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'Councils may have taken the corporate mindset too far'

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“There are too many layers and too many committees. The business is too top heavy, too inward looking – and too corporate.” Sound familiar?

In fact, this is not a description of local government, but of M&S by its chief executive Steve Rowe. In the retailer’s case it has made it too slow in responding to the market, stifling initiative and inhibiting creativity. But could the same be happening in local authorities?

For years now, we have all had to be more corporate – a state of mind as much as a structure. It was a reminder that we were all part of the same organisation and should be pulling together, not competing for resources or protecting our own little empires.

For departmental directors this meant no special pleading in the budget debates, taking their fair share of the cuts. For senior managers it meant the loss of control over budgets for training and IT, and frustration as central public relations staff failed to appreciate the uniqueness of their department – often overstated, save perhaps in the case of social services.

For frontline managers being corporate meant a loss of control over the recruitment process as it became centralised. To many it meant accepting that your chance to change team dynamics through a vacancy was stifled by having a redeployed staff member imposed on you.

Being more corporate stood for being more business-like, giving the chief executive more power to make things happen, and bringing the local authority into line with how businesses operated in the private sector.

Perhaps the budget setting process has been the clearest example. Success is no longer judged by how well your cabinet member protects the directorate’s budget. In fact, some directors have been known to flaunt their corporate credentials by offering up more budget saving proposals than required!

So, like M&S, have some local authorities gone too corporate?

Has the move to being more corporate dismantled silo mentality and encouraged working more thematically across the organisation? Or has it just resulted in an explosion of cross directorate working groups, stifled initiative as the corporate convoy only goes as fast as the slowest, and less responsive corporate support services?

Centralising support services certainly delivered economies of scale. And the move to corporate management training programmes now seems obvious, as does being able to impose a corporate IT strategy and a common interpretation of HR policies.

Yet something has been lost. Change may now be clearly led by the centre, but my experience of those corporate working groups on equality and diversity, management development and so on was that some directorates were way ahead of others and being asked to wait.

And nothing kills enthusiasm and creativity quicker than being told to slow down.

Blair McPherson, former director, Lancashire CC

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