When I stood down as Leader of Oxfordshire County Council, I took a self-denying ordinance that I would not comment on or criticise the actions of my successors. I was determined not to be a back-seat driver and I retain that determination.
As I write this blog, Oxfordshire County Council is deciding whether to make its Chief Executive redundant. I will make no comment on the proposal although those close to me may well have a good idea of my thoughts. Instead, let me describe what a Chief Executive does in a large strategic authority like Oxfordshire and leave others to work out how to fill the gap their departure will create.
Oxfordshire County Council is responsible for a population of some 650,000 people and for a diverse range of services over an area of 1,000 square miles. The council consists of four directorates responsible for Social & Community Services; Children, Education & Families; Environment & Economy and Public Health. These are like baronies. Each employs hundreds if not thousands of staff and each oversees a range of services based in buildings in Oxford and scattered round the county.
A Chief Executive of a strategic council like Oxfordshire has many roles, best categorised as internal to the council and external to it.
Internally, the Chief Executive is the Head of the Paid Service and ultimately responsible for the proper management of a staff of thousands. A key role is to ensure the baronies pull in the same direction on strategic matters and do not pull against one another. Do not under-estimate their ability to go astray. A Chief Executive will also have to address competence issues in senior level posts and no organisation is exempt from the need to kick ass or manage removal from time to time.
In a political organisation like a county council, there is also an important role to bring together the political and the managerial lines. In central government, senior civil servants need to understand the policy direction expected by politicians and to translate this into managerial actions. It is the same in councils. The separation of political and managerial lines has always been clear and strong in the UK and it is a strength that we weaken at our peril. Politicians do not necessarily have the managerial skills to deal with complex organisational structures. Council managers need to distance themselves from party politics. A good chief executive will know how to manage this process as will a good council leader but they need each other to manage the checks and balances.
When things go wrong in local government it is more often cock-up than conspiracy. A good chief executive will smell the cock-up that is brewing and alert whoever is able to prevent it from boiling over. The same is true of a good political leader. Where the skills of chief executive and leader mesh well together, a council will thrive.
There is much more to a chief executive’s role than the internal management of their council. They will have a key role in maintaining good working relationships with a wide range of external bodies. Oxfordshire is no exception. The Vice-Chancellors of the two Universities will meet frequently with the chief executive and there will be mutual respect and understanding between them. The same is true of the hospital health trusts and the health commissioners, the police, the magistracy, the business community, the huge voluntary sector and the small district councils whose services overlap with the county. A good chief executive, will have earned the respect and confidence of a whole range of important players in the public, private and voluntary sectors. When the chips are down, many will look to a good chief executive for leadership and advice.
If Oxfordshire County Council decides to make their Chief Executive redundant there will be a serious need to identify who takes on the roles I have described. Make no mistake, Joanna Simons is a first class Chief Executive. She has done all of the things I have described above and much more and always with the best interests of the county in mind. The political leadership will have to think very hard about creating a new structure that works and that joins up strategically for the services internally and all of the diverse interests externally. It is a tall order. I hope they get it right. It will soon become clear if they do not.