Chief executives have two main roles: to ensure the operational effectiveness of their councils, and to provide elected members with the professional advice they need to take well-informed decisions.
Leaders, in turn, have a duty to take those decisions in the best interests of their communities.
Clearly, both roles have a strong element of leadership to them – of staff, of councillors, and of whole places.
It is accepted that chief executives have a duty to give leaders advice that may be unwelcome. But at what point, if ever, should professional expertise bow to democratic legitimacy and officers either get on with implementing the political decision that has been taken or, should they not be able to accept it, follow the advice of Local Government Association chief Mark Lloyd to start polishing their CV?
Recent high profile disagreements between the leaders and chiefs of Birmingham City Council and Lancashire CC demonstrate that this is a very live issue.
There is a “grey area” of responsibility that chiefs and leaders must negotiate between them, says Association of Local Authority Chief Executives chair Tracey Lee.
“Sometimes one person will take the lead and sometimes it is right that it is both,” she says.
Trevor Holden, chief executive at Luton BC, has a rough rule of thumb for these situations: “Remember politicians need to get elected, chiefs don’t; you don’t outshine your leader. I work on maxim that if it’s bad news, I’ll do it; if it’s good news the leader will do it.”
In LGC last month, Mr Lloyd said chief executives should remember their role is advising and they should implement leaders’ decisions if legal. He suggested they move to a new job if they had moral objections to certain courses of action. Councils’ staffers should not be local radio stars of journalists’ go-to for comment, he also suggested.
Ms Lee, who is chief executive of Plymouth City Council, says: “One of the really important elements [of being a chief executive] is the ability to speak truth to power. You say, ‘I know you don’t want me to say that, but I must because of the job that I am doing.’ Sometimes that can be a difficult line to navigate.”
But Mr Holden says the lines are clear: “[Chiefs] don’t argue the toss on morals or convictions; [they] argue the business case. A political judgment, the nuance; that’s the stuff of politicians.”
Lord Kerslake (Crossbench), who was chief executive of Hounslow LBC and Sheffield City Council before becoming a civil servant, says the chief’s role is “not so much speaking against the leader”.
He says: “When decisions are made by council, all councillors must have the advice of officers on that issue.”
Colin Noble (Con), leader of Suffolk CC, agrees frank conversations are essential.
He says: “Ultimately, the elected representatives hold the democratic mandate and therefore what they say should go, but there are caveats. It’s incredibly important a chief executive is robust enough to share their opinion if they don’t agree.”
Peter Box (Lab), leader of Wakefield MDC, says: “As the leader, you have a lot of people who tell you how wonderful your ideas are. What you rely on are those people, particularly the chief executive, who say ‘you can’t do this’.”
To allow this level of honesty, trust and regular communication are vital.
Cllr Noble says: “The key to success is making sure the officer team and the cabinet [are] talking to each other on a regular basis.”
Lord Kerslake adds: “It’s really important there’s a level of trust that, even where there is a difficult issue on which they disagree, they both desire to support the best interests of the community.”
Mr Holden says he suspects there is a sector-wide problem with communication between political and managerial leadership. He says this was highlighted during a private chief executives session at this year’s LGA conference.
“It was cathartic, but did it move anything forward? No. We have to get better at having the conversations with our leaders on a collective basis.”
Trust, communication and understanding are all very well and should be part of any leader or chief’s skillset. But what about the formal checks and balances underlying these ‘soft’ processes?
Ms Lee says where chief executives do not feel they can speak out about a politician’s decision “that’s why statutory protections are there”, but adds “you never want to get to that stage”.
The Society for Local Authority Chief Executives & Senior Managers has previously pointed out the abolition of the Audit Commission and the standards regime, removing the independent appointment of external auditors and the weakening of the protection for statutory officers, have combined to weaken protection for chief executives who need to speak out against politicians.
Lord Kerslake adds there are particular risks to officers speaking out on councils dominated by one party.
However, he says there is one more brake on power: “[A] key protection is decisions are made in public, and the advice of officers is given in public as well. Another is if you have a good scrutiny function.”