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Council CEO to leave: the story behind the story

Council CEO to leave: the story behind the story

🕔19.Feb 2017

On Saturday night, we broke the story that Mark Rogers, chief executive of Birmingham city council since early 2014, would be leaving the Council this week. Chamberlain Files editor Kevin Johnson looks behind the story and how it evolved.

READ: Mark Rogers to leave Birmingham city council this week.

The post is the best performing story (in terms of page views) since this little ‘ole “political blog” or “flipping blog” (as we are sometimes simply referred to) was established in 2012. Not even Sir Albert Bore’s demise or Paul Dale’s (remember him?) reflections on Margaret Thatcher’s death notched up as many reads.

We did not take the decision to publish lightly. There were two reasons for that – we know and very much like Mark Rogers. In our view, he has been a force for good, engaging and accessible and we enjoyed good relations with him. The overall take on Mr Rogers was neatly summed up by Conservative Mayoral candidate, Andy Street.

We are absolutely confident that Mr Rogers knew the news would emerge. For a man very familiar with blogging and tweeting, not to mention an off the record chat and even a gossip, such information appearing on a blog would not have been a surprise. He would have expected the Files to be a likely contender – and we hope he’ll think we wrote the piece with integrity.

Secondly, we wanted to make sure our facts were right, even though we knew there would be no official confirmation from the Council. We took some hours and a number of conversations before we decided to publish. All that was done, in our case, whilst enjoying an impromptu family weekend break on the South Devon Coast. Welcome to the connected world.

READ: It’s official – Mark Rogers confirmed as ‘moving on’ from the Council. 

Let us make one thing clear. The news was not “announced” on the Chamberlain Files. Nor was it “leaked” by the Council – including anyone close to the Leader. We had multiple sources for different parts of the story and we then spoke to a number of others. The idea that Mark Rogers was not under pressure and not in danger of losing his job given the financial management situation is farcical. We have said as much on this blog for months.

We have been surprised by the limited understanding of how such situations develop. The decision for the CEO of the biggest local authority in the country to leave is clearly a big one with many ramifications. Several people need to be told or involved before the decision is finalised and made public. That task usually takes some days. In the entire history of the world, people have talked. In the digital world, such whispers multiply several times over and spread at breakneck speed.

In an ideal world, councillors and staff at the Council would have been among the first to hear. But, the world is more complicated than that. If we had not broken the story, someone else would – perhaps just through a few words here and there on social media, unaccompanied by context, insight or analysis. We hope that we wrote the story in a balanced way that tried to set out the factors involved.

A Labour councillor retweeted the news, before then commenting they were disappointed the news didn’t come out through “the proper channels.” Surely, such sticklers for protocol might have awaited official confirmation before commenting publicly.

The now popular term ‘Fake News’ was used in commenting on our story a couple of times. To be fair, when Chamberlain Files took issue with the use of the phrase those using it immediately responded to explain it was an expression of their shock, rather than a comment on the veracity of our reporting.

One councillor even expected us to reveal who leaked the story. It wasn’t a leak – we learned of it through several sources, including at a national level, and pieced the story together. Secondly, why anyone would think we would reveal our source(s) on Twitter (or anywhere else) is beyond comprehension.

Other media and social media users have, of course, picked up on our story. Not all of them have had the courtesy to reference or credit where they first learned the information.

There has been a lot of commentary on social media about what a good guy Mr Rogers is and that the decision is hard to fathom (“crazy”, “devastating”…) of such a decent and honest man. Such a view, whilst right in our opinion, misses the central issue. The response to Kerslake has been laboured, slow and half-hearted. Still now, there is only lukewarm confidence in the ability and capacity of the Council to deliver on its core financial duty.

It can, of course, be legitimately argued that problems at the Council House are long term and endemic. The Chief Executive cannot do everything. Financial, as well as cultural change, takes time. Politicians are the ones who should be accountable. The Council has a financial challenge of mammoth proportions.

But, in the end, a view was formed that Mr Rogers should have focussed on the absolute fundamental aim of turning the Council into an organisation that works effectively with the financial wherewithall to deliver a budget (however hard and even unfair that is). That was not the impression given of a man who did not shy away from public attention, not least in his conversations with senior Council colleagues on Twitter.

Opposition leader, Cllr Robert Alden, agreed as much in the quote he gave the Birmingham Mail (we like to credit 😉 ):

The news that Mark Rogers is to leave Birmingham city council is hardly a surprise given the amount of time he appeared to spend externally trying to build a national profile, compared to being in the city trying to fix our many problems. After years of improvement notices something…had to change.

Mark Rogers should be thanked for his work and leave with his head held high. Hopefully, his involvement in public life in Birmingham will continue in another guise.

Even more importantly, John Clancy faces a challenge even bigger than ousting Sir Albert Bore. He must appoint a CEO, not to mention a top team around them where various permanent vacancies still or will exist, that can carry the confidence of the Council and other key stakeholders and deliver on the biggest challenge in local government.

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