How not to choose a Chief Executive

Fife, where I live, is advertising for a new Chief Executive for the Council. According to the advertisement:

  • “We are looking for a driven and ambitious leader with a proven record as a strategic thinker and change manager.”
  • “A key early task will be to ensure the smooth introduction of the integrated Social Care and Health model.”
  • “You will deepen the Council’s commitment to the values of Performance, Efficiency, Customer Care and Staff Empowerment …”

The first problem here is a misunderstanding of the role. The work of a Chief Executive is explained in a SOLACE report, Leadership United. Much of the work is about accountability to an elected council in a political environment. The Chief Executive is the key connection between councillors and the administration. The Chief Executive speaks for the council officers, and consequently much of the work of a Chief Executive is outward-facing, including external relations, relationships with other agencies and relationships with the public. Then there is management of the corporate team. Only a very limited part of the task is concerned directly with the internal performance of Council departments, and that is mainly done through established systems of accountability. The Chief Executive is not the main person responsible for integrating health and social services. The specification of this post is hopelessly misconceived.

The second problem is that they are looking for the wrong values. There is nothing here about public service, democratic governance, citizenship or rights. There is no expectation that a Chief Executive should listen to public concerns, or engage with them.

The third problem is a misstatement of the type of person they should be looking for. Driven? Ambitious? Are the Council looking for The Apprentice? I had occasion to comment yesterday about the missplaced emphasis on “leadership” in the NHS; the same pernicious doctrine has infected local authorities (and that would be my main criticism of the SOLACE report). In a democracy, the role of leadership properly belongs to elected authority. A Chief Executive is, first and foremost, a public servant, and anyone who doesn’t understand what that means shouldn’t be allowed within 300 metres of public responsibility.

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