I am glad a recent LGC Briefing referenced again the debate about the role of the chief executive. It has not felt to be an ongoing debate to me, but it should be.
Imagine a few scenarios where the responsibility to engage the leader falls to the chief executive alone.
First, the leader wants to reshape the organisation’s structure in a way with which the chief executive, who has duties in law, professionally disagrees. The latter can submit a report to council but with no expectation of success.
Second, the leader proposes an approach to the budget that disregards any sensible planning framework, focuses only on the year in question and stores up big trouble for the future. The leader has already disregarded the advice of the section 151 officer.
Third, the leader excuses a persistent offender who has received regular censure for breaches of the member code of conduct. The monitoring officer and the wider council, members and officers, are concerned at the effect on the council’s reputation.
Applying Mark Lloyd’s view of the job to each of these scenarios, any chief executive with integrity should look to resign and move on if the leader prevails. My 23 years’ experience as a chief executive tells me that cannot be right. Resignation should not be an easy option, however principled the individual may be. There is also a responsibility owed to the statutory officers and other colleagues who would be left behind.
There is a need to go back and revisit the research and literature about the leader/chief executive relationship. As others have commented, the two roles work best as a pair, a relationship built on trust and respect such that the scenarios described above are avoided
The learning from the former Warwick Institute of Governance and Public Management and local government’s original Leadership Centre is still there. The latter recognised and passed on the progressive development of leadership theory from not only Warwick but other leading universities such as Lancaster.
Having been fortunate to benefit from their programmes, several impressions remain:
- Beyond the principle of leaders and chief executives together in a learning and development programme, the greatest value came from sessions comprising relatively small numbers, the mix of authorities not being too great in type or politics, and the mix of participants affording a range of experience in post.
- The place-based approach became ever more relevant.
- Chronicling and promoting how the relationship works in written form was not easy; other means of dissemination were also used.
- Simply stating that good leader/chief executive relations mean a well-run authority is dangerous. That is not always the case because complacency can replace ambition and in particular the relationship only works if it is based on honesty.
- Whilst the relationship between the leader and cabinet or senior members was also explored, the most productive equivalent on the officer side was to discuss the separate roles of chief executive and head of paid service, not always recognised as such.
I would expect most of the above to hold true today, but it would naturally mean bringing in the impact of combined authorities, elected mayors, other changes in governance and in partner structures.
The response of the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives & Senior Managers to Mark Lloyd’s column was disappointing. The one organisation you may have expected to speak up for chief executives and to express critical opinion, as its immediate past and current president have done in office, instead appeared to base its comments on a wish not to be critical and to promote a leadership programme for chief executives, which the LGA is financially supporting. It would be good to know that was not the case. Solace needs to maintain its independence.
We might also ask about the LGA’s position. Mark Lloyd was not writing in a personal capacity and so his advice is seen as bearing the LGA’s stamp. It is advice given already to alumni of the LGA’s national graduate development programme and can be expected to find its way into the LGA’s improvement offer to councils. Recalling that the LGA was supportive of weakening and abolishing some of the checks and balances on the behaviour of members post 2010, as well as a corporate regulatory regime, a fair question to the LGA is whether it supports enfeebled chief executives in its member authorities, because that is the logical consequence of what its own chief executive is saying. Whether the LGA chief executive should be opining on how local authority chief executives do their job is another matter.
In his book, The Politics of Leadership, Joe Simpson from the Leadership Centre analysed high-performance leadership. In the world of officers and politicians he concluded that success is achieved when a powerful political leadership is seen to enhance the power of managerial leadership. That is a world away from licensing the chief executive to resign. It is also the sort of thinking that shows how the current debate needs to be elevated from where it began.
John Sinnott, chief executive, Leicestershire CC