Wednesday, 12 February 2014

Scrapping the position of Council chief executive? Well it's a thought...


Indeed a thought that Bradford Council's Conservative Group has proposed in its last two budget submissions (more specifically we've asked that the position is included within a wider review of governance and leadership). It seems that the government down in London agrees with us:

‘The Government believes that the traditional model of chief executive, with a wide public role and a significant salary, is unnecessary and can weaken the ability of a council’s political leadership to set a direction through the executive role of elected members.'

Now partly this is all part of the "no public servant should be paid more than the prime minister" nonsense but there's a more important and broader issue here of governance. As council chief executives have drifted away from their traditional town clerk role they have become what one Bradford councillor called "the unelected mayor", individuals with an enormous amount of discretionary (even arbitrary) power. Moreover this power is exercised without the capacity of the electorate and its representatives to control or correct actions.

The intention of the 2000 local government act (for all its myriad flaws and failures) was to re-establish the authority of elections and elected people either through the introduction of a directly elected mayor or else through a powerful leader and cabinet model. The presence, especially within the latter, of powerful chief executives undermines the authority of that political executive by creating a different nexus from which policy and strategic leadership can come.

In Bradford this problem is illustrated by the fact that the chief executive has over £4 million worth of officer resource directed to policy, strategy and 'change' whereas the entire political establishment has just two and a half policy officers (less than £100,000 worth). A moment's glance at this structure tells you that the political leadership of the council, in terms of positive policy-making, is completely dominated by the chief executive. Indeed it often seems that the only action us politicians can take is to veto a proposal. Positive proposals, if they don't accord with the professional leadership's 'vision', run the risk of simply staying just that, a proposal.

None of this is a criticism of the capability of chief executives merely to observe that the position has grown to such strength that the over-riding principle of democratic leadership and accountability is undermined. We need to look again at the role of leading the 'paid service' and consider how we can - if we like the idea of democracy that is - rejuvenate the role of councillors and political leadership.


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