Australia, Global, Ireland, Northern Ireland, Scotland Democracy, devolution and governance, Personal and organisational development

How chief executives work with councillors

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Every chief executive and every political leader will have different leadership styles and different ways of approaching decision making and setting strategy for their local areas. But all of them need to be able to effectively bridge managerial and political leadership. We spoke to a number of chief executives about how they approach their roles in a era of increasingly complex delivery models and crucially how they work with local politicians to achieve better outcomes for their communities.

Question: What do council chief executives in Australia, Scotland and Ireland all have in common? (Hint: it isn’t the challenge of working with central governments)

Answer: Working with councillors!

What is a council chief executive, and why do they matter?

From the formulation and implementation of policy, the creation and monitoring of strategic frameworks, ensuring the financial viability of the council, and day-to-day management, the role of a Chief Executive ties three to four careers into one position.

While the tenure, appointment process and responsibilities vary across the local government systems of the UK, Ireland and Australia, typically a chief executive is responsible for the efficient and effective operation of a council, and importantly, is tasked with implementing council decisions.

Throw in recent changes, such as the growing importance of representing the council externally at various levels of government, working with state agencies and ensuring effective collaboration in the ever-increasing number of partnership boards and new service delivery models, and you can understand how the role of chief executive is one that is still evolving.

“In the complex world in which we live, and in particular in that of local government, the chief executive cannot and does not act in isolation.” (Institute of Public Administration)

So, in tangent with local government reforms, growing interdependencies in policy-making, and the overall increases in the professionalism of leadership and management, a Chief Executive plays a key role inside and outside of a council and therefore means working productively with councillors is of the utmost importance.

But how do chief executives manage this relationship? Drawing on the LGIU’s library of interviews with council chief executives in Ireland, Scotland and Australia, this article identifies three central themes – communication, democracy and trust.

Communication

For Brett Luxford, chief executive of Mitchell Shire Council in Australia, two-way communication is the number one priority.

“When I communicate with Councillors, and vice versa, that allows us to have that “no surprises” approach on both sides. What that does is help build trust between our Councillors and our communities, and this is an example which flows right down from your Executive Team to your managers.” (In Conversation with Brett Luxford)

But communication is not only about sharing the good news. As a strategic leader, honest and frank communication is a similar lesson identified by Jackie Maguire, previously Chief Executive of Meath County Council.

It is not about saying yes all the time; it is about listening and being honest with them, and if you do that, you cannot go too far wrong.” (In Conversation with Jackie Maguire)

Healthy debates are also to be expected. For Joan Martin, Chief Executive of Louth County Council in Ireland, the long-term perspective of a CEO means

“Inevitably from time to time there’ll be differences about priorities but there’s always room for compromise and agreement.” (In Conversation with Joan Martin)

And honest communication also means admitting mistakes. Management styles differ, but at the end of the day, we are all human, so for Brett Luxford,

“Part of being a  leader is being vulnerable and admitting when you don’t know something and admitting when you’ve made mistakes. Again, this builds trust with the Councillors and also allows you to have those difficult conversations instead of building walls.” (In Conversation with Brett Luxford)

Global Local Executive Panel: Harmonious council decision-making

Democratic mandate

For Cleland Sneddon, chief executive of South Lanarkshire Council in Scotland, the democratic mandate of councillors is something that needs to be respected not only by the chief executive but by central governments as well.

“The distinct democratic mandate of elected members needs to be respected, to quote a former COSLA President, the X that marks the ballot paper for a Councillor is no bigger or smaller than the one that elects an MP or MSP.” (In Conversation with Cleland Sneddon)

Respect for local democracy also relates to a nation’s identity. For Brendan McGrath, previously chief executive of Galway City Council, the role democracy played in Ireland’s historical struggle for independence endows a certain value for the democratic mandate for councillors.

“As an Irish person, I am proud to be part of a nation that won its hard fight for independence. Looking at history, our independence came at a huge cost. Therefore, understanding this struggle for democracy in Irish history really makes you value and appreciate the existence of our elected representatives and our right to free speech.”

That sense of local community is perhaps the strongest theme from all of the LGIU’s engagement with Chief Executives across Australia, Scotland and Ireland. Joan Martin encapsulates this sense of shared vision as

“We’re all here working together to serve the people of the county and to advance the wealth and wellbeing of the county and its inhabitants.” (In Conversation with Joan Martin)

Trust

The structure of a local government system often means the relationship between chief executives, and councillors is one of mutual dependence for certain functions. For instance, in Ireland, Joan Martin outlines how

Powers and responsibilities are divided in law between both sides of the house, but you can’t progress one without the other – it’s like two sides of a coin.” (In Conversation with Joan Martin)

But no two councillors are the same. So, how can a chief executive build relationships with a large group of independently-minded individuals? For Brett Luxford, inviting councillors into the decision-making process is key for building trust,

They have ideas about how projects and initiatives should operate, and we should work with them. We are not just bringing them a final product to rubber stamp.”

You can read the LGIU’s full library of leadership profiles here.

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