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Council Chief: the hard work starts now

Council Chief: the hard work starts now

🕔20.Feb 2017

And so Birmingham starts its search for another new Chief Executive, writes Andy Howell. 

Read: Mark Rogers to leave Birmingham city council.

While local government appointments are not overtly political they are very different to, say, appointments to senior levels of the civil service. Conventional wisdom suggests that each political Leader will appoint their own Chief Executive at some stage.

The appointment of a new Chief Executive is the most important decision any political leader in local government will make. And the appointment forms a major part of any Leader’s political legacy.

Chief Executive appointments in Birmingham can be curious affairs. The affable and popular Mark Rogers was appointed only in 2014. His only opposition at final interview was a past officer of Birmingham who — it is claimed — was never in with a chance of securing the job.

In one of those odd and ironic twists of history, Birmingham’s key adviser in making the appointment of Mark Rogers was Sir Bob (now Lord) who then went on to produce the famous Kerslake Report into the running of the Council. In appointing Mark Rogers, Birmingham got their man.

READ: Council CEO to leave – the story behind the story. 

If this seems a little odd it appears par for the course for the City. Rogers’ predecessor, Stephen Hughes, was internally promoted by the then Conservative Leader Mike (now Lord) Whitby without any competitive interview at all.

Hughes’ predecessor Lin Homer was highly regarded nationally but was forced out by Mike Whitby— it is whispered — because he felt she had been a political appointment made by Sir Albert Bore in his first term as Leader of the Council. Dame Lin, as she now is, was later appointed by David Cameron’s government as Chief Executive of HM Revenue and Customs among other top civil service jobs.

Arguably it all went wrong before this. When Sir Michael Lyons stood down as Chief Executive in 2001, Sir Albert passed over two of the leading Chief Executives in the country to appoint a public sector manager from the United States. One of those not appointed by Sir Albert was the same Bob Kerslake. The American appointee never took up the offer of the job, apparently claiming Birmingham would not, in the end, provide the financial package she was looking for.

This non-appointment sent shock waves through local government and it took a year or so before the recruitment process could start again. Crucially, many experienced local government hands then chose to give Birmingham a wide berth, choosing not to take up the challenge of what by any measure should be the biggest and best job in local government.

Today, many in Birmingham currently look to Manchester with envy. They dream of a leadership partnership such as that of Richard Leese (Leader) and Howard Bernstein (Chief Executive) who so transformed that city.

The last top team in Birmingham that was as tight as Leese and Bernstein was that of Sir Richard Knowles and Roger Taylor. Together these two showed great vision, courage and bravery in charting a new direction for the city. Yet this was over twenty years ago, Roger Taylor left the City in 1994 and Dick Knowles had stood down as Leader the year before.

Birmingham now needs to make a solid and exciting appointment, to reclaim that sense of vision and competence. Our city and our services depend on it.

Birmingham’s politicians should identify the best of the current generation, pay whatever it takes to get them here and then ensure they have the tools to do the job.

The wider world of local government needs Birmingham to make a good appointment. Birmingham itself has no choice in the matter: the Council has to get it right this time.

Andy Howell is a former Labour councillor and Deputy Leader of the Council. 

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