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UPDATED: Report reveals Wirral Council was on brink of Government intervention
WIRRAL Council was on the brink of Government intervention over the escalation of "a multiplicity of weaknesses" a special report commissioned by the Local Government Association has revealed.
It includes narratives of bullying and harassment and abuse of powers by council officers arising from whistleblowing revelations.
There is also acknowledgement, however, that the local authority has made a "significant recovery" to such an extent that those who helped change Wirral are now using the experience as a learning exercise for others to follow.
Revelations by former social services manager Martin Morton set a bombshell under the council in 2008 - read Mr Morton's views about the report at the end of this article.
Mr Morton's exposure of a "special charging" scandal in the Department of Adult Social Services was exclusively reported in the Globe and lit a fuse that eventually led to a major inquiry by consultant Anna Klonowski.
Her examination of practices in Wirral triggered an unprecedented upheaval in the way the authority was managed.
The LGA review shows the problems were so severe that the Government was a hair's breadth away from sending in commissioners to take over.
Instead though, it was agreed an "Improvement Board" would be introduced to try to turnaround the council.
The report - entitled 'Self, Sector or Centre? Approaches to Turnaround' - observes: "We have no reason to doubt the belief of the Improvement Board (set up to achieve recovery) and of current staff that we spoke to, that these weaknesses did not permeate all aspects of the council's work and that there were areas of excellence despite the overall position."
It continues: "In simple terms Wirral was in very substantial difficulty, with a failure in corporate governance and systems.
"The turnabout process, and accompanying recognition from within, that help was needed, was in time to prevent what might have been a more serious or widespread failure that could have triggered external, central government-led intervention."
Council leader Cllr Phil Davies receives plaudits for his role in the turnaround.
The report states: "Our testing of the analysis with participants suggest that the sector's leadership was conditional on strong 'buy in' from, and early action by, Wirral's political leadership and notably by council leader Phil Davies.
"Without such conditions it is impossible to know what might have unfolded and over what timescale. But it is very likely that further decline would eventually have met with a centre-led intervention of some kind."
The Improvement Board disbanded in November, 2013.
The Local Government Association said it became aware of potential problems in Wirral in the autumn of 2011 - three years after reports in the Globe which were subsequently followed up by regional media.
At this point researcher Anna Klonowski was conducting her investigation but had not produced a final review.
LGA principal advisor Gil Taylor arranged to see the then council chief executive in September, 2011, and was sufficiently concerned to arrange a follow-up meeting with the council leader, chief executive and others.
Following this second meeting the council agreed it should invite the LGA to work with it and agreed to establish an Improvement Board, which first met in February, 2012.
The report reflects that the consistency and honest of interviews gave confidence to conclude that Wirral had made a significant recovery.
But it warns that although Wirral has returned to something nearer local government "norm" in terms of performance and practice, there is still much to do.
They list among the risk to progress:
*The need to sustain clear, strategic vision, while making substantial further financial cutbacks.
*The need to sustain political commitment and consensus around the improvement process in challenging times.
*The potential for distraction given the many other challenges facing local government currently."
The report concludes: "The council has embarked on major programmes of corporate and cultural change, most of which as 18 months or so old.
"Such change takes time and effort to embed and it is unlikely that all members or officers have been convinced, signed up, or even fully understood what new actions and behaviours are needed. So sustained and longer term effort will be needed."
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MARTIN MORTON: Why I won't be returning to work for Wirral Council...
"Until today I was unfamiliar with the 'Self, Sector or Centre? Approaches to Turnaround' report detailed above and commissioned by the Local Government Association, which features Wirral Council as a case study.
However what is familiar is the "we know best" approach of local Government consultants.
The researchers thank many individuals from across local and central Government and beyond who agreed to participate in their research and "who shared so freely of their time, insights and experience."
As usual their gratitude does not seem to extend to whistleblowers, who were effectively responsible for the need for the "turnaround" process described in the dossier.
I cannot help feeling that while the researchers maintain the expertise brought to bear in their report was "high quality," that high quality in this case equates to being highly-paid or highly-influential.
But then the researchers don't seem able to fully acknowledge the role of whistleblowers at all.
They coyly refer to "whistleblowing" in the abstract without identifying that it was individuals who were responsible for identifying problems within Wirral Council and not organisations such as the Local Government Association, who are lauded for their work in assisting the authority with the setting up of an Improvement Board.
Comment is made about the personal costs of the turnaround process "in terms of the pressures on managers and politicians and in some cases impacts on their careers."
Inevitably once again this concern does not extend to whistleblowers, for whom the impact is catastrophic.
Nevertheless, the council "turnaround" is described in the report as a "success story."
However, the researchers may want to ask themselves this: If Wirral Council's "turnaround" has been such a success, why will I not return to work for them, despite the official offer a job being made to me on a number of occasions?
These offers have been made despite that fact my union has advised me that my well-publicised status as a whistleblower now makes me unemployable.
I have already discussed the reasons for my decision in private with Wirral Council chief executive Graham Burgess.
Under these circumstances it seems cruelly ironic that the only organisation which would employ me is one I could never work for - and for reasons which obviously would not be detailed in a report such as this."
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