Of late, I have noted increasing discussion and even some momentum for ‘executive mayors’ and ‘executive leaders’. The simplistic argument seems broadly to go along the lines that such appointments will: save on the salaries of too highly paid chief executives (the proponents of executive mayors and leaders argue that they are too high not me); lead to clearer accountability and visibility of who is ‘in command’; and attract candidates with managerial experience.
Meanwhile, best practice in the corporate sector (at least in the UK) requires the separation of the role of chair and chief executive – recall the noise when Sir Michael Rose combined the two roles at Marks & Spencer, even when the company was delivering successful results?
While one always needs to be careful about drawing too many parallels between private and public sector governance, it is worth noting that Cadbury and other major reports on governance have consistently and strongly advocated the separation of the two critical leadership roles.
It is also to be noted that those ministers proposing executive mayors and executive leaders are not (at least, as yet – though I suppose one must give them time) advocating that they combine their own roles with those of their permanent secretaries.
There have been previous attempts – however unofficial – for political leaders to claim managerial control of their authorities. We need to learn the lessons from this small number of examples. And of course, there have been and remain many council leaders who see their role, in part, to ‘manage’ their authorities and in these circumstances, there is and has been a clear potential conflict with their chief executive. I suppose that it is inevitable that this temptation will always be seductively ‘enticing’ for some politicians whatever their competencies and motivation.
Sadly, as is so typical in this country, we have arrived at where we are in terms of political governance of local authorities without considering the wider implications for the whole of each organisation, including its professional management.
I suggest that before we embark on a new form of hybrid ‘political–executive leader’, there is a case for review of the role of leader/mayor (noting that the two are very different, with different accountabilities and political relationships) and chief executive; and indeed possibly between the cabinet member and chief officer.
The political role is political. It should and must remain political. This is more than a self-evident statement. It is the defining definition. It is about:
– developing and promoting a vision for the place and for the local authority
– developing, and introducing strategies and policies to fulfil this vision
– listening to and leading local communities
– shaping and influencing the policies and programmes of other public, community, voluntary and business organisations in the locality
– mediating between conflicting and competing demands.
The politician is and must be accountable for her/his policies and the performance of the local authority. Thus, the relationship with the electorate and wider community is a political one – and ultimately they can be voted out of or back into office.
With few exceptions, the political leader or mayor will be the representative of his/her political party and play a political party role. Even leaders and mayors who are not party politicians will have to undertake political duties and sustain political relations with the electorate. This is legitimate and important.
The political leader or mayor should not want to, and should resist being drawn into managerial activities. These will consume too much precious time and deflect thinking away from the core political role and duties. It will mean too much time spent in the town hall and not enough in and with the community. It will lead to involvement in internal office politics and sorting out detailed managerial matters rather than holding true to strategic vision for the locality. Political leaders and mayors should be driven by political values and principles, and not MBA text books.
All that said, first and foremost political leaders and mayors must be accountable for the performance of their authority. This means that they cannot and should not ignore managerial leadership. In the current arrangements, one of the most important (and challenging) set of duties that a leader/mayor has is to ensure the appointment of a competent chief executive – a vital and complex task for which they often and rightly need access to advice and support.
For all leaders and elected mayors, the relationship with the authority’s chief executive (note ‘the authority’s’ and not ‘their’ chief executive) is one of, if not ‘the’ most important single relationships in any local authority. The leader has to: hold the chief executive to account; agree objectives; undertake appraisals; discuss critical issues and take professional advice and challenge from the chief executive; and respect the chief executive’s professional and statutory role and responsibilities. A leader should expect the chief executive to ensure that her/his programme is delivered.
In turn, the chief executive has a responsibility to deliver this programme but also to advise on any problems, unintended consequences, financial or legal constraints. In extremis, the chief executive has a duty to intervene and prevent unlawful or fiduciary unsound decisions that a leader/mayor may wish to pursue – although usually the relationship will be of the nature that enables such matters to be addressed well before there is a need for such intervention.
Leaders and elected mayors may wish to have special advisors to provide political advice but the chief executive also has a duty to provide professional advice to the leader – as well as to the whole council and every councillor. Of course, most chief executives, like permanent secretaries, will be mindful of their leaders’ policy and programmes when giving such advice.
The core role of the chief executive is clear. It is to turn the political will of the leader/mayor and council into outcomes for local communities. It is a managerial leadership role leading a large organisation – often to lead change management programmes – and ensuring that outcomes are achieved through behavioural change, partnerships, networking, commissioning, service delivery and contracting. It is a vital ‘executive’, but not political role.
In practice, the role of chief executive and his/her relationship with the leader has evolved considerably over the past decade as the political governance arrangements of local authorities have themselves changed. Many leaders and chief executives have relationships which mean that the leader’s word is ‘law’ for management. However, many, probably also find chief executives themselves having to do what in other authorities would be undertaken by their political leaders.
And similar situations can arise between cabinet members and senior directors. The chief executive should be managerially responsible for senior directors (though appointments are usually jointly taken with politicians) but the leader/mayor must provide ‘management’ of the cabinet member who in turn will set policy and monitor performance at a strategic level.
Over the years, many shades of grey have developed between the role and responsibilities of politicians and executive officers. Accountabilities have changed – politicians remain accountable to their electorates but some national ministers have required designated senior officers to be, in part, accountable to them directly.
Localism should mean that all local authority officers should be accountable to their councillors and elected mayors. However, the proper officer roles of chief executives as ‘head of paid service’ and section 151 finance officers requires that they retain their professional accountabilities. And senior professional officers such as directors of children’s services also have a professional duty to fulfil though this should be through their advice to leaders, councillors and chief executives.
The current call for executive leaders and executive mayors, if pursued, will alter the nature of local accountability. It has the potential to weaken service delivery and, ironically, may well diminish the political authority of political leaders.
Time, I think, for a full and informed debate nationally and in every local authority about the respective roles of leaders and chief executives. Time to provide the opportunity for new definitions that best meet local circumstances within a national legal framework.
And my starter for ten? Contrary to the current ‘noise’, I think that the two separate roles are much to be valued – and that an effective pairing/duet is a perquisite for good governance and excellent well-being for local communities.
John Tizard is director of the Centre for Public Service Partnerships (CPSP@LGIU)