Why Birmingham City Council is supporting the Public Service Academy



In October I was fortunate enough to be part of a fantastic trip to Chicago with colleagues from the University of Birmingham, with part of our agenda dedicated to developing Birmingham’s Public Services Academy (PSA).


As one of our Sister Cities we have great links with business, government, and academia in Chicago and through collaboration with them we developed some really interesting ideas in the past. Now, through the PSA creating an innovative partnership bringing academia and the public sector together in new and interesting ways… and, bizarrely, we are now as well known in Chicago for it as we are locally!


For me, if we are all collectively going to get the most from the PSA, it needs to be energetic, buzzing with ideas, full of opportunities and fuelled by a debate which people want to be part of. That’s why I can see this ‘blog’, along with all the other interactive forums we are developing for the PSA, being so important in creating a space for debate.


So here goes…


From my perspective the need for a successful PublicServicesAcademy hangs around the fact that we, in the Council, are going through a period of massive change and challenge. Aside from the well publicised budget pressure we are undergoing a huge and radical transformation process which is fundamentally going to overhaul the way we do ‘business’ as a Local Authority.


Looking at things now, given a blank sheet of paper you could not design the public sector and its limbs the way it is. Despite sustained efforts in recent years through a plethora of efficiency programmes, lean thinking exercises, customer service initiatives, and e-government innovations etc… if you think about it, the public sector still pretty much looks like it did when it was last radically overhauled in the post war period.


A great example is the way in which we divide up what the NHS does and what much of our Adults Services does in the way we care for and support the elderly. If you started from the citizen and designed services around their needs it would be very different.


Thinking of different ways of doing things, look at the way modern easy-to-use and intuitive technology can be used in a tele-health care sense.  How fantastic would it be if all your hospital, GP, Council and other “support” agency data was help in a secure cloud space and we all referred to the same data and really treated our citizens and customers as individuals that we wrapped our services and information around? 


Testing and developing ideas and notions such as this isn’t easy. Its needs to be worked through with people doing the day job, and it needs the intellectual rigour of professionals and academics. It needs considered thought behind designing and managing change, and we need to make sure that the Public Servants of the future are being trained now to work in a potentially very different environment. In many cases it also probably needs someone to act as an honest broker to bring together the partners and stakeholders who have the experiences of past successes. Only through doing this can you really start to push the envelope that bit further.  Birmingham and the public sector have the ability to create a new legacy – re-engineering services in a way which requires fresh perspectives and challenging norms.  For me, the public sector will create history.  It will be made up of people who are interested in reshaping and redesigning communities as sustained enterprises.  Variety will be at the heart of role contents and career paths.  


So the PSA is an engine to drive that change – and a two way street between the University and the Council (indeed, the wider Public Sector). We are giving work placement and experience opportunities in exchange for new thinking, fresh energy and the development of our own workforce.


Within the multitude of services that we have within Birmingham City Council there is a huge variety to shoot at, and through the great challenge we face also great opportunity.


Whilst the fundamental questions being asked of the entire Public Sector and Public Servants are very difficult, there is no reason why the answers shouldn’t be coming pro-actively from Birmingham. We already have some of the best officers and members in the country, who care deeply and are doing some very innovative things. We also have one of the best University’s in the country, which is genuinely committed to playing a full civic role within the city. The ingredients are there for Birmingham to be a real melting pot of ideas, and the generator of solutions which shape the public sector of tomorrow.


What do you think?




Mark Barrow

Strategic Director: Development & Culture

Birmingham City Council 



Public Service Academy Launch

Recently, I presented to our University Council about the past, present and future of civic engagement by the University of Birmingham. It reminded me that on the ceiling of our Great Hall there are two crests, one belonging to the University of Birmingham and the other to the City of Birmingham. The relationship between the two is, almost literally, in the foundations of the University, reflecting our origins in the philanthropy of the City fathers and regional industrialists of the late 19th century. This civic engagement has from the outset linked the University closely with local government, public bodies and third sector agencies in the development of policy, management and practice that improve services which enhance social well-being. It has shaped both our research interests and teaching portfolio in profound and positive ways for well over one hundred years.

The Public Service Academy (PSA) is the latest manifestation of this commitment to our region, made at a time when many other universities are disinvesting in the theory and practice of public policy and public management. In January of this year Dr Helen Dickinson was appointed to the role of Director of the PSA to which she brings an extensive knowledge and research background of collaboration within public services. This expertise is important; collaboration is at the core of the PSA. It aims to join up more effectively our own internal expertise around public services and also to provide a way of structuring the College’s relationship with the city, building on established links and making connections between previously disparate work streams. Through our ongoing dialogue with Council colleagues we have developed four priority areas on which to focus the work of the PSA, at least initially. Those are Cohesion, Health and Wellbeing, Localisation and the Social Work Academy.

Let’s start with the Social Work Academy. We have been delivering social work training here at the University of Birmingham for over 100 years and now University colleagues are facilitating the delivery of a range of master classes and courses for managers and practitioners in Children’s Services through this academy. In addition, colleagues are also working with the Adults Directorate, developing education and development programmes. At the same time, City Council staff are contributing to teaching at the University, participating in student interviews and assessing students’ practice capabilities. Of course, many of these staff are themselves alumni of the University, well equipped to assess those capabilities?

In Health and Wellbeing we are working with City Council colleagues to explore the role of health and wellbeing boards. We know there is a huge agenda for us to get to grips, acclimatising to the changing commissioning infrastructure and operating within an expanding well-being agenda. Additionally colleagues are investigating the issue of urban resilience and the links between this and wellbeing in the widest sense. All this knowledge also fits into our teaching and professional development programmes and the University has an outstanding pedigree in working with clinical and management professionals in the region and beyond.

Turning to Cohesion, I have been very encouraged by the role the City Council has given the University in providing academic support to the Social Inclusion Process, convened by the Bishop of Birmingham; this was established to address fundamental social and economic issues in the city in order to improve opportunities and aspirations for all and especially those who are most disadvantaged. The University is both represented on the steering group and a team of academics from the College has supported each of the key themes of the Process. 

Last but certainly not least: Localisation. Devolution is central to the City Council’s agenda. The report and recommendations of the University’s Policy Commission on the future of local public services are very much in line with the City Council’s developing strategy and we will be working to explore how these shared aspirations can be turned into practice. Those who will be most charged with implementing localisation will be the front line public service professionals, many of whom are alumni of this university. 

The PSA is very keen to work with and develop a network of UoB alumni who work in, or have an interest in the development of, public services. We held our first targeted event for these alumni this summer, hosted at the Council House. We are currently undertaking a survey to find out what sorts of future activities alumni might wish to engage in.

Also in addition to the thematic areas, I know that Helen has been working with colleagues from the University’s careers service and from the City Council to look at ways in which we can improve our offer to students both in expanding their knowledge of public services and in developing opportunities for them to gain experience of public service through projects, placements and internships. 

Finally, and frankly, I think we all struggle with the pace of change and challenges for public service at times; for all of us this is probably one of those times. But while the focus and pressure on public service delivery is intense at present, I am confident that we will all benefit from a collective approach to the issues we face. The creation of the PSA will carry on some of the conversations between University and City Council that have been in place for many years, but importantly it will spark new thoughts, new links and new initiatives which will serve to make us even more innovative and effective in serving the citizens of the City in which we live and work.  


Edward Peck, Pro-Vice-Chancellor and Head of College (Social Sciences) Image


Welcome to the Public Service Academy Blog

This is the blog associated with the University of Birmingham’s Public Service Academy; an initiative that seeks to build on the University’s expertise around public services and provide a platform for strategic interaction with a range of national and international public service partners.

You can find more information about the PSA and its activities at our website

This blog is intended to be a platform for discussion for those interested in public services.  Every month we will focus on a key issue in relation to public services and invite key stakeholders to write a piece for us which will stimulate debate.

If you are interested in writing for the blog or have any questions about the PSA please contact Helen Dickinson at h.e.dickinson@bham.ac.uk

You can also follow us on Twitter using #BhamPSA