LGC’s research into the status of chief finance officers found more than a fifth were not at the top table and reported into an executive director instead.
Coventry City Council chief executive Martin Reeves operates the increasingly common triumvirate structure in which two deputy chief executives report to him directly, and the section 151 officer sits below that.
He says the “flatter” structure is not just about cutting costs. It also reflects how modern organisations operate.
Mr Reeves, who is also finance spokesperson for the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives & Senior Managers, says: “Even if you didn’t have the austerity changes and restructuring changes, you would have had a necessary rationalisation of senior management and de-layering.
“You could argue status is the only way to deliver power and influence but most local authorities I know have gone well beyond that.”
In Coventry, one of the two senior executives directly below the chief executive focuses on place services, such as planning and economic growth, while the other focuses on people services, including social care. Responsibility for corporate services such as finance is shared between them.
Are they really saying the only way you can gain that credibility is the status of being at the top table?
Mr Reeves says the council moved to this model “before the real hard cuts hit”.
“Ten years ago there were 19 people on the senior management board but I can only operate with a much smaller group of people at the so-called top table,” he says.
Mr Reeves says despite this arrangement, Coventry’s director of finance and corporate services Barrie Hastie “probably spends more time talking to me, informally and formally, than to his line manager”.
Mr Hastie attends Coventry’s strategic management board where everything from the response to Brexit to the council’s transformation programme is discussed.
“For all of those meetings he’s a natural part of those discussions,” says Mr Reeves. “You could argue he is at the top table, I don’t have any of those discussions without him there, also the monitoring officer, head of communications and two strategic directors.”
He says section 151 officers must be involved in development of new plans at the earliest opportunity and have open access to the leader of the council.
Mr Reeves rejects what he describes as Cipfa’s “binary” insistence that section 151 officers should always be at the top table.
He says: “Are they really saying the only way you can gain that credibility is the status of being at the top table? Some of the most influential people are not sitting at that table.
“Solace’s view and my view is that [we don’t agree] that is the only way of ensuring that advice is respected at the early stages of policy setting.
“I have seen it work and not work, arranged as Cipfa suggests.
“If a chief executive is not prepared, willing or able to take advice from statutory officers it doesn’t matter at all whether they’re reporting to them or anybody else.”
Reeves: 'Reform of top teams was not only about austerity'