A clash of cultures 





In recent times it has become increasingly common for new leaders of LA's to have a business background. This is seen by many and by the leaders themselves as just what local councils need in a period of prolonged austerity, people who know how to keep costs down and maximise efficiency. But running a LA like a business can bring a leader into conflict with their chief executive as protecting vulnerable people, keeping libraries open ,pot holes filled and bins emptied is not the same as running a profitable business. This is not so much a clash of personalities as a clash of cultures.


  1. first thing someone experience in running their own business comments on when entering local government is the number of managers. A new council leader elected on a mandate to deliver efficiency savings rather than service cuts can't believe the level of " over manning". Then there is the shock and horror at the levels of absenteeism typically found in parts of local government. Finally there is the suspicion quickly confirmed that committees are talking shops with officers providing ideological driven reports when what is required by the board/cabinet is a "business case".


Cutting management posts can appear a win win to a new leader. It improves efficiency with out cutting services and neither the public nor the unions are that bother about fewer managers. The chief executive will have reservations. The reason LA's have lots of managers is that they have a very diverse range of services, cutting posts means remaining managers will have broader spans of responsibility and willbe managing services they have no professional background in and no expert knowledge of. This makes senior managers feel very vulnerable . It also makes the budget cutting process more difficult for senior managers because the assistant director for adult social services who now also has responsible for libraries and museums has to assess whether their budget proposals are deliverable and whether their claims that further cuts would result in a much greater loss of income from grants are accurate. And just how realist are the museums service proposals to avoid further cuts by increasing income?


Cutting one in four management post is the type of decisive action the leader wants. A chief executive will be mindful that the route to achieve this, early retirement, may mean the wrong people leave, leaving a skill and knowledge gap that in the short term at least would make some services like social services very vulnerable and undermine other services attempts to hit their performance targets.


Absenteeism rates are way to high but areas like social services and housing where there is a lot of contact with the public at times of crisis have a greater toll on staff than the average factory or office job. Plus which what the leader doesn't yet appreciate that his fellow councillors on the appeals committee are reluctant to dismiss staff who are "genuinely " I'll.


The idea that officers should present the board / cabinet with the business case for action rather than proposals based on political ideology is music to the average chief executives ears. However what makes sound financial sense may be highly emotive and play badly in the local media with the result that compromises have to be made. A strong business case is made for closing all the authority's old people's homes and using the funds released to buy cheaper care in the private sector . Only for the cabinet under pressure from the wider group to agree to close half the homes which does not generate a saving because the funds released will need to be spent bring the remaining homes up to standard. The chief executive makes the business case for investing in preventative services by demonstrating how these could be funded by an additional 2 percent of cuts. The cabinet take the additional cuts but instead of releasing the money for reinvestment they use it to postpone making unpopular cuts elsewhere.


In the business world if the chair and chief executive get the board to adopt a strategy they expect it to be implemented. And a leader of the council with a business back ground might expect this to be the case in local government. However members can agree a strategy in cabinet or full council but then campaign locally against its implementation on the grounds that they are representing the views of their constituents. This happens with library closures.


The leader can understandably become frustrated. The risk is they grow tired of battling a hostile media, frustrated that a local authority can not be run like a business ,bored with local politics and keen to return full time to running his own profitable business.


So in the case of a new leader with a business background the chief executive has to whole heartedly adopt the business like approach, whilst not leaving themselves and their senior managers over exposed, assisting the leader in stiffening the resolve of the wider group yet recognising that politicians unlike officers have to get reelected. Whether the relationship works depends a lot on how it is perceived within and outside the organisation. What ever they really feel about each other as far as staff and the outside world are concerned they talk all the time and they are in total agreement. And should they lose the next election the chief executive will be in total agreement with the new leader.


Blair McPherson former local authority director, author and blogger www.blairmcpherson.co.uk







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