Fringe Box



Opinion: Working for Politicians Is Not Always Fun

Published on: 20 Nov, 2023
Updated on: 21 Nov, 2023

Bernard Quoroll

By Bernard Quoroll

A reader has suggested that a problem with local authority and civil service culture is that there is a reluctance to accept inward recruitment at executive level. But it is much more complicated than that. (See comment on: Woking CEO Gives Notice – She Will Quit in February)

First, working for politicians is not always fun. I worked in six local authorities, three of them as their chief executive and in two of those, the relationship between the political leadership and senior staff was toxic.

At more junior levels, working for councils can be personally and professionally very satisfying but the higher up you get, the more it can become a body contact sport.

In good authorities, the political leadership works seamlessly in tandem with its chief executive… In bad ones it can become chaotic and crisis-driven…”.

Second, it is a more complex enterprise than generally appreciated. Think of it as being responsible for running over a dozen small, medium and large businesses, all under one roof, while building partnerships with dozens of agencies in the public and private sector, and becoming a trusted face in a community where social media rules opinion.

A medium-sized unitary local authority delivers around 450 discrete services and over the last thirteen years, most have had their budgets nearly halved. Chief executives are quite well-paid to cope with this but the private sector pays a lot more.

There is also something distinctively different about wanting to work in public service. It is hard to put your finger on it but it underpins a sense of common service. People from a commercial background can find it very hard to operate in such a process-driven environment, unlike anything they have experienced before.

…a chief executive who is ‘doing the right thing’ but whose face does not fit in the political world of alliances and enemies, now has little protection”

There is, for example, no obvious financial bottom line to work to and the politicians you work for come from every point of the compass, all with their own ambitions to make the world a better place. It can be like trying to herd cats!

In good authorities, the political leadership works seamlessly in tandem with its chief executive and directors and listens to advice. In bad ones it can become chaotic and crisis-driven very quickly.

Thirdly, the idea that chief executives lack commercial acumen and are all home-grown, does not match the reality. That might be true of the Civil Service but it bears little resemblance to local government.

At the turn of the century, almost all local authority chief executives were lawyers together with a few finance-trained individuals. Their training helped them to create some stability in a political world where integrity is increasingly coming under duress. But almost all of the lawyers have now gone and been replaced by people from every imaginable professional and managerial background, inside and outside local government.

I would agree that many councils lack project and performance management skills and that politicians generally find oversight of such matters boring, with perhaps the sort of consequences now being seen in Guildford.

Where before, the role of the head of the paid service was tolerably clear and distinctive, once central government set about reshaping local government in its own image, the role has become blurred. It is much harder to say who is accountable. Also, a chief executive who is “doing the right thing” but whose face does not fit in the political world of alliances and enemies, now has little protection.

Good administration should be boring”

It is no surprise that smaller councils like Woking and Guildford find it hard to recruit and retain managers. There is a limited supply of potential candidates in the public and private sectors who have the breadth of knowledge, resilience, integrity and personal courage to work in a place where each day can bring such challenges and continuity of political leadership can change overnight. It does not help that both councils are hovering on bankruptcy or that one set of officers is trying to run two councils.

At its best, being a chief executive in public service can be the most satisfying and rewarding job imaginable. But it takes years of patient endeavour and an effective partnership with political leaders to build a good authority.

Good administration should be boring. It can however all change in the blink of an eye, when a new administration comes charging onto the deck and starts rearranging the deckchairs or when the wrong chief executive gets appointed. Not a job for the faint-hearted. I do wish both the outgoing chief executives at Woking and Guildford/Waverley well.

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Responses to Opinion: Working for Politicians Is Not Always Fun

  1. Martin Elliott Reply

    November 20, 2023 at 4:59 pm

    I assume Bernard Quoroll letter is aimedat my simple comment.

    Strangely, I don’t recognise any of the specific quotes as being mine though. I certainly didn’t say for instance it was only and executive personnel issue.

    I’ll admit I have never worked directly for a local authority or public entity. More than 20 years I worked in Corporate departments of large multi-national companies with massive diversity. For example when working for BP Group, one enterprise was animal feed and pig breeding!!

    I also spent a lot of time educating planning departments across the UK to smooth the introduction of improved Hazardous Substance Planning.

    I also spent a large amount of time with local authorities and ‘blue light services’ on full scale large event emergency planning.

    As a consultant, I continued work in changing HSE Management culture with clients who wanted to adopt an ISO approach. That was where real ‘not invented here’ and ‘blame culture’ became obviously entrenched.

    Bernard Quoroll comments and explanations are exactly the same as I kept finding, and expected in certain organisations, and with the same incorrect conclusions. Essentially it takes a great deal of work to convince such an organisation that there are other and better ways to manage an organisation and retraining top to bottom.

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