Headlines: December 20th, 2002

The worst fears of local government managers about their changing role have been realized in a report prepared by the University of Birmingham and the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister. ‘Continuity or Change? Officers and New Council Constitutions’ examines the impact of the new political structures on the roles of officers in councils. Most councils have changed to a cabinet system of governance with a leader, others now have elected mayors. The report identifies a trend towards stronger political leadership with a consequent disempowerment of managers.The effect on the role of the chief executive is varied, depending largely on the strength of political leadership. In most cases the greater involvement of the cabinet and executive council members in decision making has had an impact on the chief executive. In some councils the role is changing from chief executive to managing director, with less involvement in policy development. A result of this trend is that a number of chief executives have taken the opportunity to retire, whilst others have moved to different types of posts.

The impact on senior managers is equally severe. Managers fear that politicians are moving into the sphere of management. The new remuneration arrangements for council members allows them to devote more time to council business and in some cases this results in a number politicians seeing themselves as professional managers. Where previously managers would prepare reports for meetings, executive members prepare their own reports. This leads managers to feel they are ‘acting as wallpaper at meetings’.

There is also a trend to the removal of the ‘service head role’ and replacing it with a general manager with responsibility for managing themes such as ‘healthy living’. This change, together with a move to setting up corporate management teams of solely strategic managers, is having an adverse impact on the career progression of operational managers.

The report recommends that further work should be carried out on the main governance and management themes it has identified, that workshops should be held to disseminate the report findings and that regular research should be undertaken to build on the pilot study.