Interim managers are the latest craze in local government. Everyone's getting one, from interim heads of service, interim directors and chief officers right up to interim chief executives. It seems the way ahead for those councils finding themselves without a captain at the helm.
Solace Enterprises - the business arm of the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives - provides the experienced executives councils look for. The business grew out of the sheer number of requests Solace was receiving says, Liz Thring, director of flexible resourcing at Solace Enterprises.
'Right now we have 40 interim directors and heads of service out in the field and four chief executives.'
For a council, an interim manager may be useful for a variety of reasons.
They bridge the gap between appointments that cannot be filled by existing managers acting up. 'Many local authorities have downsized so much that often the authority is not in a position to have anybody act up,' adds Ms Thring.
Smaller councils can attract those high-fliers with large amounts of experience who the same council simply could not interest or afford on a permanent basis.
But most importantly councils are now choosing interim appointments to delay the replacement of key staff while they restructure the organisation.
As councils cope with the breakneck pace of change occurring in local government many are taking the opportunity to restructure and reorganise departments,
even whole administrations. In such instances interim chief executives and top tier managers may be the perfect solution.
'Some authorities may want the really good heads of service to take on policy issues in that service. Others want an executive who's not necessarily wonderful on any particular service, but can handle structural change, financial and legal issues. But ultimately what local authorities want are people who understand the particular relationship between elected members and officers,' says Ms Thring.
Interim chief executives, in particular, are usually retired permanent chief executives now making a living trouble shooting. And the financial rewards are great for someone who wants to pump up their pension before retiring.
Ms Thring says: 'The rates we charge local authorities have varied between£500 and£800 a day. It is not unusual for our consultants to be earning over£50,000 a year. We negotiate the rates with the interim manager and the local authority and we take a margin which covers our costs.'
David Winchurch retired last year after nine years as chief executive of Walsall MBC. He was 54 at the time, but had no intention of simply putting his feet up.
'I took early retirement with the intention of re-orientating my career. I never intended to get into interim management, but the opportunity was there and I'd always flirted with the idea of consultancy work,' he says.
As an interim chief executive he has spent six months at Bridgnorth DC, much longer than either of the parties intended, and is currently at Stroud DC.
'Bridgnorth was without their chief executive who was temporarily incapacitated,' he says. 'I had worked just down the road and was approached because I knew their head of personnel and had some sympathy with their plight. I agreed to go in for three days a week.
'Others approach interim management from a different perspective, but I stipulate that I do not work for more than three days a week because I want the other two days to work with other clients,' he says.
Mr Winchurch makes sure three requirements are met before he takes up his appointment. There has to be a clear timeframe for his appointment and a definite exit strategy to focus on the matter in hand. His appointment must not be regarded as the only part of an interim arrangement - the management team must share some of the responsibility.
Finally he will not go into an organisation just to stand still. 'If I am recruited as an interim manager it is obvious the organisation has a short-term problem to solve. It is important from my perspective that we agree from the outset what that problem is and that the local authority is prepared to move forward. It's important to have that clear focus because staff morale improves noticeably when working around a specific agenda,' says Mr Winchurch.
Though a stand-in's style may be completely different from what a particular
council may be used to, the very fact that he or she is temporary frees both parties up to be as honest and open as they can be without office politics getting in the way.
'If a local authority wants it, as an interim chief executive you can give a very candid analysis of its current state of health. This is often welcomed once a relationship of trust and honesty has been established. It's also obvious to all concerned that an interim manager is not likely to get in the way of anybody's career aspirations in the long term,' says Mr Winchurch.
He believes interim managers are the way of the future. 'The interim management market in local authorities is going to be far more common. It has already become very significant over the last 12 months to two years, probably because modernisation is causing elected members and chief executives to reflect on the role that is appropriate for them,' he says.
Interestingly, with the greater possibility of high profile, competitive mayors, choosing a chief executive who can compliment such a role will be vital.
Councils will become less inclined to rush into permanent top-level appointments because, once done, the commitment is very significant. And a separation can prove very costly.