Draft Local Government (Organisation and Standards) Bill Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence - First Report


APPENDIX 45

Memorandum by SOLACE

1.  INTRODUCTION

  The Society of Local Authority Chief Executive and Senior Managers (SOLACE) is the representative body of chief executives and senior managers of every principal council in the United Kingdom. Chief executives are the heads of the paid service of the councils, variously accountable for the performance of council management and administration to the council leadership, the whole council, the council's auditors, and the general law.

  SOLACE exists to promote effective Local Government and to provide support and professional development to its members.

  2.  This response to the consultation paper should be seen in the context that local government generally, and SOLACE in particular, accept much of the analysis which has led to the proposed changes.

  3.  Whilst wishing for more freedom in the choice of political executive model by an individual Council, the position of SOLACE is to attempt to identify how it might help the process of change.

4.  POLITICAL AND MANAGERIAL LEADERSHIP

  In examining the new roles of members and officers it is important to place this proposed legislation in the context of the government's overall programme. There is a danger that the separation of the proposals into different Bills and legislative time-frames will lead to a fragmentation of the agenda. It is important that the new structures of decision-making are put within the framework of a constitutional purpose for local government of community leadership.

  5.  The proposals in the White Paper rightly emphasise the importance of developing the Political leadership role of elected Members both in terms of Community leadership and in terms of effective leadership of the decision making machinery inside Local Authorities. These improvements will be beneficial as long as recognition is given to the important but different area of Managerial leadership. The White Paper does not clearly distinguish between the roles of Members and Officers in these two areas, and it could be a cause of some difficulty if the roles became confused. Whilst it could to some extent be argued at the moment that there is an element of ambiguity in the definition of the roles, the articulation of their distinctness is crucial if we are to progress to a system where more decision making capability is delegated to a few individuals, outside of a formal Committee system, and ensure there are adequate checks and balances in the new system.

  6.  There is a need and an opportunity, either through Regulation, Statutory guidance or Primary legislation—(perhaps a specific mention in clause 16 of the Bill)—to spell out the roles more clearly. It is the role of political leadership to express and form ideas and objectives. It is then the role of Managerial leadership to implement those ideas and objectives. The primary focus of Political leadership should be outwards, engaging the Community, reflecting the views of the Community into the Council, whilst Managers manage the service delivery machinery internally, with the staff management issues that entails, carrying out the wishes of Politicians in involving Local people in consultative arrangements and in service delivery decisions. Managers give advice on Policy options, often giving technical professional advice. Politicians make choices and advocate for courses of action chosen. The danger of confusion of the roles is that Politicians' efforts get spread too thinly, if they are trying to manage the internal machinery as well as lead, they become less strategic and risk losing touch with the electorate if they end up spending more time facing inwards rather than outwards, and if Officers confuse their Managerial role with the role of the Politician they risk losing their Political impartiality.

  7.  The new models will in many respects be fundamentally different from the present system and will introduce new tensions and pressures within Councils. The role of the Head of the Paid Service (hereafter referred to as Chief Executive) will be fundamental in these developments. It is clear, however, that the role will be a different one in the future, as will be the case with other senior officers.

  8.  The principal purpose of this paper is to explore how the opportunity should be taken to redefine the role of Chief Executive and of other senior officers to enhance the likelihood of success of the new models and avoid the pitfalls which the new systems inevitably contain.

9.  THE CHIEF EXECUTIVE

  The last national consideration of the role of Chief Executive was in the context of the Local Government and Housing Act 1989 which required Councils to designate an officer as Head of the Paid Service and define certain limited functions for that post. Other than this, the post is in many ways defined similarly to the terms used in the Bains' report of 1972, although the job itself has changed dramatically in that period.

  Essentially the job of Chief Executive has four principal aspects:

    —  providing and securing advice to the Council on strategy and policy;

    —  managerial leadership of the organisation;

    —  acting in an executive capacity by making decision or ensuring a system is in place for other officers to make decisions, as authorised by the Council; and

    —  delivering probity, value for money and continuous improvement.

  Many Chief Executives have also found themselves in the present structure playing important roles in developing the external relationships of their Councils, including partnernships and developing community governance. In many respects this role has developed because the role of Councillors in community leadership has not been as strong as it could or should have been. It is our aspiration that this should change.

  In the past fifteen to twenty years, the management role has had to contain major responsibilities for organisation development, leadership and communication in a period which has seen many rapid changes. The next few years will be no exception to this pattern and the importance of clear managerial leadership to the large workforces employed by local authorities cannot be overstated.

  The new political systems involve separation of a political executive from the assembly. In reality, the situation will not be as clear cut as this because a council will continue to be a single political organisation. Furthermore, the assembly side is increasingly likely to contain an area committee structure which will in fact make decisions, although these decisions will be relatively minor in nature and typically within overall policies established by the executive.

  The division will however, have implications for the roles of officers and the Chief Executive in particular. It is accepted that in all models the Council will still employ a Chief Executive to be overall manager of a council's workforce. Some people have suggested that this may not be a sensible approach and that it is better to accept the inherent conflicts and appoint separate functional heads of the executive and assembly organisations. SOLACE does not support this view and believes the aim should be to retain as much as possible the vision of a single organisation working with its community and that this is better achieved under a single Chief Executive. It is, however, necessary to develop the role of the Chief Executive to attempt to assist in resolving such conflicts.

  It would appear that a critical success factor in Local Authorities is a positive relationship between Leader and Chief Executive, where there is a mutual understanding of roles and respect. Under all the new political models, there will be a single principal politician and this again would suggest the need for the officer structure to be headed by a single individual to replicate this critical success factor to provide an independent view necessary to protect all interests and to encourage corporate working to eliminate departmentalism which can arise if there is no single managerial leader.

10.  ISSUES WITHIN THE NEW POLITICAL STRUCTURES

  Set out below are some areas of concern which are arising in relation to the new forms of political structure and which may in part be addressed by consideration of the role of the Chief Executive and other senior officers.

    (a)  Decision Making. The new executive arrangements will permit decision making in private, by single party groups and by individual members. These are radical changes which require checks and balances which are in part provided for by the scrutiny system.

    (b)  Recording of Decisions. The Committee system is a very clear way of recording decisions and systems of officer delegation are generally laid down in Council Standing Orders and Terms of Reference. Decision-making in different environments will require new approaches to recording decisions to ensure that appropriate audit trails are available to check on decisions and decision-making processes.

    (c)  Availability of Advice. It is axiomatic that decisions should be made upon the best advice available, although that advice does not necessarily have to be followed. Under the current system, advice is contained in committee reports and background papers are listed. The new system will require continuation of such advice and not only to the cabinet and/or controlling political parties.

    (d)  Staffing Matters. These essentially form a sub set of decision-making but, given the large number of staff employed in local government, staffing matters deserve particular attention. It is vital that the new systems retain the public service traditions of appointment on merit, equality of opportunity and, hopefully, an acceptance that staff on occasions have to make tough decisions and should not be subject to reprisals.

    (e)  Political Neutrality. The new systems have the potential to increase the party politicisation of officers. It is accepted that political advisers could be a useful part of the system but the essential neutrality of the core management and workforce should remain. It is not of course to say that the Chief Executive does not need considerable political acumen.

    (f)  Scrutiny Matters. Scrutiny will inevitably be used, probably by opposition parties, as a political weapon. Such action should not degenerate into mere political theatre and there needs to be some process for arbitration concerning matters of scrutiny, which could include pursuing individuals within the organisation for personal reasons. The scrutiny function also needs adequate support and to be aware of what decisions have been made and how they have been made and where they have been recorded.

    (g)  Availability of Information. One of the benefits of the committee system is that it has contained within it large amounts of information which members have been able to use to keep up to date with developments within the council. Provision will need to be made in the new arrangements for members to be similarly kept up to date with developments within an individual council and local government generally.

    (h)  Standards and Ethics. A Standards Committee could also become subject to abuse, again possibly by Opposition parties, to bring before it trivial or inappropriate matters. There will need to be some interpretation and judgment involved in pursuing issues to a Standards Committee which ensure that it becomes and remains an effective device.

11.  IMPLICATIONS FOR THE ROLE OF THE CHIEF EXECUTIVE

  SOLACE believes that the framework for the role of Chief Executive outlined in Section 10 above still remains robust and relevant but that certain, more detailed aspects of the job need to be defined as part of the creation of new political executives. The following points are put forward as matters for consideration.

    —  The Chief Executive should remain the single overall manager of a local authority.

    —  Chief Executives and other senior officers should remain politically neutral, whilst being politically astute.

    —  The Chief Executive should be responsible for delivering to the Mayor or Cabinet and the assembly, a system of professional advice on all relevant topics and that where such advice relates to decision making, then it should be on the record. It is, however, accepted that informal advice will necessarily be given to majority parties and/or cabinets; this has long been a feature of a Local Government system and should remain.

    —  The Chief Executive should be responsible for ensuring there is a system for clear delegation of decision which has been decided upon by the Council and that decisions which require recording are so recorded in a form which will enable public and other scrutiny and that there is access to appropriate supporting documentation.

    —  A mechanism for appointing Chief Executives should be approved by the whole council and the whole council would need to invoke the procedure for the dismissal of a Chief Executive.

    —  The Council should similarly determine procedures for appointment of the directors or other senior managers of the council but all other staffing matters, including appointments, development discipline and dismissal, should be vested in the Chief Executive.

    —  The Chief Executive should be able to attend any meeting of the council and should have access to all documentation. If there is a need to know issue in relation to, say, confidential information, the monitoring officer should arbitrate.

    —  The Chief Executive should be charged with ensuring that there are within a council, adequate systems for dissemination of relevant information to all members of the council.

    —  The principal role in relation to community leadership and governance lies with elected Councillors, but Chief Executive should support that role through their professional advice and by assisting directly in forging those external partnerships within the Council's framework of policies.

 12.  IMPLICATION FOR OTHER SENIOR OFFICERS

  The role of the monitoring officer needs to be considered and developed, particularly if it is suggested that the monitoring officer could be responsible for determining whether or not matters are appropriate for Scrutiny or Standards Committee consideration, to prevent frivolous abuse of these procedures.

  Given the potential difficulties which could arise with decision making, and many decisions have financial consequences, it is possible that the role of the Section 151 Officer will also require consideration and development. Specifically, it should be a requirement that there is a system to ensure that all decisions that have financial consequences have been brought to the attention of the officer or his properly identified staff.

  It is suggested that the protection from dismissal provisions applying to the Chief Executive should be extended to Monitoring Officers and Section 151 Officers.

  Councils will need to ensure that the roles and, particularly, the decision making powers of directors or other senior managers are carefully laid down in their own internal procedures and the requirement for such a scheme to be in place has been mentioned under the role of Chief Executive above. A particular area of concern may be where decisions are delegated to officers in consultation with individual members, or where individual members are making decisions after some form of discussion with or advice from directors.

13.  MAYORS, CABINETS AND COUNCIL MANAGERS

  As mentioned above, SOLACE would prefer increased flexibility about the forms of political executive and does wish to question the considerable emphasis on the elected mayor model. It is felt that there is a lack of understanding of the American system which does seem to underlie some debate in this country. There is a continuing decline in support in the United States for the directly elected executive mayor in favour of the council manager approach. Furthermore, it is perhaps unfortunate that in the White Paper and Bill, the Council Manager approach is linked exclusively to an elected mayor.

  Our understanding both of the Council Manager structure in the United States and the New Zealand system, suggests that the form can sit very comfortably with the traditional system or cabinet model.

  The success of the Government's proposals depends very significantly on developing clear roles and responsibilities for the key actors in Local Government. This applies not just to the roles of executive versus non executive member, but also and most crucially to the roles and responsibilities of Members and of Officers. If Councillors are to develop their powerful new roles of community leadership and of governance, and a focusing on policy and strategy and of accountability to the electorate, then that needs to be underlined by emphasising that such roles are not compatible with detailed involvement in organisational matters and operational decision making. Alongside these new roles for Councillors, complementary roles for Officers need to be spelt out. The Government has indicated under paragraph 3.7 of the White Paper that for all of the models it proposes it should be the job of the Chief Executive and Chief Officers to "implement policy and secure service delivery for the executive". If that is to happen effectively and efficiently, and in a way which helps to keep Councillors focused on developing new and demanding responsibility of community leadership and governance, it needs to be fully supported either through the primary legislation, through regulation or through binding guidance.

14.  NON-EXECUTIVE COUNCILLORS

  The respective roles of the Executive and the "backbench" councillors, have been the subject of much comment and concern. The draft legislation envisages a very fierce separation between them, prohibiting members of the executive from being on scrutiny etc. committees. This is too prescriptive. In Wales the National Assembly, as approved by Parliament, provides for Executive Members also to be members of subject committees having policy and scrutiny remits. Parliament operates on the same basis. Why then should this artificial division be created? It will tend to reinforce the idea of two classes of membership.

  15.  We have noted in paragraph 10 above that the Chief Executive should be responsible to the authority as a whole and in our judgement that should include a responsibility to ensure that adequate support is provided for non-executive councillors' functions.

16.  TRANSITION

  The new system will require new skills for both members and officers. It is our view that developing these skills will take time—certainly more than the life of one council. There will be a responsibility on Chief Executives and senior officers to adapt their roles to the new construct, and to enable members to do the same. Support for members during this period and assistance in managing the process from chief executives will be very important and explicit acknowledgement of this responsibility should be made.

17.  THE ETHICAL DIMENSION

  The points made in this paper re-emphasise the importance of the ethics provisions being developed in the context of the new models and not the existing ones. However, some greater clarity in the law will be essential. The form of the proposed new offence of abuse of public office will be important, particularly in the context of the recent Court of Appeal decision in the Westminster case.

  18.  The White Paper refers to a series of documents—Codes of Conduct, Whistleblowing Procedures and protocols. Examples already exist. However, their form and precision will need to be re-examined in the light of, on the one hand the possibilities of disqualification under the new ethics provisions and the new forms of councillor now proposed, and on the other the rationale of the Westminster decision.

  19.  It is suggested that the draft legislation should include provisions to enable authorities to settle ombudsman complaints locally (a current debate about councils powers to do so) and also to give the Standards Committee power to deal with complaints referred to it by the Standards Board.

20.  CONCLUSIONS

  The cultural and practical changes required for the successful implementation of these changes are considerable. SOLACE believes that redefining the role of the Chief Executive will be a vital factor in that success. Although there has been a degree of acknowledgement of this in the process so far, SOLACE believes that it is of such importance that changes should be referred to on the face of the Bill or in accompanying statutory instruments. Simply incorporating the existing responsibilities is not enough.

24 May 1999


 
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