Monday, 14 July 2014

Does Bradford Council need a chief executive?


Today Bradford Council's chief executive announced his departure from the Council. It seems to me, therefore, that this is a good time to look at the role in a manner free from suggestions (or accusations) of this sort of review being 'personal'. For the past two years Bradford's Conservative Group has argued that, given financial constraints and extensive change programmes, no function should be excluded from examination. We have therefore argued for a review of the scope and purpose of the chief executive's role.

It seems to me that there are two sorts of council - ones like Oldham, East Yorkshire or Barnsley with a dominant political leader (we should note that this applies de facto where there is a directly elected mayor) and those like Manchester, Sheffield and Bradford where the chief executives act - as a former colleague described - as an 'unelected mayor'.

In Bradford the collected policy development resource reporting to the political leadership consists of just two or three people. In contrast the chief executive can call upon and direct a 'strategic support' resource in excess of eighty officers. The policy-making function sits squarely with the chief executive and gets little or no direction from the Council's political leadership. This has applied under both Conservative and Labour leadership, it is the accepted arrangement (although the current chief executive has created a stronger policy profile at the centre by pulling resource from departments).

If we accept that local government is subject to democratic control, we need to ask whether this control is real. And by asking this question, we end up asking whether politicians should live up to role their description implies and take the lead in setting policy? Furthermore, since local government is complicated, it makes sense for professional policy support within a council to be for those politicians rather than for the chief executive. We do not expect government ministers to develop policy without policy advice provided independently from the job of administering the functions of government departments. Yet in local government such an arrangement - policy advice allowing politicians to develop policy - is not the case (or not in my experience).

Without policy development (and assuming that political leadership actually does some leading) the requirement for a chief executive such as Bradford's becomes more an exercise in organisational machismo than an essential function. The position returns to the old-fashioned town clerk role - a combination of essential governance functions and providing direction for those who the council employs to manage the different functions of the local council business.

The quasi-political role adopted by modern chief executives - a combination of ra-ra and promotion with some sort of 'sector leadership' - has contributed to the reducing of local politics to the fringes of relevance. A first step to restoring the balance would be in letting politicians develop policy rather than chief executives.


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Bring back the Town Clerk - he knew his job and his place, just got on with it, and all the townsfolk benefited.