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Mark Rogers’ bold bid to be a new type of chief executive for Birmingham

Mark Rogers’ bold bid to be a new type of chief executive for Birmingham

🕔08.Apr 2014

Chief Blogger Paul Dale reflects on Mark Rogers’ first interview in post at Birmingham City Council, his approach to the ‘Trojan Horse’ allegations and whether anyone can ever really occupy any of Sir Albert’s “space.”

No one can justifiably accuse Mark Rogers, Birmingham city council’s new chief executive, of failing to hit the ground running.

Since his appointment was announced at the end of last year Mr Rogers has made his views and ambitions clear via internet blogs and more formal media interviews.

His first message to city council staff contained an assurance that he was living in the real world.

At least he didn’t say ‘I feel your pain’, but some of the stroppier council workers immediately asked how much someone with an annual salary of £180,000 could possibly know about real life.

On the plus side, he urged council colleagues to create a culture “that has humility and service of others at its heart”, which is an admirable goal for anyone in public service.

Although he’s only been in-post for six weeks, it is clear that Mark Rogers is far from a shrinking violet. To put it in his words, he is an extrovert who is going to be ‘out there’ and ‘in your space’ in an effort to up Birmingham’s game on the national and world stage.

He took the trouble to invite political journalists to interview him at the end of last week. And what emerged was highly interesting, not least the disclosure that his desk is in an open plan office surrounded by lesser mortals who can, presumably, overhear his conversations, although there is a discreet room nearby for those more difficult one-to-ones.

In an interview with Chamberlain Files Mr Rogers discussed the most explosive issue in Birmingham today, the Trojan Horse plot alleging that hardline Muslims are infiltrating city schools with a view to taking over governing bodies and are intent on imposing strict Islamic rule in the classroom.

These claims, according to the council chief executive, are rubbish, although he didn’t use that word.

His line, and the line of the Birmingham political and faith establishment, is that what is happening merely reflects “legitimate questions” being raised by “new communities” about the type of schooling they want for their children and how that can fit in with the “liberal education system” we have in this country.

Oddly, or perhaps it was deliberate, Mr Rogers did not once use the word Muslim or Islam during our conversation, preferring instead to stick to the all-embracing ‘communities’.

He did, however, go out on a limb by insisting there is no organised conspiracy to radicalise Birmingham children, although he accepted there are “important issues dealing with the different expectations that communities have”.

Since Ofsted is inspecting about 12 schools at the heart of Trojan Horse allegations, we shall have to wait to see whether Mr Rogers’ belief that there is no organised plot is correct.

What we do know is that claims about tensions at secular schools are widespread and include anti-Christian chanting at assemblies, banning Christmas, the forced segregation of boys and girls and, most worryingly of all given the history of terrorism in the past decade, teachers presenting America and Americans as the great evil and sole cause of the world’s problems.

These allegations have been given greater standing because they come from parents of children at the schools and former teachers and governors. It is difficult to say why such people should make up stories about what they saw and heard.

What is needed, clearly, is an inquiry to sort out the truth from the lies. With Education Secretary Michael Gove taking an interest in Birmingham, that may happen.

At the very least, though, it should be noted that the most explicit statement yet about Trojan Horse, specifically denying a radicalisation plot, was delivered by the city council’s chief executive rather than its political leadership.

Mr Rogers was no less controversial when talking about the relationship he intends to have with city council leader Sir Albert Bore. He wants Bore and Rogers to become a formidable double act along the lines of Sir Richard Leese and Sir Howard Bernstein at Manchester Council.

This is quite a promise since Birmingham has singularly failed to present the kind of hard-sell, in your face approach adopted by Manchester. As Mr Rogers notes, this is partly down to the self-deprecation of Brummies who just “aren’t out there” in the way of Manchester, and Liverpool for that matter.

The notion of Sir Albert forming a double act with anyone is, I think, something that takes some swallowing. The last such attempt, when Albert’s union with the then deputy leader Andy Howell was described as a dream team, ended in a nightmare, for Howell at least, who challenged unsuccessfully for the leadership and found himself cast into the political wilderness as a result.

Of course, Mr Rogers isn’t after Sir Albert’s job. But even so, if the chief executive does emerge as a go-getter in the Bernstein mould it will be a first for Birmingham in recent years. Stephen Hughes, Mr Rogers’ predecessor, was a respected technician behind the scenes, but would have been a very, very straight man in a double act with Sir Albert.

Valerie Lemmie, the city manager from Dayton, Ohio, who was appointed chief executive of Birmingham city council in 2001 but did not take up her post after having second thoughts, may well have formed a memorable double act with Sir Albert, but we will never know more is the pity.

Sir Michael Lyons, who was chief executive in the late 1990s, was not a man to shy away and certainly batted for Birmingham and bears comparison to Bernstein. Yet there were tensions between him, Sir Albert and Labour councillors not least over the size of Sir Michael’s salary and the pace of change required to drive the city council forward.

Lin Homer, chief executive from 2002 to 2005, was another post-holder who arrived complete with trendy sound bites. I interviewed her and recall a pledge to instil “a little less conversation, a little more action please” among council staff, a line from a 1968 Elvis hit that had been re-launched at the time to popular acclaim.

But Mrs Homer, for all her strengths – she is now chief executive at HMRC – never looked very confident or happy if asked to ‘be in your space’. And why should she have been? There is in this country a well-worn distinction between local government officers and elected politicians. Both have very different jobs to do, and the Leese-Bernstein double act in Manchester is unique.

It is early days, but Mr Rogers strikes me as someone who will certainly make an impact. His willingness to engage with the media, and with council staff, is the kind of radical approach that would have had the fictional Sir Humphrey Appleby of Yes Minister fame telling hapless Minister Jim Hacker that he had made a “brave decision”.

The difference here of course is that Mr Rogers is Sir Humphrey and Sir Albert is Jim Hacker. Their relationship will indeed be worth watching as it unfolds.

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