Category Archives: Articles

Mark Rogers articles published elsewhere.

“Long ago life was clean.”

It’s been a particularly tough couple of weeks for Birmingham’s children’s services.

Getting out of special measures was never going to be easy and there are no delusions here about the scale of the challenge and the time it will take to improve. These points are crucially important because they are the reason why a three year improvement plan was signed off by our first commissioner Lord Norman Warner, the Department for Education’s Ministers and the City Council’s Cabinet in June 2014.

We have been working ever since to that agreement with three broad phases clearly understood and, crucially, being delivered: year one – stabilise the service; year two – focus relentlessly on practice improvement; year three – build on the improving practice and plan for sustainability. With Ofsted rightly positioned as the ultimate arbiter of our performance, the plan, if executed without interruption and with full diligence, was seen as having the potential to deliver a “requires improvement” outcome no later than this time next year. And we have been making progress broadly in line with the expectations set out two years ago.

With all that’s been going on around us recently it is incumbent on those with a stake in this work not to allow it to be knocked off course. And clichéd as it may seem to state it, but we owe it to the children, young people and families of the city to succeed. Not least, because part of our new narrative as a reforming and progressive city council is to be a starter-finisher organisation; one that sees the job through and gains the confidence of all those who use our services, and the staff that provide them, by actually doing what we say we’re going to do. It is this that underpins the “Warner Plan”. And another peer, this time Lord Kerslake, was clear that one of the critical signs of a successful city council would be that its elected members and senior officers actually stick to their guns and see the really difficult things through.

But 2016 is proving a troubling and troublesome year: the trial and conviction of the murderer of Shi-Anne Downer last month; the publication of the serious case review later this year; and, of course, the screening of the Dispatches programme last week have increased the scrutiny of the city council. These events remind us that child protection is amongst the most difficult of areas within which to work and to be consistently successful. And it is nigh on impossible to say in the full glare of critical publicity that there is an underlying journey of progress. We understand and accept that it’s hard to explain convincingly the co-existence of both positive and negative reports. But that is how it is. We are making progress, but far from everything is resolved and issues, including very serious issues, still arise.

And, it is in this climate that the communication of the intention to work up voluntarily a model for a trust has been made. I think pretty much everyone realises that the timing and specific nature of the announcement were forced by circumstances. What is far less well understood is that the city council, encouraged by Norman Warner, had committed to thinking about alternative delivery vehicles (not just the trust model) as far back as 2014 when it seemed that some of its corporate services might need to be delivered differently if they couldn’t rapidly respond and ensure an effective contribution to the three year safeguarding improvement plan. As it happens, internal effectiveness was secured. But ADV thinking continues because, like most if not all children’s services authorities across England, Birmingham is quite properly looking to understand what platform(s) will provide the very best way to secure the long term continuous improvement and effectiveness of child protection. At the centre of any thinking, however, needs to be what’s best for children and young people and how to ensure a long term commitment to putting their interests first and meeting their needs. Altruism must rule over ideology.

No decisions have been made of course. In fact, we are simply at the stage of asking what the questions need to be that an ADV/trust might provide the answer to. We are, if nothing else, an organisation that has learnt the hard way the value of putting function before form. We are also more than prepared to do this thinking with the Department for Education and our new(ish) commissioner, Andrew Christie, as a sign of maturity and also because we want to help influence and shape a policy direction whilst it’s still in its infancy and, therefore, hopefully malleable.

And so to end, for now, on the two most important points of all.

Firstly, social work is a vocation. No place is this more the case than in Birmingham where brave, talented and passionate people come to work every day knowing that there are easier places to do this job. And social work should be celebrated and cherished because, when done well, it changes lives – which is what we all came into public service to do in the first place. In this city we also believe that the right way to get the best out of people in a difficult role is to provide them consistently with encouragement, support and challenge that is both professionally and personally respectful. In this way we drive up quality and dramatically increase the chances of vulnerable children, young people and their families thriving.

Secondly, when it gets tough you really know who your friends are. And we have been both humbled and energised by so many across the sector who understand that long term improvement isn’t simply to be judged by 60 minutes on a Thursday night at the end of the second year. So say hello to Tom, Jo, Dave, Jonathan, Joanna, Isabelle, Lyn, Moira, Tony and the many, many others who know the value of encouragement and community. And wave a polite but firm goodbye to all those who don’t.

Here’s to year three.

This intervention is about rehabilitation

Things are on the move in this great city of Birmingham. We are getting better and we’re going to succeed.

For the previous 20 months the city council has been in a kind of lock-down, something it brought on itself by a set of now very well-publicised self-inflicted injuries. As a consequence, we were prescribed the equivalent of an ISSO, with two commissioners and an improvement panel to ensure we were observing a metaphorical curfew and adhering to the other stringent requirements of our rehabilitation.

And, dare I say it, we needed this intensity of external scrutiny – even though it has been a pretty big mental and organisational adjustment for all of us to make, even the relative newcomers like myself. Not being in control of your destiny (or, at least, not being secure in the delusion that you are in control) is, quite frankly, tough. Everyone – individuals and institutions – likes their independence and autonomy and working in an environment in which it is curtailed is hard to swallow. That’s human nature I guess.

But, as values-driven and conscientious public servants with our citizens interests at heart, we have been knuckling down to the business in hand – improvement, improvement, improvement. Sometimes gracefully; sometime less so. I know personally (because I have had to be told on occasion) that I haven’t always found it easy to take advice and have appeared – or even possibly been – ungrateful (ungrateful for me usually being a manifestation of an even more accentuated form of sarcasm).

And therein is one of the dilemmas of being intervened in. Advice abounds on what you need to do, how to do it and how to measure it. And because no-one’s failures or successes are ever really absolute (in local government at least. Although, in life more generally I can actually think of some examples of complete heroes and villains), you get in to the really difficult territory of having to judge whether or not those on the naughty step can put forward, let alone insist on following their own advice. Now, I’m not writing this to provoke – and if you think I am then that’s your interpretation not mine. I’m addressing this because over the last year and a half I have had to think frequently about the extent to which, when views that I or others in the council hold diverge from those mandated to aid and abet our improvement, you keep your own counsel.

I haven’t come up with any right or wrong answers to that question. Instead, I’ve been drawn back time and again to the psychology of how best to secure change that is owned and sustainable. Crime and punishment is the easy bit. If you do the crime you do the time. But, as we all know, rehabilitation is much, much harder. Just as too many persistent offenders do, indeed, persist in offending, so too many organisations slide out of and back into difficulty – something that has not gone unobserved either by our sector or government. And the most important challenge in all of this for me, therefore, is not the naming of our sins, nor the repentance of them. It’s the one of how best to challenge and support the transgressors in a way that the balance of the two leave you in no doubt about the need to do better, but also empowers you to be the agent of sustainable change.

And here in Birmingham it looks like we have reached the stage where addressing that challenge openly and honestly is the key to our future success. We have a panel and commissioner (the education one) who respectively might wave us goodbye in March and July. And, to me at least, the way in which mutually we give each other the confidence and assurance to proceed with those farewells is to ensure that the improvements still to come are owned by those who will be left behind at the city council to make them.

So, it is crucial over the next few weeks that the Leader and his team, me and my team and our panel and commissioners eschew the tendency to focus on a relationship where the teachers just mark the pupil’s homework and, instead and together, we look at how we can embed and sustain the conditions in which future improvements can flourish because of the council’s own commitment and capabilities. On a personal level, and to use a term that the Leader is promoting, I am ready and willing to “step up” to that plate in order to deliver to the citizens of Birmingham what they deserve.

This article first appeared in the Local Government Chronicle on 21 January 2016

Facing up to the post Paris challenges

Image via Twitter from Charlotte Marshall

As I write this, Europe and the wider world is trying to come to terms with the Paris tragedy. I cannot yet digest either what has happened or why. Initially, all that I could do was join with millions of others and express my sympathy for, and solidarity with the French. Like villages, towns and cities across the planet, Birmingham lit up its buildings in red, white and blue, held vigils and observed the Europe-wide minute of silence. #ViveLaParis went viral and rightly so.

Expressing concern and grief for the bereaved and injured are, of course, natural human emotions.

But so are anger and the desire for retribution. And almost as soon as the outpourings of compassion were expressed, so were the calls for revenge heard. These are feelings and intentions that are easy to understand, but difficult to reconcile.

So, against a complex to backdrop of international terrorism, where does the local authority role fit into all of this? We don’t make foreign policy. We don’t provide intelligence or counter-terrorism services (although we do work with those who do, of course). We don’t even run the school’s anymore (but we did give them some clear and well regarded advice).

Notwithstanding this, it is clear to me that, as the appointed civic leaders, it must be our job to support and complement our elected leadership in using its community leadership role to provide information, advice, guidance and – above all – reassurance to all our citizens that the actions of a few must not diminish or unduly change the rest of us. Additionally, we can do something that central government can’t easily replicate; reach out and reach in to every street, neighbourhood and community of our places; engage people in trying to understand and respond constructively to these troubling events; and work harder to comprehend and accept each other better.

For me, what’s happened in Paris creates an agenda for the whole of my city – for terrorism of the kind we have just seen is a threat to everyone. And, I am a little fearful presently, so we must act with alacrity. Many urban areas in the UK, Birmingham included, are struggling to manage and mitigate a rhetoric that can too easily conflate the actions of a terrible few with the benign culture/faith/values of the many. This is most acute at present with the adherents of Islam – but there are many other examples.

Therefore, in working to secure and build the cohesion of our communities, we have to challenge simplistic type-casting lest this, itself, becomes a further reason for grievance and jealousy amongst a wider body of hitherto upstanding citizens.

So, as we move forward from the terrible events of 13/11, councils across the land will be mobilising to bring the civic and the civil together to address openly and honestly what it is that we need to do to ensue that peace and love defeat hate and war every time.