A focus on getting the “boring things” right has been Stella Manzie’s biggest contribution during her time in charge of Birmingham City Council, the interim chief executive has said.
In a wide-ranging interview with LGC, Ms Manzie also discussed the council’s challenge around partnership working, balancing its budget and the recent waste dispute.
Birmingham has been subject to oversight by a government appointed improvement panel since late 2014 after a review by former Department for Communities & Local Government permanent secretary Lord Kerslake raised concerns about the organisation’s culture and governance.
Ms Manzie joined the council in April following the high-profile and controversial departure of former chief executive Mark Rogers and is due to leave in early spring when Southampton City Council chief executive Dawn Baxendale takes up the role on a permanent basis.
Asked what she regarded as her biggest contribution to the council’s improvement journey, Ms Manzie pointed to putting “day to day systems” for officer and councillor working on the right footing.
She said this included “quite boring things” such as councillor briefings and how meetings between officers and politicians are run as well as introducing a more “corporate” managerial approach.
“I’m not saying that’s perfect at all… but I have tried to get more dialogues across the services and to make sure that people are trying to work together.”
Ms Manzie said another area of focus had been on improving partnership working, including working “very constructively with health partners to try to make sure we are working together properly”.
Failure to realise savings planned through joint working with the NHS was a major contributor to a £30m overspend on the council’s 2016-17 budget. The Improvement Panel branded the assumptions behind the planned savings “flawed and unrealistic” and said the council’s reliance on them had left it a “mammoth task” to deliver savings in 2017-18.
Asked whether mending relationships with health had been a big challenge, Ms Manzie declined to comment on the detail but said along with interim director of adult social care Graeme Betts she had “put a lot of time into trying to work closely with [health] partners and that’s included being open about finances”.
The improvement panel’s concerns were also shared by auditors, who issued an adverse Value for Money Opinion on the council’s 2016-17 accounts. This year’s savings plans are also way off course, largely due to the failure to realise savings planned from a major workforce restructure known as the ‘future operating model’.
Asked why the model, which was launched in late 2016, had failed to deliver £14.6m of planned savings this year, Ms Manzie said it had to do with “some of the ways it was set up in the first place” and “quite a complicated issue to do with the phasing” as well as “new pressures on the council” that emerged during the year.
Ms Manzie declined to go into further detail but added: “It is true to say we haven’t implemented the savings as much as we would have liked and that’s for a whole set of complicated reasons.”
Much of Ms Manzie’s time at Birmingham has been dominated by the industrial dispute with unions over reforms to the waste service. After former leader John Clancy (Lab) went against officers’ advice in negotiating a settlement that he had been warned could leave the council exposed to further equal pay claims, a high court hearing was only narrowly avoided and the council had to compromise on the amount of savings it was hoping to generate as a result of the reforms. In the ensuing row unions called on Ms Manzie to resign.
Ms Manzie said: “I’d be crazy if I don’t say there are things I might look at differently with the benefit of hindsight. Clearly we bear some of the financial consequences of the refuse strike… but the important thing is that we move forward working collaboratively with trade unions to deliver the best service for the citizens of Birmingham.”
She said although there were still a number of issues to tackle with reform of the waste service, resolving, the dispute had left the council on “a better footing to do that now than we were”.