Vision and values in a digital age: An interview with Birmingham City Council chief executive Mark Rogers

Written by Rebecca Hill on 8 June 2016 in Features
Features

Mark Rogers claims to have spent the last 30 years systematically deskilling himself in all tasks except one: leadership. He speaks to Rebecca Hill about ensuring digital is an enabler, not an outcome.

“What happened in 1889?”

Mark Rogers has a knack for grabbing an audience’s attention. The Birmingham City Council chief executive’s analogy – the first of many – leaves attendees at a recent FutureGov event on leadership puzzled.

Particularly when the answer isn’t obviously to do with local government. It was, in fact, the year in which the first gramophone record was made. In 1982 came CDs, and in 1998, MP3s. “And what about 2016?” Rogers asks. Vinyl record sales were the highest for almost 30 years.

“Digital isn’t the solution to everything,” he says with a wry smile.


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Speaking to PublicTechnology after the session, Rogers reiterates this point.

“Don’t assume that if everybody had a smartphone and free internet, that’s the way they’d want to find everything out. What’s really important around this agenda is to make a judgement on when digital is useful and when it isn’t,” he says.

There are some transactions that should be done by humans, Rogers says. For him, digitising certain services creates space and resource to preserve face-to-face services for those that need a personal touch.

Although he acknowledges that the austerity agenda is putting pressure on councils to automate and digitise more services than ever before, Rogers, 56, is adamant that local government must not allow its objectives to be driven by budgets.

“Your vision and purpose should never be defined by the money,” he says. “Money is solely a determinant of how many of those objectives you can address.”

But councils don’t get much choice in what services they have to provide. How do you get around that?

“That’s the killer question for local government,” he says. “Of all the things expected or required, can you – even with these new ways of working – still do all of those things with the cash you’ll have left by 2020? I don’t think we know the answer, although a lot of people would presume we can’t.”

Rogers predicts some difficult conversations between local and central government – “We will have an argument with government about what we can't do” – not to mention some tough decisions on prioritisation.

But the financial question is secondary to Rogers’ raison d'être: to shift the culture within local government and get people thinking about the values and purpose of their jobs again.

“I’m the chief executive of a council,” he says. “Over the past 30 years, I have systematically deskilled myself of all tasks except one, and that is the leadership task.”

Cultural reforms

After graduating from the University of Oxford with a modern languages degree in 1983, Rogers worked as a special school teacher and then head teacher before embarking on a distinguished career in local government, including a number of roles focusing on children’s services.

He has been chief executive of Birmingham since 2013, following six years working with Solihull Council.

For him, leadership is about being part of a community where everyone has a clear vision of the organisation’s values and purpose. And it’s about making sure people have the time to think about that while still doing their job.

And nowhere is the need for this culture change more apparent than Birmingham, a council that has been marred by controversy and well-publicised failures to serve its public. Most recently, in May this year, it was announced that the council would hand over its struggling children’s services provision to an independent trust.

“Birmingham is no paragon of excellence,” says Rogers.

“We have had to confront what it is about the culture that made things go into a tailspin,” he says. “A good way to address corporate culture is to bring everyone back and ask, ‘Why do you come to work?’ Not in a challenging way, in an honest way.”

And part of the challenge will be building trust among the public, and giving them greater access to the council. Birmingham now has a new leader and a new cabinet, and, within that, councillor Waseem Zaffar has been appointed minister for openness, transparency and equality, a newly created position.

The aim, says Rogers, is to create an organisation that the public “doesn’t even need to shine a light” into – one where everything is naturally transparent.

Taking this idea of openness even further, Rogers says that in the future he’d like to see all of the council’s data – suitably de-identified and protected – made publicly available for the people of Birmingham to use however they wish. “They should have it,” he says. “They’ve already paid for it.”

But he draws a line between engaging with the public and being confident enough to make the right decisions on behalf of the public.

“We shouldn’t be obsessed with co-thinking, co-production and co-design, just because they sound like good words,” Rogers says. “Citizens need to play the role they should play, not the role we think they should play.”

Nonetheless, Rogers is clear that councils forget they serve the public “at their peril”. 

“Alongside tapes, there were 8-tracks,” Roger says, lighting on another musical analogy. “But 8-tracks fell by the wayside because they had no purpose – they just existed to compete. They didn’t serve a customer.”

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