The chief problem

Here’s a slightly longer version of my piece the LGC has published this week (behind the paywall). This fuller version includes some examples from the archive ….
2011 ended on a particularly sour note for a number of chief executives who found themselves unwanted by their political bosses. After the surprise Wiltshire defenestration, we had the tortuous, self-mutilation in Kent followed by the brutal re-branding of Reading as the issuer of press releases least likely to attract future talent. Aside these most dramatic examples, there was a flurry of other departures leading many to suspect foul play behind the most innocent of early retirements.

Defenestration (in Prague, absolutely not in any UK local authority)

However, taken together with ministerial malice and local political machismo, these events have made some on the local government circuit wonder whether chief executives are about to become extinct.

It is certainly true that it is a hostile environment for senior professionals right now, with councillors  from all parties cutting senior staff as a symbol that the council shares the community’s pain. Of course, some politicians will see this as an opportunity to bolster their own power base, but these will be the exceptions to the rule.

What we see today is a new staging of organisational dramatics, designed to play to external audiences as much as anything. This is as old as theatre itself, of course. It is often gory to watch, it is rarely good value for money, but it allows politicians frustrated by their impotence in the face of the cuts, to put on a show to the voters that they are in control of something, at least.

We frequently see these issues after elections, when new leaders come to power, and we have seen it before during the transition to cabinet government. But normally these are short, if recurrent, trends that lead to evolution, rather than revolution, in the chief executive’s role.

Indeed history is littered with the senior officer casualties who have had their wings clipped, and then with the bodies of politicians who fly too close to the sun. And while the top job remains a cross between a permanent and a political appointment, that risk will remain. The flip side is that many relationships thrive on that tension and ambiguity.

None of which is to say there is nothing new. The particular mix of poisons this year is particularly toxic, and I have no doubt that more of my former colleagues will meet gruesome ends in 2012. But I do not believe that politicians will, as a whole, decide to dispense with senior, independent advice or that we face the end of chief executives as such. Local government has a long and varied history and it is difficult to do anything wholly original. On the appointment of a chief executive again after 10 years operating without one, the then leader of North Tyneside said, “What seemed right in 1992 is now different in 2002.” What goes around comes around.

From the archive

January 2000, Bristol make chief executive post, held by Lucy de Groot, redundant.

July 2001, 4 senior officers share chief executive post in Birmingham while the council consults on new political executive arrangements.

April 2002, North Tyneside announces it will reappoint a chief executive after ten years without.

June 2003, Labour leaders in Hull propose to delete chief executive post remove the chief executive role and run the council through a head of paid service, a city treasurer and a town clerk.

July 2003, Mike Whitby, leader of Birmingham, proposes to put chief executive post, then held by Lin Homer, on an annual contract. Chief executives needed, “more incentive to do well in the job at an earlier stage,” he said.

  1. As Mike says there is nothing very new about tensions between politicians who want to manage and managers who want to be influential
    And frankly nothing very interesting . Most of these bust ups owe more to personalities than high principle. I do not think they are often about playing to a local crowd. Sadly locals rarely know or care who is either Council Leader or CE.

    Nevertheless SOLACE as a professional body does think minimum standards should apply and look out for our article in LGC week commencing 13 February for details

    Derek Myers

    Chair SOLACE management board

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