Incompetent management, democratic failures and a culture of bullying – report published today on council austerity programme 2012-16.

Council staff appeared “highly stressed and/or unduly defensive”

A damning independent report published today has exposed a failure to implement the austerity programme within Bristol City Council throughout the 2012-2016 period, during Mayor Ferguson’s tenure.

The report was ordered by Mayor Marvin Rees soon after he took office in May 2016 upon discovering a shock £29million budget deficit.

Written by former chief executive of the Audit Commission Steve Bundred, the report indicates an improvement since Rees took office but focused on the delivery of the ‘Single Change Programme’ – instigated in 2012 and designed to cut £64 million from the council budget, and the ‘Medium Term Financial Strategy’ for the 2014/15- 2016/17 period.

Failure to implement the government-ordered cuts led to acute shortfalls in the financial year 2016/17 with ‘panic measures’ introduced to balance the books. However, the report found that the budget deficit ‘was foreseeable and was in fact foreseen’ by the previous administration, in effect being pushed under the carpet. Other findings included:

    • False budgets: In February 2016 the year’s budget was approved, based on the false assumption that all previously agreed savings had been delivered in full.
    • Democratic deficit: By March 2016 council officers believed there was a budget gap of £54.3million – “but members [elected councillors] were not informed of this and continued to receive reassuring reports throughout March and April 2016.”
    • Keeping shctum: It further charges that there was a “tacit understanding” among senior officers to avoid asking contentious decisions of politicians before the May 2016 elections.

Rees ordered the report after discovering a £29million deficit when taking office.

Photo: Dean Ayotte

The report pulls no punches about what it deems “a serious collective failure of leadership”. Senior council officers, particularly the Finance Directorate, come under fire in the report, which points out that the “extraordinary degree of churn” – staff changes – at senior level contributed to the difficulties. There were three different chief financial officers within the last three years.

The Change Programme was set up under the leadership of former council chief executive Nicola Yates, and was led for most of the period by Max Wide, the former strategic director. Both have now left the council for the private sector, with Nicola Yates collecting a £200,000 pay off when Mayor Rees ousted her from the post in July 2016.

On the Change Programme, the report highlights that a detailed business case to plan the austerity measures appears not to have been written until months after the programme began, and when one appeared it was so flawed that it “cannot properly be described as a Business Case”.

The programme’s implementation continued to be blighted by opaque and inadequate reporting processes, including:

  • Burying info: A tendency to “bury information in big reports”.
  • Heads in the sand: A pattern of reporting which was “consistently over-optimistic throughout 2014 and 2015, even in the face of contrary knowledge within the Council, to the extent that Members were undoubtedly misled.”
  • Keeping councillors in the dark: “The lack of candour or unjustifiable degree of reassurance contained in so many of the formal reports to Members I have seen may in part have reflected a lack of understanding or weaknesses in the professional competence of some Council officers.”

The report also targets the unhealthy management culture during the period which included:

  • Council staff appearing “highly stressed and/or unduly defensive”, within a culture of “non-acceptance of responsibility”.
  • Descriptions by staff, including basic discourtesies, unreasonably tight deadlines and “being shouted at” which Bundred accepted as evidence of a “bullying culture” which needs to be urgently addressed by the new Chief Executive.
  • “Over a sustained period of time, officers did not display the degree of professionalism that the Mayor and BCC Members were entitled to expect.”

Twelve specific recommendations concerning governance, accountability and transparency are given for the council going forward. The report also notes that several remedial steps are already under way. The culture change required within the council, though, could take between three to five years, notes Bundred.

On February 21st councillors will be expected to vote for the next devastating round of austerity and implement £101 million of cuts over the next 4 years.

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