Occasionally you read a piece of writing so staggering in its mis-titling that it is almost laughable; it is usually in a tabloid and rarely relates to local government. I was therefore intrigued by a piece in the Spectator Coffee House blog entitled:
I should have known better than to expect something incisive but I like the Spectator and so read on nonetheless; I could not have been more disappointed. The author, a councillor in Westminster, came up with six ‘top tips’ that can be summed up as follows:
Fixed term contracts for senior staff, reduce salaries for all new appointments, a blanket ban on council employees staying in hotels in city centres, outsource services, publish regional tables of council tax increases and enforce a compulsory council shut down for two weeks every summer.
I was tempted to write a line by line rebuttal to his piece but it really wasn't worth it. His recipe for outfoxing Chief Executives seems to involve the subtlety of Balderick, allied to some not particularly clever or imaginative policies, some of which are definitely based on the past or central Government (apparently, mandarins like to have hotels in central London rather than go home at night?) or just restatements of policies already put in place by the Government. All fine from a Tory perspective but not exactly particularly out-foxing.
I am surprised the Spectator published something so poor (have always respected the writing there) but we've published some shocking stuff in the past (much of it written by me) so probably best not to linger.
However, as the piece really didn’t tell me how to out-fox a Chief Executive I thought I’d give it a go. So without further ado please find the We Love Local Government guide to outfoxing a local authority Chief Executive:
1) Focus on really small details when discussing big policy issues. Chief Executives are often great with the big picture but can’t be expected to keep on top of all of the small details. It’s unlikely a part time councillor will ever be able to have the knowledge advantage over the Chief Executive over the big picture but on the detail that could just throw them off.
2) If possible present your new policy ideas in ways that are popular with staff; Chief Executives are used to treading a fine line between ideas that are popular with the politicians but need to be amended because they are bad policy. Trying to mediate ideas that are also popular with staff, or the voluntary sector, makes that much more difficult.
3) Make decisions at the last moment. Chief Executives, like most officers, like to be able to plan things out and being unpredictable and doing things at the last minute throws them off and means you’re more likely to get your own way; even if your own way ends up being wrong.
4) Get involved in the delivery of whatever policy you want implemented. Most politicians stop being involved once the decision is made and whilst officers do everything they can to implement the policy correctly getting involved in the delivery can make it much more likely you get your way.
5) Threaten to fire them. Councillors can fire the Chief Executive and I’m assuming that threatening to fire them would focus their mind somewhat.
6) How about you stop trying to outfox the Chief Executive and just work with them to deliver what you want to?
At the end of the day Chief Executives are there to help councillors govern and to deliver high quality public services. Treating the governing process like something out of Sun Tzu’s ‘art of war’ is the quickest way to deliver absolutely nothing.
All of the above ideas would go some way to outfox a Chief Executive but probably end up with bad policy and bad local government. Perhaps occasionally there is a Chief Executive with an ego so big they think they are running the joint but most of the people who reach this position are much savvier than that. Work with them and you'll achieve a lot more than if you treat them like an enemy.