Monthly Archives: June 2015

Paradise Regained and Paradise Lost?

The transfer in 2013 of significant public health responsibilities and funding for the over fives was, rightly, heralded as one of the best local government-related decisions of the last Parliament (although, to be honest, there weren’t that many to choose from). And since that time we’ve been working hard to negotiate the follow-on 0 – 5 healthy child programme, included within it the Coalition Agreement priority of an enhanced Health Visitor resource, personally mandated by the PM.

At an otherwise pretty grim time for councils, we celebrated the “coming home” of responsibilities that had, more than 150 years ago, first defined local government as being principally about the health and wellbeing of our citizens and their communities. Indeed, we even took in our stride the otherwise anathema-like criterion of the money being subject to a ring-fence.

And we lauded this progressive change not just for its potential to enable all our functions to be redefined and reworked in the light of these new “health of the public” duties, but we loved the unexpected and increasingly rare opportunity to salvage something of our commitment to prevention and early intervention which was being undermined by the swingeing reductions being made to other key sources of “early help” revenue (notably the DfE’s “hot knife through butter” approach to the EIG).

So, the recent announcement by the Chancellor that £200m is to be swiped in-year from our grants, just a few months before the 0 – 5 transfer, has left us – and apparently the Department of Health and Public Health England – deeply troubled. The sense of disbelief and, amongst the more melodramatic, outrage wasn’t just because we thought we might have balanced our books in 2015-16; no, it was because we picked up a rumour that the cut was to be made both deliberately against non-NHS activity and also specifically against this grant. Local government, and only local government, must take the hit. Whether or not the latter is true, it is clear that the former is accurate – protection for the NHS is to be ensured.

Or is it?

As we work our way through the likely implications locally with our health colleagues (possibly £6.4m for Birmingham, by-the-by) – who are equally bemused and angered – what is clear is that pretty much all of the 2015-16 allocations are tied up contractually. And large numbers of those contracts are – you guessed it – with the NHS, notably Community and Mental Health providers.

So, this cut has three consequences attached to it: it will, as seemingly intended, permanently reduce the DH’s DEL as it pertains to the public health grant and, consequently, further impair councils’ ability to invest in upstream interventions. But it will also put more pressure on the NHS at a time when it least needs it.

Why would the Government want to do this? Well, we know that deficit reduction is the fig leaf for an appetite to shrink local government, so perhaps there is no real surprise in yet another cut – although, clearly, the rules of the funding game are that there are no rules and, if this is the case, we should expect further in-year reductions to play havoc with our attempts to plan and set budgets.

But what councils and their partners really don’t get is why it makes sense to anyone to introduce this kind of cut when it clearly undermines the otherwise ferocious determination to protect the NHS. Maybe, along with much else that we are seeing in the early legislative programme of the new government (for example, in the Housing Bill), decisions are being implemented that were never intended to get this far. Obviously, it is bizarre that anyone would bring forward ideas that they wouldn’t really want to put into practice in the first place; but this is not as strange as then seeing them through anyway. Let’s hope that this is just an early phase of cognitive dissonance and that, as Parliament progresses, there will be no more cutting off of noses to spite faces.

For now, however, it does seem that a paradise only recently regained is to be a paradise lost.

Public Service Broadcasting

So, we have had our first public meeting with the Birmingham Independent Improvement Panel:

And what should we make of it?

Well, the first thing to say is that we won’t know the Panel’s view until it makes its formal mid-year report to the Secretary of State for Communities (Greg Clark) in July. However, from the lines of questioning, it seems clear enough to me that our external scrutineers are most interested in how we are doing in the areas of:

  • culture change (do we really get that we need to be different and better?)
  • community engagement (how much progress are we making towards a new city partnership and enhancing the role of elected members as community leaders)
  • capacity (do we yet have all the tools to do the job?)
  • strategic planning (can we reinvent the council and still make the money go round?); and
  • a new narrative (are we telling a different, more progressive story about the city and the city council?)

For my part, it is still early days to prove these things incontrovertibly – but I believe that they are promising because, as I said to the Panel, we have stabilised the organisation and, after a very difficult 2014 when fire fighting characterised too much of our day-to-day activity, restored the leadership’s focus on the future.

Now we can concentrate fully on delivering improvement.

Of course, you have the right to form you own views on our progress. To help, you can watch the webcast of the Panel session and also (re-)read the progress report which the Leader and I published in advance of the meeting:

Meanwhile, from my perspective, I want to emphasise that we have:

  • an agreed set of values to guide our behaviours, rooting them in MyAppraisal for all staff, and 360 degree assessments for JNC officers;
  • made essential early changes to improve HR strategic planning and operational delivery to support the workforce, especially children’s services, with the massive changes ahead (whilst still signalling that there’s more to do – in HR, but also across corporate services);
  • developed the “rules of the game” for designing the future council
  • produced proposals for how to review and, where necessary, clarify the roles of councillors and officers;
  • drawn up a set of options to ensure that we have the leadership capacity to make all the changes we need to;
  • created an inspiring and inspired change team from within the organisation; and
  • opened up discussions with partners about how we need to change our approach to working with others and seek their advice in reshaping the organisation.

All these actions are positive and signal a council that can, if it makes the necessary sustained effort, be focused on, committed to, and deliver a progressive future.

Of course challenges remain. Not least the obvious one – that culture takes time to change and, as has been said to me more than once (and by different people), Birmingham City Council has an in-built tendency to act like plastic. You can bend it into a new shape, but it will – if we’re not careful – return to its original form.

Well, no one can afford for that to happen this time. And I don’t think we can yet assure the Panel that we have evolved the culture sufficiently for it to have yet passed the point of no return. This is hardly surprising as it’s only six months since our governance report was published and three months since the action plan was agreed.

What we need to do, therefore, is develop a sense of positive dissatisfaction. Dissatisfaction that we have ended up needing intervention on three fronts in the first place; dissatisfaction that it’s (understandably) taking longer than we would want to deliver the improvements; dissatisfaction that our circumstances make it easy for some to take potshots at us; dissatisfaction that the new culture has yet to take root everywhere.

Accordingly, I am relying on you all – yup, my distributed leadership model again – to marshall a collective frustration and ensure, at all times, that it generates a positive energy that drives our hunger for success.

And finally, for now, let me remind me and you why I sought to come to Birmingham in the first place. I wanted to work with the elected members, colleagues, partners and our communities to ensure we:

  • turned around the quality and reputation of children’s services;
  • designed a council fit for the future that could still secure great outcomes for our citizens with far fewer resources; and
  • secured the city’s and the city region’s position as the future economic powerhouse of the UK.

These goals remains entirely relevant 15 months later – although I’ve had to add tackling poor governance in a small number of schools and reforming corporate governance to my list. So, more than ever, we all need to be certain that, in our own way, we are making a positive difference everyday to people’s lives.

That way lies success – for our citizens, first and foremost, but also for ourselves, our city council, our city and our city region.

Go, buddy, go!