Eating The Frog (ask Mark Twain)

Happy New Year fellow travellers. I hope that all is well with you.

2015 is, of course, something of a(nother) big year for us. Maybe, in fact, the biggest for a very long time.

By Easter we will be one third of the way through our ‘Warner Plan‘ and time elapsed will need to equate to progress made. What we need to do to improve the safety and wellbeing of the children and young people of the city is multi-faceted and multi-layered, but cracking the recruitment, retention and ‘red hot social work everyday’ imperatives remain the centre pieces that will lay the foundations for sustainable success. The challenges therein cannot be under-estimated, but rise to them, meet them and then overcome them we must because, in my mind, remediating the position with children’s services is the single most important task we share.

By the end of the summer term (I’ll allow that to be the back end of August), we need to have delivered pretty much in full on the ‘Tomlinson Plan‘. Our work with schools, directly as well as with and through the Birmingham Education Partnership, needs to be sufficiently advanced and impactive that the Department for Education and its Commissioner have neither the case nor the desire to keep a watchful eye on us. Paramount will be strengthening our capacity to know the ‘health’ of all of our schools all of the time, to have forged a trusting and productive set of support and challenge partnerships – with the BEP the centrepiece – and for there to be confidence that any future ‘Trojan horse-like’ behaviours will be identified and tackled proactively.

At the end of the calendar year we will be re-assessed on the back of our responses to the ‘Kerslake Plan‘. The review of governance has presented a further set of challenges to the council but, for me, they can all pretty much be summed up as ‘be modern, be transparent and be brave’. So, I am expecting you to get fully behind all the facets of our ‘Future Council’ change programme – leading with our values, focusing on our purpose, delivering on our priority outcomes and shaping an organisation that will be fit for the next decade. There are some watchwords for me: empathy, respect, openness and courage are but four. You will have your own. But the common thread running through all we do will be making a positive difference everyday to people’s lives. Tune in or tune out; just don’t be a passenger.

All of the above, of course, is an acknowledgement that we are, as Prince Far I would say, under ‘heavy manners’ for our past failings. The many inspections and reviews of the last fifteen months have, regrettably, given Government too many causes for concern and so we have this three-pronged intervention to deal with. So, let’s darn well deal with it and, in doing so, take back control.

Of course, as an organisation we need to be preoccupied not only with these exceptional matters, but also with the ‘ordinary’. We mustn’t forget that there is a set of underlying issues, driven both by Government policy and the financial crash (half a decade ago now!) that require our full and undivided attention. Irrespective of the Warner, Tomlinson and Kerslake agendas, we still need to tackle the pretty drastic consequences of the major paring back of local government and the attendant significant reduction in its funding that has characterised the last four years or more, and the end of which is not yet in sight.

This is why it is so important that we are all fully focused on the ‘Future Council’ work referred to above (and ad nauseam in earlier blogs). Our council is subject to tumultuous changes and, whilst this is understandably upsetting and distressing, they nevertheless present an important opportunity for us to renew our commitment to the one and only cause that really matters – getting it right for our citizens. In the face of everything that is being thrown at us (it’s not quite ‘the book’, but it feels that way sometimes), we need to ensure that we also lay the ground for a healthy future organisation, one in which we are bound together by the common endeavour – both within the council and with our partners across the city and city region as a whole – of actually delivering on greater fairness, prosperity and democracy.

In my first nine months I have seen some brilliant people doing brilliant things. I have witnessed the highest levels of aspiration, commitment, ability and delivery – securing excellent results for our communities. It’s been a real pleasure to see and hear about what we’re great at – and I look forward to more in 2015.

But I have also discovered, perhaps unsurprisingly but still disconcertingly, that there are too many inconsistencies – behaviour and delivery-wise. There remain outposts (sometimes, in fact, inposts) of ‘bad behaviour’, with silo working, inflexibility, protectionism and, occasionally, literal bad behaviour (a lack of empathy, rudeness, etc) amongst the examples I have come across. This is not acceptable I’m afraid.

The remedy for this needs to be two-fold:

•   Firstly, to eliminate any grounds for these issues – which is why ‘Future Council’ concentrates on maximising our engagement and contribution, so enabling informed personal choices to be made through the co-creation of shared values, purpose, priorities, outcomes, etc. There is little that is productive to be gained from simply chastising. What’s required is a cleat operating model for the weeks, months and years ahead.

•   Secondly, I intend to do everything I can personally to model what’s expected, and I have the clear expectation that my immediate and extended leadership team colleagues will to do the same. We have to show that we are committed to, and capable of demonstrating that which we expect from others. And you know that I value feedback – and support the principle of speaking truth to power – so you’ll tell us when we get it right and when it feels like (or just is) lip service. And I will have a courageous conversation with anyone I need to – and happily be on the receiving end of one. Being nice and doing the right things right cost nothing; they simply demand that we ‘walk the talk’ when it comes to our values.

So, in the early weeks and months of 2015 it must be our shared aim that we re-state what we have already agreed about the future through the Big Conversations, as well as set out clearly the kind of organisation we intend to be, and the ways we are going to delivery on that ambition.

And I do realise that these demands I am placing on all of us, of course, come at another very difficult moment in time. I don’t think that my head is stuck in high strategy (or up my backside for that matter). I know that we have just issued another Section 188 notice to nearly 4,000 staff whose jobs are at risk as a result of the proposals generated by the service reviews – which themselves are an unavoidable response to dealing with the implications of Government policy. The reality of cuts is rarely far from my thoughts.

My commitment, therefore, is to be as straight with you as I possibly can be about what lies ahead, hence wanting to be able set out alongside the very well known facts about budget and staff reductions the crucial information about the kind of council we are to become. As least then it will be possible for fully informed decisions to be made; you can choose whether or not you want to be part of it. I truly hope that you will.

So, if it doesn’t appear too incongruous to you having read this far, let me again offer you my best wishes for the New Year. I really do look forward to working closely with you, through thick and thin, for the benefit of our communities.




Posted on January 5, 2015, in Blog, Future Council and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. A very honest and authentic message. The challenges are huge but it’s heartening to see you able to summarise them so clearly and give a real sense of the priorities and non-negotiables. Good luck to Mark and everyone at BCC for a very challenging 2015

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