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Commissions: will resources follow recommendations?

News Categories: aspirefutureleadersProfessional Services Week

Around nine-months ago, I wrote a couple of blogs about the plethora of Commissions established in the region, set to examine a wide range of complex challenges facing the West Midlands. The Productivity and Skills Commission and the Leadership Commission caught my eye, not only because of my experience in these areas, but both set up workstreams looking at the professional services sector.

First to the reporting line is the Leadership Commission. Let me be clear at the outset. The document is a wonderfully clear assessment of the size of the challenge and in that there is much value.

Where a combination of stark reality and perceptions prevailed about the lack of representation in leadership positions, there is now more evidence, even though the Commission was clearly frustrated by data gaps during its work. Nonetheless, it is a significant step forward.

I am also extremely proud that an initiative I have led for BPS Birmingham since its inception – Professional Services Week (PSW) – has been recognised as an example of good practice. It features in one of the recommendations on raising aspiration toward positions of leadership among the next generation. As another 1,000 or so students prepare to participate in the next Week in just a few days’ time, such recognition coming in only its third year is much appreciated.

When it comes to professional services, the lack of diversity is well documented. The Social Mobility Commission identified that those from working class backgrounds were not only less likely to access professions, but would earn nearly £7k less compared to colleagues from more middle class families.

As the BPS Birmingham Future Commission identified back in 2013, the opportunity that presents itself in a super-youthful, super-diverse city region such as Greater Birmingham gives a business imperative to seize this agenda as well as the compelling moral case of equality of opportunity and fairness.

In fact it was this report and this conclusion that helped leverage resources to make Professional Services Week possible. We shall return to ‘resources.’

Increasingly, I think this message is landing within the business community. Whether the result of commissions – or more direct incentives and taxes, such as the Apprenticeship Levy – the professional services sector is opening up alternative pathways to entry.  The debate is more around resourcing and productivity than CSR in this region.

Contrast this to my experience at a recent round table with Alok Sharma MP, Minister for Employment, set up by our friends at The City UK. There were lots of great examples of outreach work and none of the discourse challenging the fundamental premise to be more accessible.

But in that room of London-centric businesses, CSR initiatives dominated and the bridge into central HR processes of recruitment and retention has not been meaningfully crossed. The low point for me was when unnamed firms commented that in a bid to widen participation, they had accepted “applicants from non-Russell group Universities and with AAB grades at A-level”. To hear firms talk like that here is now almost unimaginable.

Talk is cheap. Passion and willingness only get you so far. As the Leadership Commission appreciates, there is no magic bullet.

For all of the sensible recommendations, my inner voice cannot help but ask “where are the resources”? Having clarity on what should be done is step 1; step 2 is doing it. A lot of that requires time and/or cash and/or infrastructure. The report is silent on such matters, although the door is left open.

In the coming weeks the findings of the ‘deep dive’ into the professional services sector for the WMCA’s Productivity and Skills Commission will be shared and discussed with the sector and key stakeholders. The Commission’s final report will be considered by the WMCA Board this week. One of the core themes to emerge is ‘good growth’. WMCA might call this ‘inclusive growth,’ but the message is the same and aligns with the aims of the Leadership Commission.

The question of resources arises once again. There is a great deal of energy and commitment around, but the danger is efforts to tackle serious issues are left to hobbyist endeavour. Initiatives rely on leveraging what people can give, begging and borrowing to maximise impact from campaigns and projects which are not core business.

Take Professional Services Week as the example. As an initiative, it now attracts sponsorship to cover some project management and communications support from valued supporters such as Wesleyan, Greater Birmingham Professional Services Academy (part of BMet) and founding sponsor Deloitte.

Without such contributions we would be absolutely nowhere. Last year we used this to leverage around £90,000 of benefit in kind through volunteer time. For this, 25 schools took part and over 1,000 students from across Greater Birmingham benefited.

Impressive as this might be from a standing start, it is scratching the surface with over 80 secondary schools in Birmingham local authority area, an equivalent number in the Black Country, Coventry and Warwickshire – to say nothing of Solihull and other members of WMCA non-constituent members – that fall within a travel-to-work footprint.

I applaud the work of the Leadership Commission and how seriously its findings appear to be being taken.

But, stage 2 is even more important. The question of resources needs to be addressed so the recommendations can be taken forward quickly and thoroughly.

– Hilary Smyth-Allen, Executive Director, BPS Birmingham Ltd.