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Mark Rogers on his experience of the Birmingham improvement panel

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“It’s far easier to get into trouble than it is to get out of it. One misjudged comment and you slip straight back down to square one; when in deep trouble, do not use humour, especially with certain mirthless parties.”

So said outgoing Birmingham City Council chief executive Mark Rogers back in November 2015 when writing about his experience of government intervention for LGC. The typically frank comments may provide some clue as to the origins of Mr Rogers’ current difficulties and the furore that has engulfed the council since his departure was hastily announced on Monday. The Birmingham improvement panel’s latest letter to the communities secretary, published today, does little to dispel claims that its members were keen to see the back of Mr Rogers.

In the same LGC article Mr Rogers stated that “making a difference isn’t a spectator sport” and called on the improvement panel to recognise that “we respond best when we are valued”.

He continued: “Those who have cracked this simple code know that they have me eating out of their hands. Those that haven’t will find I sometimes bite the hand that feeds me.”

In other words, constructive support which recognises the individuals involved are not setting out to do a bad job is much more likely to achieve improvement than a confrontational top-down approach which seeks to apportion blame.

The government should bear this in mind if it presses ahead with its reported plan to send Care Quality Commission inspectors into councils in return for making extra cash available to spend on social care. That there are strings attached to additional funding is not a surprise: the prime minister’s comments on social care funding to date show she is firmly of the view that some councils are inefficient and poorly organised. Variations in levels of delayed transfers of care, though a product of many variables, do suggest some councils have gains to be made.

However, whether sending in a government regulator is the best way to achieve this is questionable, as key voices in the sector noted today. The CQC’s inspection model, which it should be noted does not extend to clinical commissioning groups (although they are subject to significant oversight from NHS England), does not currently consider value for money of services.

The Commission for Social Care Inspection reviewed councils’ commissioning of social care until 2009, when it was abolished and rolled into the CQC. Eight years on from the ending of this function, along with the scrapping of the Audit Commission, there is unlikely to be a ready supply of individuals with the skills to carry out what will be complex inspections.

In Birmingham, after the panel warned of a £49m overspend last November, an independent peer review team was sent in with the agreement of the council and the panel. Its first report was fairly damning and highlighted many of the issues that the panel had recently expressed concern about. However, when the peer review team visited again in January they found the situation improved and noted the council had taken on board many of their practical suggestions going forward. These visits appear to have been at least as much use to Birmingham in setting a balanced budget than years of scrutiny by the panel.

Central and local government are supposed to want the same things: good quality, well run services. Achieving this aim with practical solutions must be the focus of any new regulatory approach, not finding someone to point the finger of blame at.

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