Filling in the failure gap

By Heather Jameson | 25 January 2023

Max Caller has become the go-to man for writing reports on failing authorities.

He has raked over the coals of most of the councils that have crashed and burned in recent years, after originally earning his stripes leading the team that pulled Hackney LBC, phoenix-like, out of the ashes when it collapsed in the late 1990s.

He has learned the lessons of mistakes made up and down the country and he laughs as he tells The MJ he is increasingly hearing himself quoted, often unattributed, on local government platforms suggesting councils must do the boring stuff well if they want to stay out of trouble.

Mr Caller is adamant we are yet to see an authority fail due to a lack of funding. Finances may be tight – austerity may have squeezed the efficiencies to breaking point – but time and time again it comes back to the culture and the governance.

It is, he says, the failure of the senior officers to religiously stick to the rules that has prompted failures. It is a failure to do the boring stuff well.

‘That is the point of the three statutory officers; the chief executive, the monitoring officer and the section 151 officer. It is their responsibility to stop this happening,’ Mr Caller tells The MJ.

While auditors could and should spot difficulties and irregularities in council accounts, it is months later. By then it is too late to rescue the finances of an authority – it has to be the role of the statutory officers to stop risky behaviour.

‘In the first instance, the safeguards for local authorities have to be the three senior officers, paid an awful lot of money, who are charged via legislation with ensuring compliance, governance, legal compliance, financial compliance,’ he says.

‘My concern is that there are no real rules that set out how the statutory officer might perform their duties.’ There are, he admits, legal and finance professional institutes but ‘there are no explicit qualifications that are required’ for the jobs, and no recourse when things go wrong.

‘You don’t have to be a solicitor to be a monitoring officer… all sorts of people are designated as monitoring officers,’ he says. ‘But if you are so designated there is no requirement to have any specific experience.’

While Lawyers in Local Government offers some training, it is optional. ‘In every council I have inspected, it’s the failure of corporate governance which has led to a lot of the problems,’ he says.

When it comes to the s151 officer, the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy (CIPFA) does provide training and regulation, but Mr Caller is sceptical. It is rare for CIPFA to strike people off and investigations into misconduct are long and laborious, often lasting years.

And then there is the chief executive job. ‘It’s the chief executive’s responsibility to oversee the totality of corporate governance, with the support of the monitoring officer,’ Mr Caller says. It is not something he was trained in when he took on his first top job, he was just expected to get on with it. ‘I could have been doing it all wrong,’ he says.

One of the red flags for him, when he reviews authorities, is councils that do not have regular meetings between statutory officers to consider what issues are coming up. ‘It is surprising how many authorities don’t do this.’

So what would the serial inspector Mr Caller do to change the current set up?

He suggests a peer inspection process in the first instance – something more rigorous than the current recruitment process which sees current and former chief executives reviewing applicants. He suggests the existing process is ‘not consistent’.

‘I could see some sort of peer assessment. The statute exists for the sector to be able to do this by itself,’ he says. But he suggests it should be across the three statutory roles – not separate systems for the three disciplines.

‘There is an argument for local government as a whole… establishing it. Whether it is under the auspices of improvement and development, whether it is a Solace-led partnership with CIPFA, the Law Society and others. I just think there is a big gap and it is exposed more when we are in challenging circumstances.’

As a membership organisation, not all chief executives join – and many of those who have been in trouble recently have not been part of the society.

Mr Caller wants to see the sector setting its own standards, taking this on themselves for fear of a more forceful intervention. That said, there is little appetite from central Government to step in.

‘I have suggested in the past that there ought to be a statutory register. The Department [for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities] look at that with absolute horror,’ he says. ‘If there was such a register then it would be their fault every time the chief executive failed, because they put them on the register.’

Instead, it should be a case of local government taking responsibility for itself – before more councils go down in flames.

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