Birmingham City Council is not too big to be successful, the turnaround expert brought in as interim chief executive has told LGC.
As the largest council in the UK, with a net revenue budget of £822m in 2017-18, Birmingham has often faced questions about whether it is too big. The issue was explored in Lord Kerslake’s independent review of the council in 2014.
Stella Manzie, who joined the council in April following the high-profile and controversial departure of former chief executive Mark Rogers, and who previously worked for the council in the 1980s, said she had “never bought that argument”.
“It’s just a question of making the approaches and systems fit for purpose for that larger organisation,” said Ms Manzie. “That means you have people with the right capacity, but you also think very hard about how you cascade communication; for example, how you get different parts of the organisation working together, how you get corporate consistency about partnership style when you’ve got a large number of people doing different kinds of jobs.”
Ms Manzie, who is due to leave in early spring when Southampton City Council chief executive Dawn Baxendale takes up the role on a permanent basis, has previously been credited with helping to turn around Rotherham MBC and Coventry City Council.
While she told LGC the Birmingham job was not any more or less difficult than her previous roles, the scale of the council and the level of scrutiny it attracts had brought its own challenges.
“What you’re striving to do as a public servant is for all your services to be at the very minimum reasonable and then for a lot of others to be good and some of them excellent,” she said. “One of the things about that is getting a consistency of culture, drive and approach across the authority but tailored to the needs of different services.”
She said there had “probably been some inconsistency in that over the years” in Birmingham but the council was now in a “good position moving forward”.
A failure to realise projected savings remains an ongoing issue for the council, while last summer it got caught up in an industrial dispute with unions over reforms to the waste service. On the bin strike Ms Manzie admitted “there are things I might look at [doing] differently with the benefit of hindsight”.
Despite the challenges faced by the council there are lots of good things going on and some “fantastic innovation” in a whole range of services, said Ms Manzie.
“The council is doing some things well, other things not well and there’s a big challenge to conquer some of those issues, but inherently the city is a great city and members are giving really good leadership,” she said.