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Teaming up at the top: the sharing of lead officer roles

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  • LGC finds at least 14 councils have split chief responsibilities
  • Warwickshire CC and Wiltshire Council are the only upper tier authorities to do so
  • Such moves save up to £240,000 a year

A growing number of councils are ditching the chief executive role and appointing two or three directors of equal standing instead. Gabriella Jozwiak investigates.

chief executives patricia hughes and daryl phillips

chief executives patricia hughes and daryl phillips

Patricia Hughes and Daryl Phillips run Hart DC as corporate directors

Two heads are better than one, goes the saying. Currently around 14 councils are putting this theory into practice, having deleted their chief executive post and replaced it with two directors. Often councils take the step to save money. But twinned directors claim a duo also leads to greater capacity and resilience.

When Hart DC former chief executive Geoff Bonner retired in 2014, the council left his post vacant. Instead corporate directors Patricia Hughes and Daryl Phillips took on his duties, in addition to their own, and were given a year to prove the arrangement.

Having worked together at the council since 2012, and previously at East Hampshire DC, the pair divided responsibilities based on their individual strengths and knowledge. For example, Ms Hughes heads up paid services, while Mr Phillips’ role includes being monitoring officer. However, they are both full-time, and insist anyone at the council can speak to either on any matter. “You speak to one, and you’ve spoken to both,” says Ms Hughes. “It’s nobody else’s responsibility to understand how we split up our work.”

The duo say their trust, respect for each other’s expertise, and instinctive understanding of what the other will want mean they have never argued. “I have fewer sharp words with Daryl then I do with my own husband,” laughs Ms Hughes. At the start of the arrangement, they asked a chief executive from a different council to act as a mediator. “We never used him,” says Mr Phillips.

A Local Government Association associate reviewed the arrangement in 2015. Mr Phillips said he arrived needing to be convinced. He left recommending the council confirm the pilot immediately.

Hart DC leader David Neighbour (Lib Dem) says he was also sceptical of the arrangement at first, but is now convinced. “I was worried about the lack of capacity only having two people at that level,” he says. “With those two, it works. They go above and beyond. But I don’t think it’s a model you could role out everywhere else. It’s about the individuals and their fit.”

Cllr Neighbour says both are “equally accessible”, and the three communicate through weekly meetings. It’s a “cheaper, more efficient system,” he says. The net save at Hart, with the deletion of the chief executive and a slight uplift on the directors’ salaries, was £100,000 a year.

At North Norfolk DC, the replacement of the chief executive with Nick Baker as corporate director and Steve Blatch as head of paid service, as well as deleting two other heads of service in 2016, saved £240,000.

The council took the step as an alternative to a shared management arrangement with Yarmouth BC, which had been proposed by the then chief executive. Mr Blatch had worked at the authority for 23 years and Mr Baker for 16. “It gave them the chance to keep continuity in the leadership arrangements,” says Mr Baker.

The pair jointly manage six department heads and oversee corporate support functions. For example Mr Blatch is leading on a £20m coast protection scheme, while Mr Baker oversees a £12m replacement leisure centre project. But they deputise for each other. “This has given the council considerably more corporate capacity,” suggests Mr Blatch. “One of us is always available and we can deliver projects at greater pace.”

Mr Blatch believes the arrangement makes the council more open. “Previously the chief executive and leader of the council spoke to each other a lot, but didn’t necessarily share more widely,” he says. “The two of us sharing that top position has meant there’s much more discussion.”

Unlike the other directors LGC spoke to, at Nuneaton & Bedworth BC joint executive directors Simone Hines and Brent Davis share an office. They say this makes sharing information easier.

The council axed its managing director post in March 2018 to save £45,000. At the time Ms Hines was director of finance and procurement and Mr Davis director for assets and street services within a team of six directors. All were asked to apply for the new roles. Ms Hines says they were chosen because their skillsets complemented each other. Now she focuses on resources and Mr Davis on operations. The four other directors now report to them as associate directors.

Mr Davis says feedback from staff and elected members has been positive, with no concerns raised in a recent staff survey. The council turned to having no overall control for the first time in May 2018. Ms Hines says having two people at the top has proved beneficial in dealing with operational challenges and service issues. “It can be quite a lonely role at the top,” she says. “If there are two, you have someone to sense-check and bounce ideas off, and support when you have difficult conversations with members.”

At Rother DC, a restructure in 2013 resulted in the creation of two executive director posts saving the council more than £200,000 a year. Anthony Leonard who now heads business operations, and Malcolm Johnson, in charge of resources, had worked together as directors for five years before the chief executive retired.

The council’s administration now has two directorates. Mr Johnson’s includes finance, welfare, corporate and human resources, ICT and customer services. Mr Leonard’s is strategy, planning, environmental services, licensing, community and economy. They keep abreast of what the other is doing with weekly team meetings and daily morning coffees. “We have departments and those heads of service reporting to us,” says Mr Leonard. “But any time one of us is off or not available, they can come to any one of us.”

None of the directors LGC spoke to knew if their current arrangements would continue if one half of the pair stepped down. That would be a decision for the council. “We make it work because it’s the structure we have,” says Mr Leonard. “Whether one is better than the other? You’re probably asking the wrong people.”

Chief or no chief? 

The 14 councils LGC research has found are splitting chief responsibilities between directors are Amber Valley BC, Harborough DC, Hart DC, Hastings BC, Maldon DC, North Norfolk DC, Nuneaton & Bedworth BC, Rother DC, Stratford-on-Avon DC, Tamworth BC, Warwickshire CC, Wellingborough BC (three directors), West Lindsey BC (three directors) and Wiltshire Council.

In a 2011 statement on the role of the chief executive in 2011, the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives & Senior Managers warned against councils deciding to scrap the chief executive post in order to “balance the books”. This should “not override the need to maintain good corporate governance,” it said.

Solace also claimed all councils adopting a structure without a chief executive had “eventually reverted back to a position of one chief officer taking overall responsibility – whether or not role is still called the chief executive – supported by a (usually smaller) senior management team.”

In 2014 the then Department for Communities & Local Government recommended abolishing the post of chief executive in its response to a Commons select committee inquiry into local government chief officers remuneration.

 

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