Birmingham City Council’s interim chief executive has urged officers to maintain professional relationships with members, avoiding excessive socialising, or risk seeing the quality of their council’s governance decline.
Stella Manzie, who over the past 20 years has developed a reputation as a leading troubleshooter sent in to sort out troubled councils, spoke about the characteristics of authorities that risk intervention and about how to ensure any intervention can succeed, in a Local Government Association conference session on the issue last week.
She drew on her experiences as chief executive of a council facing intervention through government-appointed improvement panels at both Coventry City Council (2001-08) and Birmingham, which she joined in April, and as a commissioner at Rotherham MBC (2015-16).
Ms Manzie named corporate governance deficiency as a “signal that something might be going seriously wrong” within a council.
“If it is not clear in your council where the authority has come from for a particular decision or nobody knows who has made a decision or nobody can quite point to the cabinet or council report that says where that decision came from, you are in trouble,” she said. This would typically give rise to a culture of “blame and counter-blame”, she added.
Excessively close or distrustful member/officer relationships could also give rise to failure, Ms Manzie said.
In reference to a culture she said she found in Coventry, Ms Manzie criticised “some elected members and officers who regularly played golf together and regularly went to the pub together”.
She continued: “Don’t get me wrong – there are occasions, the LGC Awards with everyone having a drink and celebrating, that are absolutely fine but regular personal, beyond-professional relationships are not a good plan.”
Conversely, too distant relationships were also seen as problematic. Ms Manzie said that in Birmingham, as with the other two councils she had been sent in to, she had seen “some cases” of members becoming “deeply frustrated because they don’t think officers listen to them”.
The presence of “dominant personality members” who overshadowed their chamber was another “bad sign” for councils. Ms Manzie added: “We all know that people in leadership positions, myself included, can have over-dominant and domineering personalities from time to time but if it’s a kind of all-pervading feature – not good.” All members needed the “confidence to challenge officers”.
Ms Manzie continued: “It’s not elected members who I would generally blame most for going into intervention, it’s officers. Officers are full-time paid individuals, many of them on quite large salaries.” She criticised “over-complacent officers” who often exhibited a “sense of inwardness – they’ve no idea of anything else that’s going on in local government”.
Ms Manzie also said a gulf in the quality of a council’s services, with it often being children’s services that was “rubbish”, also indicated “disaster”. She added: “What it demonstrates is no proper ownership by the cabinet; no proper performance management. What every local authority should be striving for is at minimum a reasonable level of service everywhere.”
She said her priority as Rotherham’s only full-time commissioner had been to get the council’s full decision-making powers restored as soon as possible. While a clique of the ruling Labour group had dominated decision-making, those previously denied a say had been instrumental in improving political leadership. As new cabinet members, they were “asking all the right questions” and “have the skills to challenge officers”.
Commissioners needed a “sophistication” and knowledge acquired within the sector to understand member/officer relationships, Ms Manzie said. “If people are parachuted in who don’t understand everything about that relationship, that would be a disaster.”
She said councils under intervention needed to be mindful of keeping expectations of the pace of change reasonable. “Elected members are… saying ‘What about this?’, ‘What about this?’. So there needs to be a dialogue had about what is the most urgent thing that needs to be done and which are going to have to be done later this year. That is quite a tricky conversation.”
While support from interims was vital to cover staffing gaps, “no matter how expensive that is”, previously “hidden people” would rise up from within and “blossom in an environment of greater openness and leadership”, Ms Manzie said.