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Chief executives in or out of fashion?

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It’s not only clothes and pop music which are subject to the vacillations of fashion.

Fashion affects the more mundane world of local government too. Elected mayors for example were a fashion of the ‘naughties’ when larger-than-life bankers, entrepreneurs, football managers, celebrities of all types were supposed to provide solutions to a whole range of problems by dint of pure charisma and personality. Then we had mass outsourcing as another solution to all problems, though both mayors and outsourcing en-masse seem to be falling out of vogue. Now even the role of the chief executive is subject to fashion and to question.

Under such pressure we have seen the role defended, predictably, by the officer corps and Solace. I would like to offer a member defence. I have known and worked with a number of chief executives both as a councillor in Nottingham, where for a few years in the early 2000s we had ‘a few local difficulties’. I have also worked with them as an officer and a consultant. My view is that chief executives are essential and I will explain why. However, some of the doubts about their role have been self-inflicted, albeit, by a small minority of their colleagues.

The traditional function of the chief executive with a legal background overseeing due process and formal decision-making, gave way in the 80s to the more managerial approach. In the 90s and early 2000s it took another turn. Under the cover of the CPA and star ratings, where the chief executive was given a far more important role by the inspectors than the leader, and encouraged by the Blair government, the ‘personality’ chief executive emerged.

It was thankfully not totally pervasive but frequent enough to create conflict with the role of the elected members, and to increase chief executive remuneration in some cases to a point of embarrassment.

We are now going through the counter-revolution, partly because a minority of chief executives overplayed their hands, partly because of the recent antagonism whipped up against the public sector by government ministers where highly paid chief executives form an easy target. The counter-revolution now questions the need for the role at all and a number of authorities have abolished it, or are in the process of doing so.

Some of the arguments in support of the role have assumed a model chief executive and have lauded qualities which are not the preserve of chief executives but can often be found in many senior officers - offering impartial advice, negotiating with partners, being calm in a crisis. Indeed I have known chief executives who have shown the antithesis of these qualities. These arguments do not provide a convincing defence. More convincing are two arguments not about the quality of the individual but about the significance of the function.

There are two key functions which justify the role: the first managerial and the second constitutional.

Managerial

Managerial: The relationships with officers for many councillors can be one of the most satisfying parts of the job. However one of the most frustrating aspects is being dragged into inter-officer disputes, being confronted by conflicting aims of departments, or having to become involved in joining up operations between departments and divisions which don’t coordinate. That in my view is one of the roles of the chief executive.

To be ever responsible for this as part of a leader or Mayoral role is to divert valuable political time to operational activity. At a time when integration of council activity is the order of the day, on anti-social behaviour, economic development and the provision of infrastructure, area working, an overall head of service is needed so members know where the buck stops: a head of service is also needed to sort out duplication overlap and gaps.

That will not happen in a system with chief officers all of whom are of equal status, no matter how collegiate they all are (and that is not guaranteed).

Constitutional

Second, constitutional: those wishing to abolish the role are tampering with not just a system but a constitutional principle. A good chief executive provides continuity and integrity to the local government system, and a healthy counterpoint to political decision-making. It is a role which can be irritating for some of us politicians who want to ‘get on with things in our own way’. But political interest in its impatience often tries to bypass process and that same process more often than not protects the integrity of democratic accountability.

It also helps mend problems when political systems begin to break down as in Stoke and Doncaster, a couple of years ago. In both cases it has been the installation of a good chief executive which has helped enormously to begin to repair the system. A good chief executive will both enable legitimate political aims to be delivered and protect the integrity of the system, including the rights of the opposition.

The alternative, a leader/mayoral system without a chief executive, where the politician in charge deals with policy, corporate process and top level management, risks politicising the whole system.

It starts to erode some of the qualities that British local government has developed over many years and which distinguishes it from some of its equivalents abroad. It is namely that the officer corps serves the authority and the political party in control so that when control changes there is no sudden political purge of personnel. The same personnel, with chief executive as the embodiment of that process, serve the new regime with same integrity. Without a chief executive there is no focal point to provide that continuity and integrity, and when it happens, smooth transition.

In short, those embarking on such a high risk strategy should think very carefully before threatening such a valuable principle. On the other hand my defence, though it is based principally on the role and function of a chief executive, is somewhat undermined if individual chief executives interpret their responsibility for continuity and integrity as carte blanche for manipulating rather than serving the political process.

So there are lessons to be learned on both sides.

Cllr Graham Chapman (Lab), deputy leader, Nottingham City Council

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