The salaries of local authority Chief Executives have been commanding considerable media attention, and one of the things that has become clear is that few media commentators have any idea what a Chief Executive does. It has also become clear that the monitoring of the role is something that a few local authorities struggle with.
Some five years ago SOLACE recommended that all Chief Executives receive regular appraisals and that these appraisals should incorporate an independent person, to help in the assessment. A recent SOLACE survey has confirmed that the vast majority of Chiefs have such a system in place, which is good. What is not so good is the anecdotal evidence that some of the systems are not working as well as they might. Some Councillors appear to find the whole process difficult and struggle to properly examine an individual’s contribution. I think this is for a number of reasons.
Firstly, Councillors may well be inexperienced in this appraisal role. This should not be a major barrier since support is available and many local authorities have found ways to make it work. A bigger problem may well lie in the constitutional role of the Chief Executive. Contrary to what many believe (or would wish) a Chief serves the Council as a whole, not simply the leader/mayor and the cabinet. This leads to a variety of tensions, particularly in authorities that have tightly drawn politics. A further point is that the Chief Executive has a number of statutory duties which must be performed, irrespective of the wishes of the Council. They must also respond to national government initiatives, even if these appear at odds with the Councils’ priorities. In the days when I was a serving chief my leader once opined about my role that, “It seems to me that you work more on Government initiatives than you do on the Council’s. “ He told me that he understood this but advised me not to tell the other councillors since he thought they might not understand!
Chief executives can earn good salaries and do have complex working lives, and it is in the interests of both them, and the Councils they serve, that robust appraisal processes are in place. Such arrangements contribute to both clarity and transparency which is good for the system as a whole.