Q & A with Mark Rogers, chief executive of Birmingham council

mark rogers picAs Birmingham Council deals with the aftermath of a damning review into its operations, Mark Rogers, its chief executive, spoke to New Start about the legacy of Chamberlain, devolving power to street level and putting happiness barometers in every neighbourhood

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Q. The Kerslake Review was very critical of the council and in particular its culture of remoteness from the communities it serves. How do you plan to change that?

A. The Kerslake Review has given us a kick up the backside. He’s made it necessary for politicians to think about what they do as politicians. We are starting development activity for elected members next month to help them better understand their role as community leaders. I’ve often said that councillors and officers should have something in their job description about helping communities to develop capacity. We need a complete mind shift away from service delivery and contracts.

What civic institutions can and should do is to encourage and empower civil society to be much more engaged and able to deliver. We – the council – are a big lumbering beast but rather than making ourselves more agile we should recognise that other people can be less bureaucratic and quicker than us. That means empowering civil society and investing in its ability to get things moving.

We have an initiative called Standing Up for Birmingham, about being proud of your neighbourhood and doing whatever is needed to enhance quality of life.

If Chamberlain was an arch-exponent of local government

we need to be an arch exponent of civil government.

Q: How does the devolution agenda play into that?

A. The devolution that everyone’s talking about is not about empowering communities but about empowering local politicians. It says that what’s decided in Parliament could be decided by Leps or by the combined authority. But local politicians have to look both ways: towards both city governance and community empowerment.

In Birmingham we have triple devolution and the really interesting bit is the level of district committees and wards. Elected councillors and district and ward committees will be able to make decisions at that level, but they also need to mobilise citizens to do interesting things within their communities. I’d also like them to be local commissioners but we can’t afford to devolve budgets to that level at the moment. The ultimate vision is for district committees be able to vary the way services are run.

We need to make sure that we don’t turn that third level into new forms of sub city governance; it needs to be accompanied by that community activism role.  If we get that level of local devolution right we will stimulate much more grassroots activity. Regenerating communities is the best thing you can do and self-help is far better than anything else.

Q. Birmingham is known as a city of municipal innovation, beginning with Joseph Chamberlain. Can Birmingham council go back to being an innovative force again?

A. I’m not sure the legacy of Chamberlain is helpful. We don’t need a new age of Chamberlain and that mythology is holding us back and making us more civic than we need to be. If Chamberlain was an arch-exponent of local government we need an arch exponent of civil government. We have 120 councillors. We need to get them focused on their community leadership role and start to change the organisation much more in those terms. The job of elected members is to encourage community activity, not to govern it. People look up to Chamberlain but he ran everything. Today our council officers and members need to be enablers. It’s not about control and direction.

Clare Goff is editor of New Start magazine
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