A response by BATC to the Kerslake Review

(Quotes from the Review are in boxed italics)

Sir Bob Kerslake is Permanent Secretary at the Department for Communities and Local Government. But he is no neutral civil servant. In April 2013 he wrote in the Daily Telegraph in praise of Margaret Thatcher and her pioneering privatisation programme. Now he has been sent into Birmingham as Eric Pickles’ hatchet-man to force Birmingham Council’s privatisation programme to go further and faster.

The purpose of the Kerslake Review is to make the Council a more efficient model of neo-liberal transformation from a provider of services to a commissioner of services by external providers in the driving context of drastic reductions in its budget.

23. BCC needs as a matter of urgency to develop a robust plan for how they are going to manage their finances up to 2018/19 without recourse to further additional funding from central Government. This should: … involve residents and partners. (pp48-9)

This transformation requires three major and interrelated changes to local government in Birmingham:

1. Efficient strong central corporate leadership and management by the Council – devolution of power to Districts is inefficient.

2. External partners (private and third sector) not only as providers of services but as partners in the governance of the city, i.e. in the formation as well as the implementation of policy.

3. Involvement by the community in this transformation, but not empowerment. Any transfer of power to communities would weaken central control and risk challenging both the cuts programme and partnerships with the private sector. Community involvement is necessary for two reasons: to induce community acceptance of the austerity programme, and to substitute community provision for some aspects of reduced provision. The latter is as much for ideological reasons, symbolising legitimising the cuts in democratic terms, as for actually saving money, which is likely to be minimal.

1. Kerslake says: Efficient strong central corporate leadership and management by the Council is needed – devolution of power to Districts is inefficient

The cuts programme

Kerslake says: The Council’s cuts programme is wrongly based on the assumption of additional government funding.

16. The existing service review process appears to have been based on the assumption that that the additional funding from central government will be made available in 2016/17 and 2017/18 when that decisions is completely outside the council’s control. We have not been presented with evidence that the council yet has a credible Plan B if the additional funding does not materialise.

17. It would be more prudent to base service reviews on scenarios that did not assume the money will be made available. As it stands, there is a clear risk that they will need to reopen service priority decisions on which they have already started consulting. (p48)

BATC says: Kerslake is right. A Labour government would be committed to a similar programme of cuts in Council funding.

Kerslake says: The Council’s cuts programme needs to be more strategic and transformational.

12. Our view is that the reductions so far have been too reactive and tactical. (p26)

This is not sustainable. They need to be more strategic, transformational and underpinned by stronger analysis. A step change is needed. (p46)

BATC says: For Kerslake, cuts are not an end in themselves. They need to be strategic because their purpose is the fundamental neoliberal transformation of local government from a provider of services to a commissioner of services from the private and third sectors.

Workforce planning and performance management

Kerslake says: Workforce planning and performance management is poor.

39. As BCC’s headcount reduces it is imperative that the organisation is able to recruit, develop and retain staff, and ensure that those who are performing poorly leave or improve. (p29)

41. In addition, as of August 2014 only 6% have been assessed to be performing poorly. In contrast 77% of staff were assessed to be performing above average. (p29)

46. We have not been able to form an assessment of whether BCC’s planned headcount reductions will leave the council with the capacity it needs in the future because we have seen no evidence of proper workforce planning. (p41)

Our conclusion is that poor performance is not being addressed and the existing annual appraisal process and Performance Development Review is not operating as it should. (p51)

Kerslake says: Workforce planning and performance management needs stronger central control.

54. BCC should undertake a fundamental strengthening of their Human Resources (HR) function.

55. The strategic role of workforce planning and HR policy should be vested in an existing Cabinet member. The Cabinet should not delegate this vital role. Members’ roles in workforce issues, beyond the Cabinet, should be limited to scrutiny, appeals and the appointment of Chief Executive, Strategic Directors and Directors. The Cabinet should ensure strategic workforce planning supports the council’s priorities.

56. BCC should appoint a senior person to lead people change and workforce planning. This individual should be responsible for the development of the workforce plan the Leader has stated is needed, revising existing HR policies and, with the corporate leadership team, ensuring these are applied corporately. The workforce plan should be informed by the strategic plan for the future operation and size of the council. (p43)

BATC says: This means a tougher approach to selectively reducing the number of staff and tighter management control of the workforce that remains.

District Committees and Wards

Kerslake says:
• District Committees are inefficient at delivering services.
• Wards are too large.
• A new model of devolved local government is needed.

(NB The future roles of district and ward committees are under review by the council. The council’s ‘Community Governance Review’ is due to report in 2015.)

19. Our view is that the current arrangements in Birmingham are not sustainable for two reasons: first, because the management and delivery of services by District Committees is neither efficient nor effective; and second, because the city’s growing population will mean Birmingham’s wards become too large for effective and convenient local government.

24. The council clearly faces a tension between the desire for local control and its budget. It has argued that devolution could bring benefits of reducing service costs and improving responsiveness to local people. However, we have not seen any evidence of this and consider it to be a very high risk strategy. (p24)

33. The pressure on BCC’s budget means the existing devolution arrangements within the city are not sustainable within the constraints of their available resources and need to be reformed. We are therefore recommending a model the council can adopt. (p23)

BATC says: We too think that a new model of devolved local government is needed, but one based on the empowerment of citizens and communities, as we explain below, not the even more centralised model that Kerslake proposes.

District Committees

Kerslake says: District Committees are inefficient at managing and delivering services, making cuts, and representing citizens and communities.

20. District Committees are not working as a model for delivering services or for community representation…

21. We do not think the theory of devolution, in effect creating 10 mini councils within Birmingham, is working in practice or will work:
a. District Committees have not been able to maintain financial control. There were significant overspends in District budgets on sport and leisure services for several years…
b. the discretionary spending that is actually controlled by District Committees has shrunk dramatically…

22. BCC expect to be required to identify savings of £360m by 2017/18. Nobody – members, officer, partners or community – was able to explain how devolution might work in consistent terms that align with the council’s budget, staff challenges and the role of members… (pp18-19)

BATC says: Kerslake is right to criticise the Council’s devolution policy for claiming to have devolved power to District Committees while in fact continuing to retain central control over most of their budgets. But his main objection to District Committees is that they are not effective at making cuts.

A new role for District Committees – or abolish them

Kerslake says:
• DCs should not deliver or manage services
• Their roles should be a) representing the community and b) scrutiny.

40. However, if the existing District Committees are to be retained they should no longer be responsible for delivering services or managing them through Service Level Agreements. Instead they should be refocused on shaping and leading their local area through influence, representation, and independent challenge and scrutiny of all public services located in the city within the District, including those run by the council.

41…District Committees will need to be able to manage their finances and meetings should take place in the community and be open to the public. Alternatively this could operate at a ward level.

42. If the decision is taken to retain the Districts exercising a powerful scrutiny function then the number of city-wide Scrutiny Committees should be reviewed and in light of this reduced to no more than 3. These scrutiny committees should focus on city-wide services and performance. (p25)

BATC says: This would represent a complete change in the role of District Committees. All power would be in the hands of the corporate centre, i.e. the Cabinet, with no pretence of devolution. Instead District Committees would have two roles.

One would be a ‘representation’ role, through meetings being in local areas (which we agree with) and ‘open to the public’, which they already are. But Kerslake doesn’t propose empowering citizens and communities by widening the membership of District Committees. He wants the role of District Committees to be to collect feedback on ‘customer satisfaction’ with services so they can report back to the corporate centre. It is a form of consumerist democracy not participatory democracy.

The second role of District Committees would be scrutiny. Again, the absence of citizen participation in District Committee decision-making would mean they had no power in the scrutiny [process, only the opportunity to express views if allowed.

BATC believes that District Committees need opening up to local public participation, with elected non-councillor representatives of Ward Committees and representatives of other relevant local organisations. There is no constitutional obstacle to having additional members. All the Constitution says is that ‘Ten District Committees have been established by the Council and the relevant Ward Members have been appointed to serve on them’ (10.1.).

Kerslake also proposes reducing the city’s scrutiny committees to just three (corresponding to the three directorates?), again with no citizen participation, and with far too wide a brief to effectively hold all the various service areas to account. The explanation is that in Kerslake’s model for the Council scrutiny becomes a relatively mechanical process of monitoring the contracts given to external providers in terms of costs and outcomes.

Replace election by thirds by all out elections to strengthen leadership

Kerslake says: A strong leadership role by Council requires stable long-term planning. Elections by thirds leads to short-termism and should be replaced by all out elections.

32. Part of the problem in Birmingham is the culture of short-termism. There is an inability to focus on longer term problems, including transforming services, that is holding the council back. It also encourages members to become too involved in operational issues.

33. We believe that, especially in conjunction with an electoral review, changing the electoral cycle to all out elections can have a significant impact on a council’s ability to change and adapt, provide stability in decision making and aid long term planning and vision.

34. The Secretary of State should move Birmingham City Council to all out elections replacing the current election by thirds. (p40)

BATC says: We oppose this proposal because its purpose is to strengthen central control by insulating the Council from electoral influence except a vote every four years.

Kerslake says: External partners (private and third sector) not only as providers of services but as partners in the governance of the city

Kerslake says: The Council needs partners because it hasn’t got the capacity on its own either to deliver services or to improve.

BATC says: It is true that the Council lacks capacity, but this is the deliberate consequence of the drastic and ongoing cuts in government funding. Unlike Kerslake, who accepts them, we call for them to be stopped and the Council properly resourced.

42. We are not confident that BCC has the capability or the capacity it needs to improve. BCC need to ensure that their senior leadership team is structured in such a way as to bring strategic leadership with the focus, capacity and energy to drive the improvement of service delivery, especially in schools and children’s social care. (p41)

Kerslake says: Current partnerships are dominated by the Council.

12. The criticism from the council’s partners is that their concerns and priorities are not listened to. The council develops plans alone without input from their partners (see chapter 2) and then expects to discuss how others can contribute to what they feel are the council’s predetermined priorities. (p53)

BATC says: Of course the Council has to work with partners. It always has. But the strategic direction of policy has to be set by elected local government. Kerslake wants to undermine this.

2. Kerslake says: An ‘independent Birmingham leadership group’ is needed

30. We did not find any evidence that external partners have helped shape the Leader’s Policy Statement or the business plan. As the council reshapes how it works to get the best of very limited resources across the whole of public services in Birmingham it needs to work much harder to align its priorities with its partners. Part of the way to do so is to be clearer about the overall direction of travel, and then to bring partners and communities into the planning process (see chapter 4) P39

22. BCC should adopt a one city approach and support the development of a new long-term vision for the city of Birmingham, which we call the ‘City plan’. This should be approved by the new independent Birmingham leadership group (see chapter 4).

23. The vision should be for the long term. It should be shared by as many of the civic leaders in the city as possible, it should articulate the city’s values – not just the council’s – alongside the ambition and the outcomes they want to see. The vision then needs to be used to drive the strategic planning and performance management of the council (see below and chapter 3) and its partners. P37

22. The Trojan Horse Review Group recommended the creation of a civic leadership group both chaired and strongly represented by credible independent voices. This has not yet happened. But we agree with the Trojan Horse Review Group that a forum for ‘collective civic leadership’ is needed.

23. The council should facilitate the creation of a new independent Birmingham leadership group. The group should approve the new long-term City Plan and be used to hold all involved in delivery of the plan to account.

24. It will be for the independent Birmingham leadership group to determine the appropriate chair, but our view is that it should not be someone from the council.

25. This group should be used to help guide and deliver both the vision for the council and the partnership approach across the city. The group should be independent of the council, representative of the city’s communities and should also take on work to engage with the city’s communities to provide two-way feedback. (p55)

BATC says: These are key elements of Kerslake’s agenda to increase private sector power over the Council. Birmingham needs to ‘align its priorities with those of its partners’? No, its partners need to align theirs with the Council’s. The ‘city’s values – not just the Council’s’? Kerslake means business values – the need to maximise profit. The ‘independent Birmingham leadership group’ would not be chaired by a councillor. And the most dangerous threat to local democracy: it would ‘approve the new long-term City Plan’ and ‘hold all involved in delivery of the plan to account’ – i.e. it would be able to exercise a veto over Council policies it didn’t like. And, as before, the community role would be only to provide feedback.

3. Kerslake says: Involvement by the community in this transformation: feedback but not empowerment in policy-making

34. Our proposal recognises the reality of very limited resources and the need for effective and efficient governance alongside more powerful community engagement. (p24)

21. By working together with local communities relatively modest steps can help pressure on resources by reducing the consumption of services and supporting local communities to help themselves and, where necessary, giving people the tools they need to do so. (p48)

Kerslake says: Communities don’t have adequate opportunities and the Council doesn’t listen.

3. By far BCC’s most important partnerships are with the residents it serves, and yet despite the recent progress the council has made we have found many communities feel unable to raise issues, nor have a route to engage or have their voices heard. (p52)

Rooting decisions in the community
44. The council needs to move away from the invitation-only gatekeeper model of engagement with communities. There is little evidence that an understanding and knowledge of the diverse communities in Birmingham is being used to drive decision making in the council… (p62)

49…There is a lack of space in formal district and ward meetings for more general conversations so the council is not able to hear what people want and to be able to react. (p63)

41… [District Committee] meetings should take place in the community and be open to the public. (p25)

39… Our view is the bottom-up engagement and partnership working the council are seeking will happen when councillors are an effective link between their communities and services. To do so councillors need to have regular and direct engagement with residents and the organisations represented in their wards (see chapter 4) not be sat in formal committee meetings in the council house. (p25)

BATC says: We have long argued for the democratisation of local government in the city, but unlike Kerslake we advocate empowerment of citizens and communities through reforming or creating structures to enable them to participate effectively in policy-making and decision-making.

More but smaller wards with one councillor each?

Kerslake says:
• Make wards smaller by increasing the number, and reduce the number of councillors to one per ward. This will save money and make community engagement better.
• Make ward meetings more participative.

44. Each ward in Birmingham is currently represented by 3 councillors. By reducing the number of members per ward and amending the ward structure, it would be possible for members to represent a smaller number of residents, to be better supported by officers and to save the council money. (p25)

51. Formal ward committees should be changed to allow them to operate more like residents’ community forums, providing a space for residents to spontaneously raise issues and have general discussions. (p63)

BATC says: We agree that wards are too large. There are several alternative options – with elections continuing to be by thirds, which should be discussed, but we oppose reducing the number of councillors because it would reduce the ratio of councillors to electors, meaning less democratic engagement.

Ward meetings should be ‘community forums’, but with power to shape policy, not just talking shops for feedback to councillors. The solution to ‘community engagement’ is the creation of democratic structures and processes.

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