Yet again local government’s role is being reshaped by political and economic forces. As councils cut budgets and prepare to sink the knife still deeper, they are increasingly sharing and leveraging power rather than exerting control.
While direct power is flowing to organisations such as free schools, academies, clinical commissioning groups and police and crime commissioners, local government is at the centre of a network of influence. Local Enterprise Partnerships are the latest vehicle for collaboration with the private sector, City Deals bring together a wide range of local players and health and wellbeing boards tentatively extend local democratic oversight to the NHS.
Widespread public anger might have been expected about such deep cuts, but despite the occasional library occupation the reaction has generally been a sullen acceptance that things are going to be different.
Alongside cuts there is uncertainty – of the impact on councils and people of localising and cutting council tax benefit, the unpredictable gains from business rate reforms and, above all, the prospect of another severe cut in funding after the general election.
As the scale of the cuts became clear many predicted industrial scale reform of the way local government was run. So far the reality has been more prosaic. Few councillors want to risk frightening local voters with radical change, and Suffolk County Council has demonstrated the dangers of being bold.
Nonetheless, local government is gradually changing the way it works and leads.
Martin Reeves, chief executive of Coventry City Council and SOLACE senior vice president, believes the emphasis will increasingly be on working with the private sector, voluntary groups and others to meet local needs and build the conditions for economic growth, rather than the council looking to its own resources: “The leadership role is almost turning into a magnanimous letting go, because others are in a better position to deliver [than] us, and we lever that through our municipal power, which will always be there.
“In the past our leadership style has been very much about strength and power coming through wide and deep service delivery, as big employers and through our democratic mandate. Letting go means thinking that when it comes to delivering core services, when it comes to meeting the needs of our most vulnerable, it is about people doing more for themselves, about new community/social enterprise hybrids emerging, and the private sector delivering on economic prosperity.”
Jo Killian, chief executive of Essex County Council, says chief executives now have to “go beyond the language of partnership to become an expert at integrating services, and to help members understand that in some cases they may have to share power if they are to maintain services”.
This requires senior managers to develop their commercial skills and increasingly operate as collaborators, negotiators and coalition builders rather than traditional managers.
Reeves says: “We will have to ask senior officers to think about risk in a fundamentally different way. In the future officers will be paid to have different collaborative conversations with a range of people to work out different solutions, and admitting we may not always know the right thing to do. That is a big ask.”
Reeves believes SOLACE and other professional organisations need to take a lead in driving this new approach: “There are still a number of our professional colleagues who we need to ask tough questions of, who still hide behind risk profiles and will not necessarily lead but revert to managing. [They] safeguard the status quo rather than do something very different.
“We are trying to shift a whole organisational blueprint and workforce development ethos. SOLACE needs to grasp that in conversations with other professional bodies, because if we ignore it we will go backwards.”
Local government has spelt out the consequences of funding cuts and rising demand for social care. But councils cannot afford the luxury of shroud-waving; it is up to them to make the best of it.
“Saying ‘woe is me this is all terrible’ is just self-indulgent. We are merchants in optimism,” says Derek Myers, chief executive of Kensington and Chelsea and Hammersmith and Fulham councils.
“This is a huge leadership task, which means it has never been more important for us to show leadership capacity.”
He believes councillors and senior officers need to focus their staff on opportunities such as public health and promoting growth.
Terry Huggins, SOLACE president and chief executive of Breckland and South Holland councils, agrees: “Because of our role in the local economy and the cohesion and vibrancy of the area, you don’t find local government peddling doom and gloom. You focus on the possibilities.”
Skills shortages are one the of the biggest blocks to growth. Essex shows how local government works through others to make a difference, using its community budget to get government departments to allow businesses to commission the skills they need. “It cannot be right that in Basildon 500 hairdressers were trained for 10 jobs when local businesses want a thousand engineers and they are having to go to Scotland and Europe to get them,” Killian says.
A decade ago local government was on the road of centrally prescribed improvement. Best value, performance indicators and the Audit Commission saw councils converge towards norms of “best practice”, often adopting similar approaches such as outsourcing routine processes.
Now councils are becoming more diverse. Contracting out continues but services are also coming back in house while a few are being run by staff mutuals, social enterprises and the voluntary sector. Some councils are sharing operations such as council tax collection, others are sharing management teams. Some are beginning to share resources with clinical commissioning groups and other public sector partners.
Myers describes this diversity as “healthy but slightly chaotic”, and points out that, inevitably, some of these ideas will fail.
Meanwhile chief executives, both collectively and individually, have been exposed to unprecedented scrutiny. Salaries are dropping in the face of political pressure, both district and single tier councils have been sharing their chiefs and some posts have been abolished.
It is tempting to see the abolitions and mergers as a profound change, but it is more realistic to note the durability of the chief executive role. The rare occasions where the post has been abolished often seem more related to local conditions and relationships than the emergence of new models of political leadership.
Myers – who along with Graham Farrant at Thurrock and Barking and Dagenham is one of the two people running two single tier councils – says: “It is worth experimenting but I don’t think it is true to say [these developments are] epoch changing. It turns on a particular set of circumstances, and I see it in the spirit of finding local solutions.”
Huggins foresees more radical changes: “I see the possibility of some chief executives managing more than two local authorities and it is not beyond belief that some will take themselves out of the public sector and do an outsourced management arrangement – if I was a slightly younger man I would be tempted to take my team and say ‘how about forming ourselves into a company and floating ourselves off?’ Someone will do that.”
Huggins sees continuing belief among politicians in the benefits of chief executive leadership: “You have a breed of politicians with an understanding for what [the chief executive] brings to the party. They realise that if they have large policy aspirations you need a breed of senior manager to help them deliver that.”
Killian highlights the threat to effective governance from abolishing the chief executive post: “It is an irony to me that in the banking and financial sector the focus on corporate governance is incredibly strong and the delineation of role between chairman and chief executive – proper governance – is seen as imperative now. It seems curious to me that the same logic is not being applied into places where big decisions are being made, lives changed.”
Huggins – expressing what he accepts is a minority view – believes it is time to examine whether to scrap the dual role of the chief executive as the senior policy adviser to the leader while working for the interests of the entire council: “It would be worth experimenting with running chief executive appointments concurrent with leader appointments.”
He is comfortable with a more American model, where there is greater churn of chief executives as the political winds change; the monitoring officer would take on the governance functions.
He detects a change in the way chief executives are managing their relationship with the leader, adopting a lower public profile. This amounts to “not arguing over that ground and releasing it to the political leaders”.
There is anecdotal evidence of an increasing number of directors not wanting to go for the top job, seeing the declining rewards as poor recompense for the pressures and risk of public attack.
“But there is not a crisis,” says Huggins. “There are still people who are masochists like me and will take the downsides because it is such a fantastic job.”