That's why they call them senior managers

By Blair McPherson | 14 October 2016

Chief executives are no longer leaders, they are managers. It is not just their vision they are tasked with delivering.

Chief executives are managers with leadership skills but a process that started before austerity means the agenda has seen a clear shift in their role and power as political leaders asserted themselves over managerial leaders of local authorities.

A shift was signalled by the Government's enthusiasm for directly elected Mayors that was all about central office telling council leaders to exert their authority.

Twenty years ago, and in some places as little as 10 years ago, senior managers would have spoken of their chief executive as the person running the organisation even though the chief's boss was referred to as the leader of the council.

There was a clear separation of roles. The leader of the council was the leader of the majority political party. Their job was to ensure party discipline and that they used their majority to win votes in committee and full council. In doing so, they ensured the smooth running of business.

It was the same for directors. They ran departments and their committee chair ensured the policies that the department was putting forward were passed. It was not uncommon for departments like social services to put forward 30 or 40 ‘committee papers’ in a meeting.

The accepted practice was for the first half dozen papers to be discussed/debated in detail and the rest to simply be voted through on the nod. The temptation was to slip a controversial proposal low down the agenda and thus avoid any award questions. Which explains why councillors sometimes expressed surprise about officers’ actions, only to be informed they had approved the policy at a previous committee meeting.

So chief executives ran the show and directors led their departments.

Of course, being in a political environment, officers were deferential to elected members and if challenged would certainly have said they only provided advice members made the policy decisions.

The cosy relationship between directors and their chairs was disrupted by the introduction of governance by cabinet.

Now, instead of a one-to-one and then a rubber stamping in committee, a more business like cabinet was able to take a more rigorous approach to the ‘advice’ of individual officers.

This gave politicians the means to be more assertive, while at the same time central government - which has always distrusted local government - was encouraging politicians to take the lead in the promotion of party ideology.

In other words, the leader of the council and their cabinet were to determine the vision to say what the future would look like. If officers didn't like it, too bad - they were there to make it happen and if they were uncomfortable or professionally opposed to outsourcing services, greater use of the private sector or moving to becoming a commissioning rather than a provider organisation they could be replaced.

Some authorities toyed with the idea of doing away with the post of chief executive, replacing them with a head of paid service just to push home the point about who was the leader and who was the manager.

So to the present time, when the main job of a chief executive and their directors seems to be managing the budget cuts.

Of course, with local government being a political environment where image and public opinion counts, the politicians are happy for the chief executive and directors to have status and authority and to take the flak for a bad inspection report, a failure to deliver savings, or a demoralised staff group.

Blair McPherson is a former local authority director

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