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Past, present and future

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The times may change but the role of local government chief executive is always challenging, unpredictable and influential.

You wait ages for another dimension and then along come two at once. Scientists at CERN , the European organisation for nuclear research, have apparently concluded that time runs in a circle, so events you thought you’d seen the back of eventually reappear and smack you in the chops.

And black holes can pop up from nowhere to suck you into oblivion. But of course council chief executives didn’t need a 27km particle collider to tell them this: they’ve never been short of their own local colliders.

In the same way that we tend to see a rose-tinted past, we tend to assume that jobs always get tougher. I’m not persuaded. A 14th century reeve the equivalent of today’s chief executive had to watch up to a third of his population succumb to the Black Death.

In 1940 the town clerk of Stepney, then a separate borough, had more burning issues to worry about than the next Audit Commission inspection.

On the other hand, Gladstone used to read a novel under a tree in the garden of No 10 when there wasn’t much to do. And I recall David Jenkins saying that one of his predecessors at Dorset CC had managed to run the place pre-telephone, never mind email while residing with his mistress in Le Touquet in France.

So perhaps we should conclude that top jobs don’t get harder or easier, they just get different.

One of my heroes, Roy Watts a local government finance man who became chief executive of British Airways and later of Thames Water used to say that the distinction between chairman and chief executive was simple. The first was there to change the world to suit the organisation.

The second was there to change the organisation to suit the world. Whether such a tidy distinction ever applied in local government I doubt.

We have learnt from Leeds Castle, our flagship leadership programme, that a successful relationship between leader and chief executive can take many forms. But it is always built on something easy to say but not easy to achieve: mutual trust and respect. That won’t change.

Nor will the reality that the chief executive, wittingly or not, largely sets the tone of the council and hence how its people behave.

So how is today’s chief executive job getting different? One has to be careful with predictions. As management thinker Peter Drucker said: “The only thing we know for sure about the future is that we don’t know about it.” The theme of this year’s Solace conference prosperity, people and places gives the clue.

The job is no longer, if it ever was, just about running a large service organisation and trying to keep members happy. I stole from Mike Pitt, former chief executive of Kent CC and recently, among other things, ‘Mr Flooding’, the idea that local government that delivers good local services gets a licence from its public for local leadership which it can then use to build ownership and responsibility for its place’s success.

We see three closely related forces shaping much of the chief executive’s future, whether in counties, cities, districts or boroughs:


Public sector borrowing is at record levels and far above target. Opinion polls show support falling away for higher taxes to pay for better public services. Many people no longer equate the two because they believe there is huge waste in public expenditure. The next government looks likely to confront empty coffers, falling revenues, rising taxpayer resistance, increasing service demands and quite possibly a continuing recession. Something has to give.

The sooner we respond, there is less chance of reduced investment and services. Ironically, the silver lining when under severe financial pressure is that you have to think big. You can take out 3% by squeezing. You can only take out 30% by doing it differently. I recall years ago being told that it was impossible to statement children with special educational needs in under two years. Then a 17-year-old girl who had just started at the council figured out a simple way to do it in a third of the time for two thirds of the cost.

It is a cliché that people are our greatest cost and greatest asset in local government. So why don’t we attend less to stopping them breaking the rules and more to releasing their energy and directing it to real results? Why don’t we do more to identify our best performers and reward them accordingly? We need to get efficiency and innovation out of a box only for experts and into the bloodstream of the organisation. I have never met a junior officer who couldn’t tell you five ways things could be done better.

Beyond the council there is mind-boggling scope for stripping out cost across public services in a locality at the same time as lifting the quality and quantity of service. That is why the Leadership Centre has initiated a project across 16 councils to bring home the connection between leadership (political and managerial), the climate of the organisation and its partnerships, and the continuous search to do things better.


All parties speak the rhetoric of localism. But that does not necessarily mean the same as ‘local governmentism’. Elected police chiefs and health boards, anyone? In any case, history shows that behaviour in power seldom follows the rhetoric.

The high tide of targetry and micro-management, with local government seen as a branch outlet of the Whitehall policy factory, has passed. But the struggle for what follows continues. Fewer and better targets, even if it were true, is not a good enough answer.

Chief executives need to help national government see that progress on wicked issues (like drugs and worklessness) will come not from negotiating more numbers, passing more legislation and changing more structures but from creating a different kind of conversation across the key parties about what will enable places to grasp their opportunities and grow out of their problems.

This will be helped if we can tilt public sector employees’ understanding of what they belong to. For example, we can explain to new recruits in Borsetshire that they are joining the public service. While for the present they deal mainly with, say, health or public protection or education, they are part of a collective endeavour of a better life for people who live in the county.

This is not fanciful thinking: years ago Birmingham drew their council plumbers towards taking a broader responsibility for the wellbeing of the housing estates they visited by noting problems such as vandalism, graffiti and children who ought to be in school.


This brings us to the biggest prize: that more people feel they own their lives, have a duty to their neighbours and can make a difference to their place. Our best councils, instead of further professionalising, commoditising and regimenting support for those who need it, are encouraging people in the natural task of helping others and their community.

This must appeal even to the hardest-hearted finance director: voluntary labour comes free. The friend who pops round to see old Mrs Wiggins to ask if she needs anything from the shops has not been inspected for health and safety and has failed to add to gross domestic product. She has merely made the world better.

There is no fundamental difference between leading a council and leading a partnership. Members and officers who rely on formal authority to make people do things are not leaders. The core of leadership is about winning people’s commitment to a shared enterprise.

It makes little difference whether they are your employees, someone else’s or no-one’s: your relationship with them determines your success.

Matthew Taylor, when director of the Institute for Public Policy Research, proposed that we assess organisations not against their objectives but against the quality of their internal and external relationships, because all else follows from that.

A second Peter Drucker quote perhaps captures the essence of the chief executive’s leadership challenge, now and always: “Accept the fact that we have to treat almost everybody as a volunteer.”

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