This intervention is about rehabilitation
Things are on the move in this great city of Birmingham. We are getting better and we’re going to succeed.
For the previous 20 months the city council has been in a kind of lock-down, something it brought on itself by a set of now very well-publicised self-inflicted injuries. As a consequence, we were prescribed the equivalent of an ISSO, with two commissioners and an improvement panel to ensure we were observing a metaphorical curfew and adhering to the other stringent requirements of our rehabilitation.
And, dare I say it, we needed this intensity of external scrutiny – even though it has been a pretty big mental and organisational adjustment for all of us to make, even the relative newcomers like myself. Not being in control of your destiny (or, at least, not being secure in the delusion that you are in control) is, quite frankly, tough. Everyone – individuals and institutions – likes their independence and autonomy and working in an environment in which it is curtailed is hard to swallow. That’s human nature I guess.
But, as values-driven and conscientious public servants with our citizens interests at heart, we have been knuckling down to the business in hand – improvement, improvement, improvement. Sometimes gracefully; sometime less so. I know personally (because I have had to be told on occasion) that I haven’t always found it easy to take advice and have appeared – or even possibly been – ungrateful (ungrateful for me usually being a manifestation of an even more accentuated form of sarcasm).
And therein is one of the dilemmas of being intervened in. Advice abounds on what you need to do, how to do it and how to measure it. And because no-one’s failures or successes are ever really absolute (in local government at least. Although, in life more generally I can actually think of some examples of complete heroes and villains), you get in to the really difficult territory of having to judge whether or not those on the naughty step can put forward, let alone insist on following their own advice. Now, I’m not writing this to provoke – and if you think I am then that’s your interpretation not mine. I’m addressing this because over the last year and a half I have had to think frequently about the extent to which, when views that I or others in the council hold diverge from those mandated to aid and abet our improvement, you keep your own counsel.
I haven’t come up with any right or wrong answers to that question. Instead, I’ve been drawn back time and again to the psychology of how best to secure change that is owned and sustainable. Crime and punishment is the easy bit. If you do the crime you do the time. But, as we all know, rehabilitation is much, much harder. Just as too many persistent offenders do, indeed, persist in offending, so too many organisations slide out of and back into difficulty – something that has not gone unobserved either by our sector or government. And the most important challenge in all of this for me, therefore, is not the naming of our sins, nor the repentance of them. It’s the one of how best to challenge and support the transgressors in a way that the balance of the two leave you in no doubt about the need to do better, but also empowers you to be the agent of sustainable change.
And here in Birmingham it looks like we have reached the stage where addressing that challenge openly and honestly is the key to our future success. We have a panel and commissioner (the education one) who respectively might wave us goodbye in March and July. And, to me at least, the way in which mutually we give each other the confidence and assurance to proceed with those farewells is to ensure that the improvements still to come are owned by those who will be left behind at the city council to make them.
So, it is crucial over the next few weeks that the Leader and his team, me and my team and our panel and commissioners eschew the tendency to focus on a relationship where the teachers just mark the pupil’s homework and, instead and together, we look at how we can embed and sustain the conditions in which future improvements can flourish because of the council’s own commitment and capabilities. On a personal level, and to use a term that the Leader is promoting, I am ready and willing to “step up” to that plate in order to deliver to the citizens of Birmingham what they deserve.
This article first appeared in the Local Government Chronicle on 21 January 2016