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Many years ago I worked as part of a team providing advice to the Scottish Office as they developed Best Value policy north of the Border. This was at the beginning of the Blair era, before the creation of the Scottish Parliament. The Scottish Secretary was Donald Dewar, Henry McLeish was the minister responsible for local government and the driving force was Wendy Alexander, special advisor to Dewar and general modernising whirlwind of the time.

Donald Dewar and Wendy Alexander

Best Value, as it had emerged in England, seemed to those of us working in public service reform in Scotland, to be an overly mechanistic and superficial regime that would produce huge amounts of bureaucracy and have little chance of changing the ways that large organisations operated. The critique of English Best Value policy was that its focus on reviewing a set number of services, over a set period of time, put too much emphasis on operations without questioning strategy. In other words, it prioritised efficiency over innovation. We, therefore, argued for a Best Value policy in Scotland which followed Drucker by asking whether we were doing the right things before asking whether we were doing things right. We wanted Best Value to start with questions about service users/citizens/customers and their needs, rather to accept traditional definitions of what a service was. Through this focus on service redesign we thought councils would be liberated from doing things as they had always done them, they would design services around people, places and communities and their needs, not around along traditional service and professional tramlines.

As we wrote to Ministers at the time (in 1998), “Emphasise that Best Value should challenge the definition of services not simply endorse them. Services should be considered in terms of the needs and experience of service users, not historically defined council activities. For example, some older people may receive a service to support them in their own home. This may involve activities from several council departments, the health board and other agencies. Imaginative Best Value service reviews might take all of these activities together, redefine them as a single holistic service, and review how they work together and how they can be improved.”

We went on to say that we had a concern that “councils are further entrenching historically defined activities by performance benchmarking rather than benchmarking processes and recording and adopting best practice. This will often mean that benchmarking is restricted to other councils doing much the same thing, based on much the same service definition.”

At the time did a lot of thinking about how services were defined and contrasted the kinds of services that councils put up for challenge and the services that users or citizens perceived. We had various services in mind that we would use to challenge councils, including “reception” services for older people of vulnerable adults seeking information and advice. However, we also had in mind the corporate leadership of services. None of us believed that there was anything ideal or necessary about leadership taking a hierarchical form (it worked well, but it had inherent dangers). So what would it mean to benchmark the service provided by directors or chief executives and to look at other ways of procuring that service? Was it conceptually or practically impossible for councils to source leadership/corporate management from outside? We thought conceptually yes, but practically no.

it is with huge interest, therefore, that I follow the experiments in new forms of leadership/corporate management that are springing up across the country. I want to acknowledge and state very clearly that there is no example I’m aware of that is born solely from a desire to innovate, or produce better services. They all come from a mix of political expediency, the desire to be seen to be doing something and more noble goals. I expect that we will continue to see reversals in some places, where new political leaders decide they want to appoint their own person. It was always thus, that’s how political organisations get run.

But the examples of west London where Kensington and Chelsea, Hammersmith and Fulham and Westminster are coming together in an asymmetrical hybrid is the apotheosis of pragmatic and principled change. In the east of England we see a three-way marriage proposal between Breckland (Norfolk) and South Holland (Lincs) (who are already espoused under Terry Huggins as joint chief executive) and Great Yarmouth (Norfolk).

What both these examples show is that in the same way that councils source services from across the country, from across the globe, it is becoming possible to procure leadership and corporate management in this way also. So far councils are not straying too far from the traditional role of chief executive as embodied in a single person, but I expect we will see where the chief executive role becomes more and more high level, they will bring in other forms of professional advice and expertise from a wide range of sources to replace that given by senior permanent staff who have more and more been stripped away. There is nothing wrong or broken with the traditional chief executive model. It has never been fixed, it has always evolved. My point is that over time, therefore, we will see the evolution of leadership forms in local government that are more open to external sourcing for some of its roles and functions.

What is the right thing? Leadership. What is the right way? There ain’t one.

Thanks to the Daily Record for the picture of Donald and Wendy.

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