Now is not the time to downgrade council chiefs

By Heather Jameson | 02 September 2020
  • Heather Jameson

Being a council chief executive has always been a bit of a thankless task – but now, more than ever before, the demands are getting higher, the rewards are getting fewer and, one way or another, the chances of falling foul of the politics are greater than ever.

For the average chief executive, the list of priorities is now so long it is making a mockery of the notion of prioritisation.

From public health emergencies to economic crises, the first spike of COVID-19 may be over but the fallout continues to grow. Protecting health, local businesses and local people is top of the list.

Housing and homelessness, planning, transport and climate change. Finance, transformation, workforce and wellbeing. Adult social care, children’s services and finance. Reorganisation and devolution. The list goes on, stretching daily.

And priorities are not the only pressures. From allegations of officers being bullied, to instances of whistleblowing, dealing with problematic politics always comes with the job but is amplified in times of trouble. And with a raft of elections due next may, chief executive turnover could reach record levels.

Right now, local authorities need great leadership – both political and managerial – more than ever before, yet the gripes and grumbles about chief executive salaries and exit payments get ever louder.

In York, a top team reorganisation – recommended by the Local Government Association – will see the post of chief executive downgraded to a chief operating officer, saving just under £8,000 a year. It could end up being a case of putting cost before value.

It seems that our local politicians may be taking their lead from central government. As senior civil servants abandon ship – through choice or being forced to walk the plank – the current government appears to place little value on their workforce.

They may have ousted the old-guard and promised a shake-up, but it remains to be seen if the next cadre of permanent secretaries perform any better.

The coming months will see the need for local government to reshape, adapt and support local communities. It will need a superhuman effort from all staff to make it work. Now is not the time to downgrade the chief executive, it is time to celebrate what an extraordinary job they do.

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