facing-the-city-council/
It sets out for our residents, elected members and, of course, ourselves the trajectories for funding and staffing if the Government continues on its present austerity drive. In particular, it makes clear that the greatest impact of the cuts in our funding are about to come. You don’t need me to tell you this; but the Leader needed to make it clear so that everyone else also understood.
What the speech also does is make a very important, public commitment to tackling the implications for staff differently as we plan ahead. And it sets out clearly that we are about to reinvent local government in Birmingham.
You will know that, since arriving, I have been placing a strong focus on the importance of assessing our values and purpose, using the Big Conversations to get your views on what kind of council we need to be in the future if we are still to make a positive difference to people’s lives. We have also explored what kind of staff we will need for this challenging new future and what support and development the organisation will need to provide to ensure we can fulfil our commitments.
This first phase of work is reaching fruition and it is timely that the outcomes from our deliberations over the last three months will now directly inform the comprehensive human resources strategy that the Leader has asked be put together.
I am acutely aware of the pressures we are all under, heightened by the glare of publicity that Birmingham attracts because we are the second city, but also because we are so deeply affected by the disproportionately large cuts being required of us.
I know that some of you will think it strange, possibly even perverse, for us to spend time on the questions I have asked of you in the Big Conversations, but we must persist. Having a clear future focus is the only way to deal with austerity in a way that respects both the needs and expectations of the public and ourselves. More than ever, we need our collective moral compass to inform the hard decisions about what to do and what not to; who we can keep and who we have to lose. But if we have authentic values, a common sense of purpose, and fewer but wholly realistic priorities, then we will all know what we are aiming for. And in this way we retain our focus on the citizens whom we serve and ensure that what we can still do is of the highest quality and makes the greatest difference.
This way we will help each other with ensuring that we do not lose our morale. And, importantly, I am seeking to strengthen and improve the quality and consistency of the welfare and development support available to all staff as we navigate these most difficult of times. We have already launched the help employee assistance programme ( www.birmingham.helpeap.com )but I want to go further to ensure that everyone can access the support they need. If you are feeling worried about your personal situation as a result of the announcement yesterday, I strongly urge you to talk to your line manager about your concerns.
Words are, of course, fine. What will matter is the action we take. Here is a note that I have sent to my immediate team on the back of the Leader’s statement, which starts to set out the tasks ahead. A timetable will be drawn up over the next few days that will plot the milestones that we need to reach.
And, as I always say, this is about all of us putting our shoulder to the wheel. I cannot change things on my own; I need you all to join in taking us into a new future. My primary responsibility is to lead by example.
Email sent to Corporate Leadership Team (CLT)
What follow are, for me, the small number of “mission critical” issues that either arise from, or are reflected in the Leader’s statement. I may be wrong; and you’ll tell me if I am. But this is how I see it.
We have, of course, been attending to these matters already – but they now have an added imperative behind them thanks to Sir Albert’s very clear and public recognition of their importance.
I will be “sense-checking” what follows with you over the next few days and, of course, there will be regular testing out with core wider CLT, all our staff – and, of course, the Leader (copied in) and Cabinet.
1. Our Purpose
The coming days and weeks provide the opportunity and “the moment” to take the thinking coming from the Leader and Cabinet, the Listening Leadership sessions & the Big Conversations and articulate what this council is for – in doing so, setting out the core values that need to be in our DNA, the outcomes that we will prioritise because they are the ones that will make the most important differences to people’s lives and, without being unduly melodramatic or philosophical, the point of remaining “a going concern”. We must set this out clearly, ensuring the public, councillors, officers and our partners know what we mean by “the next era of local government” in Birmingham.
This is a big deal for us and, whilst it is almost inevitable that we will also have to take more into account as Sir Bob Kerslake’s review proceeds, we hold our destiny in our hands. We also owe it to our staff to be clear what the future will bring so that they can make informed decisions about whether or not they want to be a part of it notwithstanding that some of them won’t get a choice because of the way the axe is falling, reducing our capacity to deliver as much as we used to.
It is clearly neither my task alone to draft the proposals, nor to agree them unilaterally, but I will be leading personally on the work from the officer side of the equation. To this end, colleagues in HR&OD have already been asked to give me the raw material from the recent Big Conversation and Listening Leadership events so that I can now make a formal and structured start.
I intend to have something substantial to share with SDs, CLT, Wider CLT and, ultimately, the Leader and Cabinet/EMT by mid-October. I am also considering “Big Conversations: the sequel” as the means of engaging staff in this “forming” stage of defining purpose. I also intend to use BC2 as the platform for redesigning our PDR framework, starting with reaching early agreement on the design principles.
2. Our People
The Leader’s speech provides a necessary, if very challenging, acknowledgement that we need to improve how we manage the ongoing staff reductions we are likely faced with. Again, we are moving forward with our thinking, with colleagues already having put serious time into addressing the questions of: our shared values; our corporate behaviours; re-balancing the staffing profile (primarily focusing on age, but still keeping a keen eye on all aspects of diversity in the workforce); and further simplifying the organisational hierarchy (a promise, not a threat).
But we are not yet in a sufficiently well-developed position to describe how we will downsize whilst still appropriately retaining and, where necessary, retraining the right staff to increase significantly the likelihood that we have the values, behaviours and capabilities to enable us to fulfil our future purpose and modus operandi – and ensure we are valued and respected by the communities whom we serve, as well as by the council itself.
Henceforth, we need to formulate quickly an approach to staff reduction that treats people fairly. Not easy, but ground-breaking if we get it right. I expect HR&OD colleagues to be pulling this together in the next couple of weeks, in parallel with the work I’ve said I’ll lead on formulation of purpose.
3. Our Pathways
Work has started on sketching out a revamped “employee journey”. The Big Conversations are informing this activity and, again, in October it will be possible to set out phase one, the backbone, of the renewed offer to staff. It is being designed with a view to expressing the “asks” and “offers” of and to a Birmingham City Council employee – from the Chief Executive outwards.
Some of the likely early “asks” and “offers” include: shifting the emphasis of PDR from a six monthly, too often mechanistic, MOT of behaviour and performance, to a continuous leadership and management conversation that supports and challenges both elements continuously (with a particular emphasis on behaviours, but not going soft on delivering better outcomes for citizens as set out in a reformed Council Plan – see below); 360 evaluation will be reintroduced, starting with the most senior officers, as a signal to the wider organisation that we’re all in this together and that no one is exempt from feedback about their leadership and leadership style; a renewed focus on, and commitment to pastoral care – best summed up as an aspiration to make tough decisions firmly, fairly and, crucially, compassionately.
4. Our Corporate Business Change Approach
I have pulled this out as a distinct focus, but the agreement to, and rolling out of, a corporate approach to delivering the changes that our priorities and reduced budget require will lie at the heart of the employee offer.
We need now to make some quick decisions about the way we are going to bring about our new ways of working and you all know that I am an advocate of lean systems thinking. This is because at its heart is the principle of adding value to the customer (rather than the more usual and misleading view that it is simply a business process re-engineering methodology designed for the motor industry). We will now conduct a short, sharp debate about the way forward – and then just get on with bringing it in – preferably within weeks rather than months.
I will also align all the remaining transformation resources (human and financial) to supporting the implementation of our chosen way forward and we will move, no later than the start of the 2015/16 financial year, from the vagaries of bidding to a resource allocation method that is driven by a strategic overview of where “transformation” investment is most needed. But this should not imply that we are taking a “change on tour” approach; everyone will need to become versed and competent in our chosen methodology and take responsibility for everyday implementation. Much more anon.
All these things set out above will drive the ongoing formulation of the comprehensive HR strategy that the Leader’s speech signalled and which I have already been driving since arrival. It is positive that we are well on the way – “Forward the Birmingham Way” as some are starting to call it.
5. Our Priorities & The Budget
The desperately difficult process of aligning our rapidly, and unfairly, diminishing resources to our priorities is continuing and is entering the most difficult phase – shaping up the overall approach (a Green Paper next month) and then formal, detailed proposals for public consultation (December).
We still have much work to do and, as a team, we will need to support (and challenge) the ongoing process, ensuring we operate with a “one council” mindset. I’m deadly serious about this. We cannot tolerate either silo-thinking or protectionism: they will defeat our endeavours and leave us with weaker prospects.
A key aspect of how we operate differently in the future will be the emphasis we place on the localism and devolution agenda. Not just the governance side of enabling more services to be defined and delivered at a neighbourhood level, but the concerted effort needed to make #SU4BRUM a widespread reality. I know that this is not a council programme as such, but what the campaign represents needs to be part of the role for all officers, charging them with the clear responsibility of enabling communities (of interest and geography) to lead for themselves on issues that matter to them. We don’t yet have a strategic approach to this; but it will become part of everyone’s job description – not simply because we can’t do all the things that we used; but also because it’s the right thing to do, pushing power and responsibility away from the centre.
Finally (for now), I am determined that we re-establish a clear golden thread from the Leader’s Policy Statement through to a simple Council Plan, emulating the best practice of those who have mastered a plan-on-a-page. There is not yet enough clarity for far too many staff – me included – about what the small number of priorities and desired outcomes are that we must all focus upon. But the Leader’s Statement to council gives us a crucial opportunity to reflect in the next Council Plan the unequivocally clear message that fewer staff mean fewer priorities, fewer services and fewer initiatives. Of course, what comes with this is an unwavering focus on great customer service, top-drawer service quality and best-in-class performance in all that we continue to do – all of which will feature strongly in the reconstituted approach to performance management.
You will know by now that I believe strongly in our responsibility as managers to continuously communicate and engage effectively with staff. This will only increase in importance as we drive a reform agenda through the business, and I expect that we will all have our own directorate-level ongoing big conversations – how we’re moving the organisation forward should be a standing item delivered through our collective and distributed leadership obligations.
And we also need to take stock of our outward looking communications. We need to tell our story of change, challenge and achievements in a more strategic and proactive way than has previously been necessary. We are a city under the spotlight and, without seeking to gild lilies (which we can’t afford anyway; gilt is too expensive), we owe it to our citizens and ourselves to give a balanced account of where we are now, where we are heading, how we are going to get there and how well we are doing.
7. A New Corporateness
All this above amounts to a new age of corporateness. I am, at heart, a collaborator (in the good sense of the word). I believe that our strength lies in strong values, clear purpose and pooled effort. So, I’m taking the opportunity to re-state that “being corporate” is not an option – nor is it a dirty word.
We need to play nicely together or not play at all – Solitaire will not be acceptable at BCC.
But don’t take corporateness for blandness or passive conformity. I want to remind us of the deadly sin of “confirmation bias”. We need to be a team that questions constructively and brings forward positive alternatives to ensure that we don’t fall into the easy decision-making trap of giving priority to those views/data that support our default way of thinking and doing things. I will expect constructive challenge at all times – sometime I’ll tell you the Van Halen story but, for now, be assured that being corporate means we hunt as a pack, but a pack that argues the toss over the hunting strategy.
The road will be long and hard. But one thing I guarantee. I’ll support you all the way if you’re signed up.