I have for long wished that there was much more debate about policy in the city and about policies that effect the city. I worked for the City Council for 15 years, latterly at a fairly senior level but what was shocking was the minutiae of the bureaucracy 95% of the time took over from discussions about direction. The City Council didn’t join its silos to talk about policy direction; it joined its silos on cross cutting bureaucratic issues. I am hopeful that since I left perhaps this is changing but it was rare within the City Council to have open discussions across disciplines about future scenarios.
Since I left last year I have started this blog and have started to think about some of the conversations with a few of the reflective people I encountered within BCC; conversations in the kitchens, round the water dispenser about policy. Two issues that often came up and came together; the lack of informed debate in Birmingham over policy directions both inside the Council and outside and secondly the lack of an authoritative voice representing the city outside the city in what is broadly called thought leadership – particularly in the broad field of economic policy. Now this is surprising, given the huge expertise in the city, but true; there is no focus in the City for these issues and so we risk having uninformed debate and we vitally risk not being on the national and international horizon..
Now I know many people think this unfair but I like to compare Birmingham with Manchester- which has;
1) Manchester New Economy – a group supported by the City Council and academia that a few years ago undertook a root and branch look at the future of the City and still has weight because despite its links to the Council its senior people are high ranking and independent. Often you go to conferences and there is a speaker from MNE and no one from Birmingham. We have no such ‘independent body’ representing the city.
2) There is as well based there the Centre for local Economic Strategies (CLES) a national thinktank looking at alternatives to current economic approaches.
This not to say we don’t have some fora and some voice. There is the Lunar Society, New Optimists, Birmingham Future etc but somehow none with sufficient support and buy in and particularly none with a real voice outside of the city.
So what I miss is an institution like MNE that thinks authoritatively about the city and can project that outside of the city as well as the critical friend of a CLES. We have Marketing Birmingham which puts out a lot of good information but by its very name it doesn’t have sufficient credibility to do this job, to be accepted as an authority as MNE is accepted. It is primarily a marketing organisation (and this is not an attack on their work).
Now this is both an external failing in terms of thought leadership but also crucially an internal lack because of the lack of informed debate. London has recently formed the Centre for London an independent think tank and they regularly put on discussions. So they have one coming up titled Where Next for London Local Government . This is important for London of course but it is also important for Birmingham and neighbouring authorities.
Now I must admit there are opportunities to hear the latest on policy development in Birmingham; so the new Urban Mobility plan is being launched later this year at a Big Infrastructure conference in the city, but that is largely PR, promotional and is not reflective. Or certainly not reflective enough.
What has improved with the labour administration is their attempt to be inclusive in setting up various Commissions; i.e. the Green Commission and the Smart City Commission but much of the work is out of site. I would say as well that I don’t believe that these Commissions have been cross party. This city made huge strides with its internationally recognised Highbury conference that kick started the regeneration of the City. That cross party approach I fear has been lacking for sometime.
On a slight deviation – what is interesting in many Nordic states seats in Council cabinets reflect the % of votes of each party. This has a real advantage of keeping all parties in the picture and in the loop. So the trips of Cllr Huxtable to visit key High Speed stations in the rest of Europe were wasted because he is not involved. Likewise the exclusion of Cllr Bore during the Whitby years was even more wasteful for this city. So within the Council we have hours of dull process based meetings and the only debate that has seemingly surfaced in recent months is one on wheelie bins. Is this the most important issue of our day? I will leave you to answer this. So as an aside and not the main point of this post I would encourage the Council to be more cross partisan where possible but I would also encourage a new idea to be discussed. A think tank for Birmingham. Well it is not a new idea but its time may have come.
Now what would this look like. Well it would have to be independent of the Council and be non partisan; it would be really great if our Universities could work together on this; each chipping in expertise. The Council might second in staff and give work to it but crucially not steer its outcomes. This thinktank could
- Stimulate informed debate within the city
- Promote learning of best practice by politicians and policy makers
- To reflect on leadership both political, policy, and wider societal leadership in the city
- Research and put forward longer term visioning for the city – Lyon for instance has its views on what it will look like in 2050
- Hold conferences, webinars, etc on key issues
- Crucially analyse Government and EU policy with a view to decoding and responding to developments
- Become the trusted focus for informed debate and an authoritative voice for the city.
This is not a task the Council, Marketing Birmingham or the Universities individually are doing or can on their own do but together, with secondments, what would be a very small organisation could easily be set up. Whilst easy to establish it is very hard to create and maintain credibility. This would need to be lead by perhaps a key practically focussed academic or senior policy maker who has existing national credibility.
You may ask possibly two questions. Doesn’t the new digital era stimulate such debate i.e. can’t we rely on virtual debate and secondly why is this necessary at the time of severe cuts.
On the former I am digitally active and I receive much of my information by twitter (@globalbirminghm) and linkedin but I don’t feel there is a space for such considered debate about the city. There is for instance a debate currently on a forum called ‘Restirred‘ about the A435 corridor in Birmingham; take a look – it is a mixture of information, rhetoric and ill informed judgements (and those are just my posts!). Now this type of forum cannot be an external voice for the city and there is something missing about its ability to debate issues; perhaps really importantly Councillors and Senior Officials don’t seem to engage with it. It does however show the range of expertise out there in the city and the range of deeply held views and any such Thinktank should really seek to engage this ‘crowd and other crowds’ in a constructive manner. In this way, in using the ‘crowd’ the Birmingham Thinktank could be stronger than either Manchester’s or London’s.
On the latter question I would suggest this is even more needed in the times of cuts. I was reflecting this morning on the seeming success of Manchester as Radio 4 is covering its Manchester International Festival in detail; why is that, well it is in my view the result of long term thoughtful reflection on the future of the city. I could go on to explain but that in reality is another post. In the times of economic slowdown we need that independent sounding board, that focus for debate to help coalesce a way forward and crucially to present the city outside the city in the thought leadership stakes. Otherwise we risk ill informed and ill focussed debate in the city and irrelevance in the outside world.
So what do you think?