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

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Posted on January 28, 2016, in Articles. Bookmark the permalink. 7 Comments.

  1. Mr Rogers,

    I am somewhat concerned that your view of how things are working in Birmingham differs significantly from the view held by my colleagues and me.

    We are just learning about the proposed changes to contracts for support staff in special schools. I know the proposals go beyond special schools but I can not speak for those colleagues. The proposals are a blueprint for destroying fragile staff morale completely. The proposals completely undermine support staff in schools. These are people who sacrifice much in order to provide an incredible level of service, a lot of it free and given without question, to the weakest and most vulnerable living in our communities. It isn’t like this hasn’t happened before in very recent history. Contracts are so frequently torn up that they really aren’t worth the paper they are written. They mean nothing.

    I fully understand that Birmingham faces difficulties but as you admit, to a large extent these difficulties could and should have been avoided. That they weren’t is no justification for taking it out on those least responsible.

    Ultimately it is children who will suffer if these bizarre and malicious measures are continued. There will no decent future for these kids because the very city that proclaims that it wants to move forward to a bright future is ripping out the foundations supporting them. If you destroy the career opportunities, if you can not attract decent staff, if you break the spirit of good will that is essential for these children to thrive then you betray them.

    Will you wax so lyrical then? Will you make grand proclamations? Mr Rogers, you are the boss, the buck stops with you. Put your money where your mouth is. If you truly want the future you describe for Birmingham, then out a stop to this now. Nobody likes tightening their belt. But they will do it. Don’t hang us with those belts. We deserve an awful lot better.

    • Dear Brendan

      Thank you for taking the time to respond.

      The city council is on a major improvement journey, slowly but successfully addressing long standing and deep-rooted issues and failings relating to corporate culture and practices, education and children’s safeguarding. The blog you are referring to is principally reflecting on what’s needed to best support and challenge the organisation to make effective and sustainable improvements across these areas.

      It has to be recognised also that we are at the mid-point of a sustained period of Government-driven revenue reductions which, in the period between April 2016 and March 2020, will require us to cut >£250m from our budget. This, on top of nearly £600m savings since 2010, is requiring – you could say forcing – the city council to consider every kind of option as it attempts to minimise levels of redundancy in order to preserve as many front line jobs as possible.

      In has become inevitable, given the depth of the cuts to our budget, that consultation proposals have had to be drafted that attempt to pull off a very difficult balancing act between between retaining as many staff as possible and still managing down the cost of the pay bill, which is still our single biggest expenditure item. It is this that lies behind the proposals.

      It gives no one any satisfaction to do this; but we are faced with invidious choices. The city’s politicians, along with its officers, are not seeking to demoralise or undermine; but we are all faced with a situation in which many things will have to change simply because there is not enough resource to preserve the status quo.

      Ultimately, the political administration will decide, having considered all the consultation responses, what it has to do. It only has hard choices ahead of it I’m afraid. But neither it, nor I, would want to do anything that went beyond serious belt-tightening. We have no intention of taking I out on the workforce; but I strongly suspect that there are going to have to be further changes because the money just won’t go round otherwise.

      Best wishes,
      Mark

      • Dear Mark,

        I am very grateful for your reply. Your predecessors were never as obliging.

        I am very aware of the issues facing Birmingham. Both in my day job as a Teaching Assistant and as Governor representing support staff at Fox Hollies, I am made constantly aware of the problems, self inflicted and those forced upon us by a ruthless government.

        Whilst I accept that it is not the intention of the city to undermine or demoralise, the reality is that this is exactly what will happen. I can not help but thinking that support staff are an easy target, least likely to strike, least likely to cause a fuss. Certainly within a special school environment most of us are driven by a desire to support and advance those who can not do so easily themselves, it certainly isn’t the money! To that extent our greatest asset is our greatest flaw and doesn’t the council know it?

        I also believe that some of the proposals are naive. For instance the idea to withhold payment for the first three days of sickness. Fine as an idea but in practice? How many people will opt to take 5 days rather than three just because they might as well? Then the context of the sickness needs to be considered. If I am assaulted at work, not a rare occurrence, and am left unfit to work as a result, I am likely going to sue for loss of earning if my pay is withheld. Similarly, if I am asked to stay at home in the case of having an infection that may put children and/or staff at risk I would be extremely put out if I was penalised financially.

        Suspending incremental pay related to performance management is really low; like we haven’t been battered enough. I wonder whether pressure to participate in My Appraisal will be suspended for three years. How will that work?

        My point is that the danger here is that these measures are all well and good in the extremely short term and will no doubt keep the Westminster dogs at bay for a while but ultimately, decisions taken under pressure and without proper consideration are liable to cause even more serious problems further down the line. Equal pay claims anyone?

        I understand that this is in the end a political decision. I would like to think that what influence you have is used to highlight the potential flaws before they occur. If we get this wrong now there isn’t anything left to fix it with. It’ll fall over.

        Yours sincerely,

        Brendan

      • Brendan

        Thank you for the further response. All good points – and I am listening (well, reading actually). My role will, indeed, be to ensure that all the pros and cons of the proposals are surfaced and given thorough consideration. I particularly recognise the point about not just thinking short term, as well as accepting that it’s very difficult to keep staff morale buoyant when there is so much that is challenging. My commitment is for as much of thinking as possible to be done in an open and honest way so that as many people as possible can participate and influence the eventual outcomes.

        Again, thank you for coming back to me.

      • Dear Mark,

        I emailed the Future Council Workforce Contract Team the other day. I got a reply today. Although it was generic and addressed not one of my concerns, which is concerning enough, but the website the email advised me to look at for more information does not work.

        Seriously, how is this acceptable? This is my livelihood under attack and these muppets can’t get a website address right.

        I’ve been asking around work to see what people think of the proposals. Some colleagues hold responsibilities in specialist areas that enhance the service we provide to young people with special needs. A couple have indicated that should the proposals come into force as they are, they would likely drop those responsibilities. I am also in that position and would do the same.

        It seems to me that whatever is saved in financial terms will be accompanied by a substantial cut in the services that can be offered to vulnerable children. Come and look them in the eye and tell them why. Tell their parents too.

        Finally, a suggestion. Stand up and fight the government. Call a strike across the City. It would be unprecedented, It would make international news. The government wouldn’t have a clue what to do. They are getting away with it because they know we won’t stand up and fight back. So do the thing they least expect and start that fight. What’s to lose?

        Yours sincerely,

        Brendan

      • Dear Brendan,
        Firstly thank you for taking the time to contact me to share your concerns regarding elements of the future council workforce proposals, the difficulties in accessing the webpage and your views on how the Council should respond to the reduction in Government grants. I recognise the importance of these matters and have sought to provide a considered response on each matter below.
        As you will be aware the City Council is changing, we have to adapt to respond to the fact that we do not have the money to do all the things we did before. We are reviewing what our future role will be in the City, how we work with and for our citizens, how we organise ourselves and what this means for our jobs. We are clear that we will be an organisation that has clear values that guide our decisions and actions focused on ensuring our citizen’s interests are at the heart of what we do.
        The Council needs to make around £250m of savings over the next 2 years and this is on top of the £560m plus savings made since 2010. The scale of the financial challenges is such that we are having to consider options we would not have previously. Our employee budget is now our largest single controllable budget and therefore we are consulting on how we might be able to reduce the costs of employment. It is a delicate balance to ensure we can achieve our savings targets whilst continuing to support, develop and appreciate our workforce. At the moment we are genuinely looking to get the views of employees and their representatives about both the proposals relating to terms and conditions changes and our new offer for employees. We have produced an initial set of ideas but actively welcome alternative options and your feedback.
        I understand that you were seeking to access the Council’s Inline page from home and as such you need to use the external link to access the information on the workforce proposals. You raised a query on this matter and was redirected to the external link . The information and FAQ’s on this link will be updated as and when information becomes available. There will be lots more opportunities for consultation as ideas progress including, surveys, team consultation meetings and one to one meetings with a manager, details of which will be made available.
        I understand that this is a difficult time for you and your colleagues, and I can understand why you are frustrated by the process, however making derogatory comments about HR colleagues who are also affected by the changes is disrespectful and is not the sort of behaviour we wish to have from BCC employees.

        Mark

  2. Really well written exposition of the dilemma – the fear of failing applies equally to the LA as to the commissioners. This being the case will commissioners eschew the prescriptive and the radical. Should the engagement be of a duration that exceeds the local planning / political cycle.
    I pressed a button marked leave a comment and complete a template marked leave a reply – this is only a comment.
    ATB

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