This article was first published in LGC
The growing diversity of local authorities in their local situations makes it very difficult to generalize about local government. Some are tempted to say that “all councils should always have a chief executive come what may”. This is quite interesting – clearly there are a number of local authorities currently doing without a formal chief executive and those of us old enough to remember some of the spectacular messes left when this was tried in the past might be tempted to make a general comment, but we shouldn’t. We’re at a stage where we need to learn from the diversity of examples in many local authorities, whether that relates to the chief executive model or any other area of innovation.
These are some questions I ask when confronted with a council that doesn’t have a chief executive:
- Who gets the chief executive’s mail? If something arrives addressed to the chief executive, whether it’s a complaint from a resident or a letter from the secretary of state, who gets it? Is it always the same person? (This incisive test was suggested to me by a thoughtful head of paid service currently working in a “no-CE” council.)
- Who chairs the corporate board meetings? If a corporate director is ill or unable to attend work, to whom do they send a message letting them know?
- Who represents the council at Solace meetings? Who at interest group meetings eg CCN?
- Is there one person that others tend to turn to when they want to know how an initiative or an issue sits with the wider narrative of the organisation and its change?
- Is there one person for whom local partners get grumpy when they don’t turn up for meetings, or if they send someone else instead?
- Who ensures that opposition groups are briefed on developments, and advises them on their manifestoes coming up to the election?
- Is there one person who tends always to be up first at staff events?
- … and who is the “head of the paid service”?
If the same name keeps cropping up then the council has someone who is essentially taking on the chief executive role, so the next question is: are they the council’s most senior officer with the constitutional powers to fulfill their role, whatever their formal title, or specific job description? And if a council doesn’t have someone who consistently comes up in the answers to these questions – then how do they deal with these issues and ensure consistency and clarity?