Birmingham City Council’s next chief executive has told LGC she is “realistic” about the challenge she faces in turning around the struggling organisation.
Dawn Baxendale, currently chief executive of Southampton City Council, was confirmed as Birmingham’s new most senior officer last week and will join the council in April.
Speaking to LGC about the appointment, Ms Baxendale said she had not been looking for another job when she was approached about the role but was attracted by Birmingham’s “significant opportunities”, including HS2, the city’s strong economic performance, its involvement in the West Midlands CA and the recent successful bid to host the Commonwealth Games in 2022.
She added: “Because Birmingham has a very difficult history over a number of years now it’s also attractive in the sense that somebody’s got to get it right. It’s not going to be easy but it’s a really exciting job.”
Birmingham has been subject to oversight by a government appointed improvement panel since 2014. The panel was appointed by then communities secretary Eric Pickles after Lord Kerslake’s review of the council highlighted culture and governance concerns. The panel has been linked to the departure of previous chief executive Mark Rogers at the beginning of 2017.
Ms Baxendale said she was not concerned about working with the panel and her focus would be on “stabilisation and improvement”.
“The key around all of this is reconnecting the workforce to the reason why they’re there which is about public service and recognising that we want to be a positive partner with other agencies and the private sector bodies,” she said.
Ms Baxendale, who plans to relocate her family to take on the role, said while turnaround would not be quick she wanted to be able to demonstrate clear progress every year. “I have been realistic with the members in Birmingham: this is not a quick fix. But we have a real opportunity with the potential of the Commonwealth Games to set an agenda that in five years time we want to be a council that everybody can be proud of and you need to see movement each year.
“Critically the budget has to be resolved as quickly as possible and that will not be an easy task recognising what Birmingham has already had to deliver in savings terms.”
In recent years the council has repeatedly failed to deliver its savings plans, resulting in auditors issuing an adverse value for money conclusion on the council’s 2016-17 accounts.
Ms Baxendale will join the council after the 2017-18 budget has been set and just before the council holds its first all-out elections in May next year. She told LGC she would be kept informed of budget plans in the intervening months and was not concerned about the potential for a change in administration. “From a chief’s point of view [a four-year election cycle] makes life a little bit easier,” she said, as it provided more time and space to work in a “meaningful way” with members, communities and partners.
Ms Baxendale, who will leave Southampton after nine years, including five as chief executive, will be Birmingham’s third chief executive in four years. She stressed she would not be commenting on her predecessors’ performance and said it was difficult to assess “from a distance” why the council had apparently struggled for so long.
Asked why she would be successful where others have failed, she said: “My track record across many years, but particularly here in Southampton, is I am a very open leader and highly accessible but I’m also very clear about how I communicate. Your organisation needs to understand where you are and we need to have a dialogue about how we are going to move forward.
“There’ll be some really good things going on in the council but the story has continually been about the challenges; we need to bring the stories alive and share them, both within the organisation and outside.”