Are chief executives past their sell-by date?
This may seem a strange question to ask at a time when the new West of England Combined Authority (WECA) has just appointed its own top bureaucrat, reportedly to be paid more than the prime minister. However, this enquiry is intended to contribute to the lively debate on the pay of senior public sector officials.
Here, in Bristol, we are about to lose yet another chief executive, someone who was on a ‘competitive’ remuneration package of £160,000 – more than twice that of the elected mayor.
She joins the ranks of other first tier officers to have left the authority in recent years. A number of her predecessors controversially left with generous severance payments (money which Bristol can ill afford) only to hop on the lucrative carousel of public sector recruitment.
The first chief executive in the country was introduced in the much maligned Avon County Council. There will come a time when the record of this administrative body is re-evaluated and perhaps redeemed. In any event, the role of the chief executive for Avon worked very well.
There was a director for each department who required a new type of political leadership, undertaken ably by Sir Gervas Walker and assisted by his top official William (Bill) Hutchinson. Both men had real vision and experience, qualities which have not been seen in Bristol in recent years.
Back in 1974, a chief executive could really make things happen. Today, sadly, this no longer is the case. When action is needed, one is simply passed down the managerial chain.
The current organisation structure is very confusing with a mishmash of directorates called ‘place’ and ‘people’ that don’t easily denote areas of responsibility.
When I argued for an elected mayor in 2012 (the only party leader to do so) and the public supported this move in the referendum held that year, the whole idea of the mayoral model was to secure clear and transparent leadership in governing the city.
Indeed, one of the arguments for these mayors was the financial saving to be had from not having a chief executive. This change was not to allow senior directors – as has happened – to basically get on with business as usual behind closed doors.
As a result of this failure, I have become even more convinced that the post of chief executive is now out of date and should become redundant. Its removal from the list of vacancies – together with its associated entourage – could, over time, save us literally millions.
Now is the time for mayor Rees to step up and actually run this city, not duplicate some of the historic civic functions performed by our lord mayor. His office should have the professional support of a city manager, who is head of paid service.
While we are at it, let’s have cabinet titles that match what these executive members are actually responsible for and not hide behind obscure portfolio headings which few comprehend. A review of the powers of delegation needs to take place.
The people of Bristol deserve better than chief executives who are here today and gone tomorrow. We have to take at face value the motives given publicly for this latest departure. On that basis, the outgoing individual concerned has my every sympathy.
But, to others, the more cynical amongst us, the explanation of needing to ‘spend more time with the family’ sounds rather hollow. It is unfortunate but, often such statements also happen to be one of the oldest, most frequently used excuses for resignation in the political dictionary
Peter Abraham is Bristol’s longest serving councillor, a former Conservative group leader and three times lord mayor.