‘Brum’ is the colloquial name for Birmingham, England’s second city and the largest local authority in Europe. For many years Brum’s children’s services have been rated as ‘inadequate’ by the inspectorate Ofsted, whose head has described them as a ‘national disgrace’. BBC news provides a useful ‘timeline’ of the problems in Birmingham.
Now the city council has decided to turn over the running of its children’s services to an independent voluntary trust, a strategy which is favoured by the British government. You can read the full story in the Guardian.
I don’t think that creating a voluntary trust is any kind of panacea. And I am pleased to see that Lord Warner, who was brought in by the Government to try to sort things out in Birmingham a few years ago, agrees with me. The BBC quotes him as saying that this is a "rushed decision" because there is “no proven track record” of voluntary trusts like this being successful in bringing about change.
The main problem as I see it is that there is no clear analysis of what is wrong in Brum. For years and years people have been trying to fix things there without really being well informed about what the causes of the difficulties are. At first senior management was the focus and people resigned and the Government put in Lord Warner as a Commissioner. He did something for three years and then he threw in the towel, complaining of slow progress. Now there seems to be a consensus that the problem is with the ‘model’ and that a voluntary body would do it better than a local authority. But nobody says why that’s true and it just isn’t clear what a voluntary trust would bring to the situation that a local authority cannot.
My guess is that poor systems and low morale in Birmingham result from a long history of change being driven from the top by people who do not really understand what is wrong. All kinds of changes are proposed, all kinds of changes are imposed, all kind of disruption is created. First we have ‘special measures’, then we have a commissioner and now we have a voluntary trust. What the people who do the work on a day-to-day basis make of all this is not known. I expect that nobody in authority has asked them. I suspect that those in authority probably don’t care.
Rather than imposing changes top-down, and crushing the morale of the workforce in the process, I believe the route to change has to be bottom-up. To understand what is wrong with an organisation which is not functioning properly you need to engage with the people who actually deliver the service, who understand where the shortfalls are actually occurring, and work with them to gain their insights about the nature of the problems and their suggestions about how they should be overcome. And you need to empower people at the frontline to implement improvements which they understand and endorse. The alternative is a confused and disorientated workforce who become progressively demotivated by being required to implement changes in which they do not believe.
A few years ago there was a children’s TV series on British TV called ‘Brum’, which was set in Birmingham. It starred a little car called ‘Brum’ who was kept in a museum but escaped each day when the curator wasn’t looking to have all sorts of adventures in the ‘big city’. But every night Brum had to creep back into his museum and resume his position in the exhibition. Although he had spent the day ‘brum, brum brumming’ all over the city he ended up back in the static display.
That’s what they have to avoid in Birmingham – having lots of adventures but ending up in the same position at the end of it all.