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Editor's leader

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LGC editor Karen Day on the complex relationship between leaders and chiefs: can it ever be a happy marriage?

Leaders and chief executives are the epitome of a dyadic relationship. When the political marriage works the results are obvious strong local leadership and high-quality public services. But when sparks fly or the dynamic never quite engages the authority can become mired in the breakdown of a very personal relationship.

The history of local government is littered with such casualties, with both leaders and chiefs falling victim. This week one relationship broke down before it had even begun. An experienced chief turned down an offer for top post at Cambridgeshire CC after the leader expressed her doubts about the appointment.

This potentially puts the authority back by up to 12 months in its search for a permanent chief.
In the past few months we’ve reported on one leading chief executive, John Foster, leaving Wakefield MDC after a breakdown in relations with the leader. There are at least two other chief positions likely to become vacant after similar issues. These are all well-run authorities with much left to achieve for their communities.

While this is hardly a new trend in the often fragile relationship between chiefs and leaders, the question is: should this continue to be the nature of local government? It’s easy to say no. The loss of a highly experienced chief or a strong leader can damage an authority.
Yet, the political parties have a patchy record on intervening and disciplining local leaders, particularly the ones with a history of disputes. The fact that chief executives often choose to walk or leaders, more rarely, are deposed in a bloody coup suggests there needs to be more intervention and support built into the governance system.

Surely part of any reform must be ensuring both sides understand their roles and if they are breached there are consequences and ones with constructive outcomes and not just a revolving door. Too much rides on the peculiarities of this very traditional relationship.

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