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Local Government Association chief executive Mark Lloyd used a recent LGC column to remind chief executives that they are advisers to councillors, not decision makers themselves.
Should they have a moral disagreement with a decision they should consider leaving their posts, he wrote.
This has prompted a, shall we say, ‘robust’ response from Chartered Institute of Public Finance & Accountancy chief executive Rob Whiteman, who in response to Mr Lloyd’s column, tweeted the question: “Has Donald Trump taken over at the LGA?”. Writing for LGC, Mr Whiteman says ”officers are often scared for their jobs in challenging potentially bad decisions and there can be antipathy to expert advice”.
But it is worth noting that the chief executives and leaders interviewed in our analysis largely agreed chiefs must ‘speak truth’ to their leaders in a ‘safe space’, away from the public eye, and only in non-political, operational terms.
The University of Birmingham’s Catherine Staite says in her analysis the source of tension between the two top roles at any council is that “democracy cannot exist without organisation” while “the reverse is not true”. Professor Staite adds some tensions can be explained by the competencies and motivatons of the people in question.
One would hope all chief execs and leaders are ‘owls’ – that is, politically aware and in possession of integrity – but many will have come across a colleague who was a cunning ‘fox’, a compliant ‘sheep’ or an incompetent ‘donkey’.
Each of the four figures interviewed for LGC’s analysis of these issues acknowledged the tensions are complex and unique to local government; a civil servant serves only the government of the day, while a council chief answers to all elected members (not just the leader and their party), the public, central government and other public agencies. Trust, communication, understanding of roles, acknowledgement of differences and commitment to working through them pragmatically are seen as essential to successful relationships.
But there are elements of this problem that are outside of officers’ or members’ control. Complexity can only be negotiated with true confidence if the formal checks and balances on political power are there as a backstop.
As Mr Whiteman and, previously the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives & Senior Managers have pointed out, the abolition of the Audit Commission and the standards regime, removing the independent appointment of external auditors and the weakening of the protection for statutory officers, means chief executives have a less secure safety net should relations with politicians become extremely strained.
One-party councils have little but the scrutiny of the public as a check on their power. This leaves the effective functioning of an authority at the mercy of the random mix of personalities running it. That is a problem that only central government, through reinstatement or redesign of those lost safeguards, can tackle.