By Kerry Lorimer, finance editor
If managing one council doesn't seem enough of a challenge, why not try your hand at running two?
It may sound like science fiction, but ads for these über-chiefs could be hitting LGC's appointment pages soon.
The architect of this vision is Tom McCabe, Scottish finance and public service reform minister, who sees no reason for each of Scotland's 32 councils to have its own senior management team. Last week, he told the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities' annual conference he wanted to cut the numbers of chief executives, finance directors 'and the pyramids that sit beneath them'.
Unless councils reform their managerial structures, the executive will legislate to force them to do so, said Mr McCabe.
His remarks were greeted with cynicism by chief executives, many of whom suspect he was more interested in pandering to councillors and the media than in drawing up a credible model of local governance.
'He chucked the comment in because he thought he was talking to a bunch of councillors who would say, 'Great, let's get rid of the fat cats', but he didn't get the reaction he expected,' says one.
Another says Mr McCabe recognised he had blundered and was already backtracking. 'He was rattled by [one of the questions from the floor] and said something that hadn't been thought through. It was a red herring.'
Sue Bruce, chief executive of East Dunbartonshire Council, dismisses the threatened cull as a bid to grab headlines. 'Mr McCabe's comments were more successful than much else which emanates from the Scottish Executive in attracting the attention of journalists,' she says in a letter to LGC this week. 'Perhaps that was the intention.'
Douglas Sinclair, chair of the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives & Senior Managers Scotland, describes the mood as 'sanguine'. 'No one's rushing for retirement,' he says.
Other senior managers condemn Mr McCabe's naïvety. 'Given that chief executives and finance directors are statutory appointments, I thought Tom McCabe's remarks were a bit stupid,' says one. 'You can't have a corporate body without a chief executive, or where does your accountability come from? It was a bit of a naïve thing to say.'
Nonetheless, cutting the number of senior officers is something of a theme with Mr McCabe. In March he told the Chartered Institute of Public Finance & Accountancy Scotland conference he had 'never seen the case' for 32 sets of senior managers in a country of 5m inhabitants (LGC, 18 March).
Together with COSLA's work on a vision for local government's role in services, also launched at last week's conference, the idea of radical change appears to be flourishing north of the border. A move by COSLA to take a lead in policy debate, the vision is seeking to make the case for new council powers over health, regeneration and local enterprise.
Bobby Mackie, senior lecturer at Glasgow Caledonian University, says the notion of joint chiefs might lay the foundations for a fundamental reorganisation of public services beyond the 2007 Scottish election.
'Restructuring is on the agenda,' he says. 'There may well be proposals for public services reorganisation, but these will not be limited to local government. Health may well be looked at.'
We could then see a single chief executive heading up, for example, North and South Lanarkshire councils, as well as the Lanarkshire health board, says Dr Mackie. If introduced in Scotland, joint chief executive appointments would trigger a debate in the rest of the UK as to whether to follow suit.
Professor Gerry Stoker, founder of the New Local Government Network, says the role would demand a 'superhuman' individual. 'How would each political group feel you were listening to them instead of imposing your own agenda? It could also be confusing in partnerships, as they would need to know which hat you were wearing,' he says. 'I'm always one to look at new ideas, but this one defeats me as to what it would offer.'
Tony Travers, director of the Greater London Group at the London School of Economics, says the piloting of such an arrangement could be at least an interesting experiment.
'However, if there were found to be benefits from having a single chief executive, it would beg the question, why not have a single authority?' he says.
If the senior managers at the conference are any barometer, those debates will be a long way off. The mood in the bar afterwards may have been muted but that was more to do with the after-effects of a late session than gloom over whether they will have jobs post 2007.
'People do not feel their jobs are at risk,' says Fiona Lees, chief executive of East Ayrshire Council. 'But we have enough to get on with providing services to worry about it.'
Tomorrow's world - an artist's impression
How might councils look under the proposals put forward by Tom McCabe?
Imagine if a single chief executive was appointed to lead both North and South Ayrshire, neighbouring councils located south-west of Glasgow.
While North Ayrshire is solid Labour, South Ayrshire is finely balanced between Labour and Conservative, the former famously winning control in the last election.
As well as having a single head of paid service, the two councils would deliver many services across the boundary.
Payroll and council tax collection would be shared. We could also see a single education service run across the two councils under a single education director.
If the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities gets its way, the two councils would have plenty to get on with.Under the single management team, they would have a much greater stake in primary healthcare and regeneration, bringing some of the responsibilities of health boards and Communities Scotland under democratic control.
Where Scotland goes...
The ill-fated poll tax, trialled north of the border a year before its introduction in England, is the best known example of Scotland's pioneering policy role, albeit an unwilling one.
Scottish councils, most notably Glasgow City Council, have also led the way in housing reform, with mass stock transfers embraced more readily than in England.
The Scots banned smoking in public places well before a partial ban was included in health secretary John Reid's public health white paper.
Reforms such as free personal care for the elderly and proportional representation in local elections have yet to win widespread support in England. But observers south of the border will be keeping an eye on how they pan out.