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How cross-tier shared chief executives can make the job work

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LGC’s essential daily briefing.

Austerity and the drive to find efficiencies are forcing councils to not only reimagine the way they deliver services, but the structure in which they are delivered too.

As council workforces have shrunk, senior management teams have as well - some directors now oversee multiple services. But shared roles do not stop there: some councils share chief executives too.

Yesterday, LGC revealed how Cherwell DC and Oxfordshire CC are considering sharing a chief executive, with Cherwell “minded to” formally end the shared services partnership established in 2011 with South Northamptonshire Council. Yvonne Rees, who is currently joint chief executive of Cherwell and South Northamptonshire Council, is understood to be the front-runner for the new, joint district/county role.

While sharing chief executives is becoming more common, sharing senior roles across different tiers of local government is still relatively unusual.

Six years ago, what was then the country’s only district/county shared management arrangement was dissolved after four years of operation due to the “significant challenges” faced by both Essex CC and Brentwood BC in relation to finding savings.

But that has not deterred others from following suit.

In 2016, Deborah Cadman, then Suffolk CC chief, became head of the paid service at two of the county’s districts: Babergh and Mid Suffolk DCs.

However, perhaps the most notable cross-tier shared chief executive appointment in recent years is the one held by Gillian Beasley, who is chief executive of both Cambridgeshire CC and unitary Peterborough City Council.

Writing for LGC in 2016 about the challenges of the role, Ms Beasley confessed it was one she “thought long and hard about doing”. She had to “reacquaint” herself with the committee system, and learn to work with 129 councillors across both councils.

“It was certainly not a role that I could have fulfilled at the start of my career, but with 14 years under my belt as a chief executive, I felt that I had the experience at least to tackle it,” said Ms Beasley.

Undertaking such a role and making a success of it “takes good organisation, the ability to delegate to good people and to have excellent support around you”, she said. Even then Ms Beasley said it is “hard work and there are long hours” but added it had provided “opportunities that I would not otherwise have seen sitting in one council and looking over the border into another”.

Cross-tier working is one thing, but cross-sector working is another. However, that is what Steven Pleasant is doing in Tameside where he has headed the council and Tameside & Glossop CCG on a permanent basis since August 2016. In an interview with LGC, published in January, Mr Pleasant said he had lost “about half” of his management team over the past few years but added combining the council and CCG senior leadership teams had actually added capacity. For example, the CCG’s director of nursing has become director of quality and safeguarding across both organisations.

Mr Pleasant said: “I have a concern that a lot of our local government managers are carrying too much, this allowed me to spread the load, particularly around children and adults.”

From a personal perspective, Mr Pleasant stressed the joint role is not a job share with allocated days for each organisation but a “different leadership role”.

North East Lincolnshire’s chief executive Rob Walsh holds a similar joint local government/NHS role. In an LGC article last year he wrote of his role: ”With senior leadership and organisational capacity at a premium, why wouldn’t we seek to further combine our resources and fully assess how best to play to our individual and collective strengths for local benefit?”

One man who is doing something different is Matt Prosser – he is chief executive across three sovereign district councils: North Dorset and West Dorset DCs, and Weymouth & Portland BC. In an interview with LGC last month, the former shared strategic director for South Oxfordshire and Vale of White Horse DCs admitted “the volume of activity is a challenge”. However, he added he has worked hard with officers and councillors to “find solutions to that dynamic”. These include weekly meetings with the three council leaders, moving into a “central hub” and adopting a “distributive leadership” model whereby he has “sought to empower so they are taking decisions at the lowest level possible.”

One of the common themes that comes from those who do undertake shared chief executive roles are the potential opportunities the jobs can bring - something Alex Bailey, the shared chief executive of Adur district & Worthing borough councils, emphasised when he wrote for LGC last year. Mr Bailey said the partnership between the two districts ensured the two councils gained “greater access to funding and lobbying opportunities than we had as separate entities”, while he added it had also enabled the councils to “innovate more freely”, ensure there is more “resilience and robustness” in services, and had created a more dynamic workforce.

By David Paine, acting news editor

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