The onerous nature of the responsibilities of councils’ most senior managers has been all too apparent in the past week – a week in which they have collectively received a kicking.
LGC has reported on how Worcestershire CC’s leadership team was criticised by a Chartered Institute for Public Finance & Accountancy review for a lack of urgency in addressing a £60m budget shortfall. And we revealed how Newham LBC temporarily “mislaid” £7.5m due to lack of control over its basic financial systems.
Far more seriously, and far more prominently on a national level, fresh shame was last week heaped upon Rochdale MBC over its past ineptitude which allowed vulnerable children supposedly in the council’s care to be abused. After the inquiry into the case reported it was left to the council’s chief executive – who joined the authority in 2014, long after the abuse in question took place – to apologise for “significant failures of leadership and management”.
The consequences of management failure are severe. The physical and mental scarring of the most vulnerable children or adults in the care of an authority is one extreme. But, more regularly, the need to do more with less is imposing an ever greater burden on senior officers on a day-to-day basis. Huge reductions in the ranks of finance officers and other senior managers is increasing the likelihood of corners being cut and mistakes made.
It is right, indeed essential, that those responsible for failure are held to account. However, the scale of staff reductions has tilted the playing field to make failure ever more likely.
While the Rochdale scandal was born out of past callousness and incompetence, local government’s current generation of officers and members face the likelihood that the decisions they have to make will expose the vulnerable to abuse or hardship. Do you cut back on children’s services, increasing the risks faced by children or reduce social care to increase the risk faced by adults? Alternatively you could cut the local regeneration which could offer the local economic base that eases the social problems exacerbating dangers faced by adults or children alike. It is a horrific dilemma.
Senior officers deserve a fair reward for this intensifying burden and this greater scrutiny when things go wrong. However, the 1% pay offer for council chief executives made by national employers last week will effectively result in yet another real-terms salary reduction. This follows the 2% pay rise – slightly closer to the 2.9% inflation rate, but nevertheless a real-terms pay cut – that most councils workers will receive in each of the next two years. Fate decreed the pay offer for chiefs coincided with the annual spectacle of the TaxPayers’ Alliance’s so-called “Town Hall Rich List”. Inevitably this spurred all the usual “fat cat” headlines that give such a misleading and selective impression of the nature of council chiefs.
Councils are competing with the private sector for talent: if you want the best people you need to offer appropriate reward. Chiefs deserve fairness – and a real-terms pay rise.