I have been an interim manager since 2003, so I’ve had my share of joining councils in the midst of difficult decisions.
I joined Brent LBC during consultation on the contested library transformation project, which saved £800,000 a year and reduced the number of buildings but has seen more footfall and a better service. The strategy was upheld by the Appeal Court.
I am currently interim director of city and environmental services at City of York Council as it seeks to establish a local plan – a strategic planning framework that sets the parameters for land use in the area, and something the city has conspicuously lacked for some 60 years.
Local authorities are required to have such plans, but York, by a series of quirks, has always had an emerging plan but no adopted one since the town map of the 1950s. Since the coalition changed the planning rules to introduce the National Planning Policy Framework, the national policy assumption has been much more permissive. Without a local plan, all open space is much more vulnerable to being built on against councils’ wishes. York therefore needs one urgently. In advising members, officers need to address several characteristics such decisions share.
Often the issue has become politicised, in both partisan and community senses, especially where local people care passionately about the decision and can raise money for judicial campaigning. Stakeholders may admit, possibly only in private, that the proposals are the ‘least worst’ thing to do, although some cannot allow such an opening for negotiation.
Public law is complex and not always well tested. The parameters of a comprehensive and efficient library service, or the status of a property strategy, can need robust challenge with counsel or in the courts, with no obvious answers. Always, such processes face intense time and capacity constraints.
Senior managers in local authorities face these challenges all the time. Sometimes, however, a council has an unexpected requirement and an interim is the best solution. If so, that manager should be able to offer you help beyond being the extra pair of hands and ensuring the decision-taking process itself is well managed.
First, experience across many authorities may suggest new approaches; I have taken planning techniques and applied them to developing sports facilities, not incidentally helping the leadership out of a quandary.
Second, although risk management is bread and butter for all of us, interim managers should bring a cool head to assessing risks, pointing out that no course of action is risk free and helping colleagues and members to work out which risks are most manageable and how to address them. Inevitably, interim managers can be the axe-wielders.
Finally, and perhaps most important, is the ability to offer some blunt truths to power. As an interim manager I have often found it that little bit easier to state the unpalatable reality to corporate colleagues or to members, both in power and in opposition, opening up space for compromise and deliverability.
If they don’t like it and want to dispose of my services, that’s easily done with no hard feelings on either side. When your authority is facing the tough choices, reflecting on the interim experience may give you some of the benefits of being just that step away.
Sarah Tanburn is interim director of city and environmental services at City of York Council. She writes in a personal capacity