It’s all part of the myth

By Blair Mcpherson | 07 May 2020

A Downing Street insider was recently reported to have described the Prime Minister’s leadership style as, ‘like working for an old fashioned local authority chief executive of 20 years ago’. The senior advisor was not making a favourable comparison. He went on to criticise him for not chairing meetings, not working weekends, liking his country breaks and leaving urgent crisis planning to others.  In other words, old fashioned chief executives were characterised as having a relaxed hands-off approach, unconcerned with the detail and leaving the heavy lifting to others, a laissez faire leadership style unsuited to a time of crisis. 

It’s true that the role of a local authority chief executive 20 years ago was very different pre-austerity and before league tables. In the days before contracting out and commissioning when services were in house and each directorate was left to get on with it the chief’s role was to keep the members happy, be a model employer, promote the public sector ethos and use their social network and the organisation’s status to influence the big picture.

This involved promoting economic development, tackling social exclusion, taking a lead in bring about community cohesion and championing equality and diversity. Inevitably this involved working with voluntary and faith groups as well as supporting small business and this did involve quite a lot of smooching, in the form of sherry and wine evening at county hall. At these events councillors and senior managers were lobbied by individuals wanting to secure their organisation’s annual grant or if possible to increase it because with a little more money they could do a lot more good. 

Much of this persists but the emphasis has changed. Today’s chief executive is obsessed with finance and budget cuts and has an almost tunnel vision focus on performance. In response to these challenges they have narrowed the agenda and slimmed down the organisation. The management mantra is now efficiency not effectiveness. The organisation is now corporate and governance is by cabinet not large committees. Chief executives are more business-like and local authorities are run more like businesses. 

The old fashioned chief executive was a man of his times (it usually was a man 20 years ago). He was a laissez faire leader, but I never came across one who didn’t chair important meetings, who wouldn’t take the lead in a crisis or who was able to keep evenings and weekends free of work. Was there ever a time when the leader of the council would not ring the chief executive at home to discuss a plan, report a conversation with a committee chair or raise a constituency matter on behalf of a councillor?  I can only assume that in referring disparagingly to ‘old fashioned local authority chief executives’ this unnamed special advisor has in mind those stories about the drinks cabinet in the chief executive’s oak panelled office and the Friday afternoon drinks with the leader of the council, the editor of the local paper and maybe the local MP. All part of the myth that being a local authority chief executive was at some time in the past more about being a congenital host and an affable character.

Blair Mcpherson is a former director, and an author and blogger 

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