Best Value Service Review of

Legal Services provided to Birmingham City Council

March 2002

 


During 2001, Birmingham City Council’s Chief Legal Officer, Mirza Ahmad, led the Best Value Service Review of the whole of the legal services provided to the City Council with the assistance of a Client Focus Group and a ‘Critical Friend’ (Nicholas Dobson, a partner from the firm of solicitors Pinsent Curtis Biddle). This is Mirza’s second Best Value Service Review. His first (that of Bolton MBC Legal Services) obtained a ‘Three Star Excellent’ rating from the Best Value Inspectorate.

By way of some background information, Birmingham City Council’s Legal Services Office consists of approximately 185 staff, with an annual budget in excess of £5m and a client budget in excess of £40m. As part of the Best Value Service Review, the Legal Services Office carried out an extensive round of consultations – with client departments, elected members, staff and external organisations.

This is the first time that any in-house service, to the knowledge of the Chief Legal Officer, has conducted a gap analysis in keeping with the guidance produced by the Scottish Commission. The questionnaires sought qualitative as well as quantitative information and the data was analysed personally by the Chief Legal Officer to learn lessons for further service enhancements. By undertaking such an approach, the gap between perception and reality could be more easily ascertained with a view to making service improvements and enhancements to get, as close as possible, to the perception of the ideal position.

The Chief Legal Officer also took a lead amongst the Chief Legal Officers of the other Core Cities (Bristol, Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle and Sheffield) by creating a Core Cities Best Value Group for Legal Services. During 2001, the Group benchmarked three legal activities (Right to Buy, Emergency Protection Orders and Employment Tribunal Work) and used the same to learn from the experience for further rounds of benchmarking. The Group is continuing to benchmark other legal activities this year, as benchmarking is not a ‘one year event’. The Chief Legal Officer is adamant that one can never stop learning from effective benchmarking.

During 2001, the Legal Service Office also established Protocols with six firms of solicitors, who will deal with peaks and troughs in demand for social services legal work. The private sector hourly rates, in comparison to the Legal Services Office are higher, but the establishment of the Protocols provide (in addition to dealing with fluctuations in resource management demands for social services legal work) a wonderful ‘value added’ opportunity, at no additional cost to the City Council, for client officers to undertake direct comparative analysis of the quality of service provision on social services legal matters.

 

In addition to those six firms, the Chief Legal Officer also established a Panel of solicitors who would work in partnership with the Legal Services Office on Public Law and Property work. Suffice it to say that the rates submitted by those firms of solicitors were in excess of 2 to 3 times the in-house legal rates. This approach did, however, provide tangible and up-to-date evidence on the competitiveness of the in-house Legal Services Office.  

As part of the Best Value Service Review, therefore, the Chief Legal Officer, the Client Focus Group and the external Critical Friend were satisfied that the in-house Legal Services Office provides competitive hourly and unit priced rates for legal work. It is also adopting a leading edge approach to quality vis-à-vis private sector law firms (for example, not many law firms have Investors in People, ISO 9001 Quality Assurance, Legal Practice Management Standards or apply the European Foundation for Quality Management’s Excellence Model).

Legal Services Office’s Best Value Service Improvement Plan has identified sixteen service improvement targets for 2002. These service improvement targets build on the initiatives already commenced in the Legal Service Office, since June 2000, when the Chief Legal Officer joined Birmingham City Council. The service improvement targets’ focus on making service enhancements, improving quality, increasing customer liaison, improving communication and responsiveness of the delivery of legal services to the City Council.

The Legal Services Office has also been sharing best practice with other Chief Legal Officers through guidance notes published on ACSeS’ website. The Chief Legal Officer has, for example, been commended by many other Chief Legal Officers for having the foresight in sharing Birmingham’s Guidance Notes on legal matters with them through the website. Other best practice notes and guidance will, therefore, continue to be shared with other Chief Legal Officers through the website and through other legal publications.

The Legal Services Office is also taking a proactive and leading role with regard to assisting the:-

  1. Audit Commission with its Pilot Diagnostic Audit Exercise on the Human Rights Act 1998; and
  2. Local Government Association with its Freedom of Information Act Pilot on the production of Publication Schemes for Local Authorities.

In conclusion, the Chief Legal Officer, the Client Focus Group and the Critical Friend are satisfied that the Best Value Year has made a difference to the Legal Services Office. As indicated earlier, the Chief Legal Officer’s agenda, since June 2000, has been to ensure that best legal and management practice is introduced to deliver continuous improvement for the service departments and the City Council, at an early stage, as opposed to thinking about introducing the same only as part of a Best Value Year. Combined, therefore, all the initiatives point to continuous improvement and further success for the Legal Services Office, as it lives up to its theme of ‘Aspiring for Excellence in Local Government’.