Managing the Relationship Between a Local Authority's Elected Members and its Chief Executive.

In 1994, we expressed concern that, over the preceding five years, high turnover among chief executives had created significant costs for regional and territorial local authorities,1 and had led to a loss of skills and experience at the most senior level of local authority administration.2

In that five-year period, 36 of 86 councils had replaced their chief executive. Over the last three years alone, turnover has been even higher, with over half of all councils replacing their chief executives since the local authority elections in 1998. Only a handful of those chief executives have taken up chief executive positions in another local authority.

The chief executive is a key figure in a local authority. Positive working relationships between the elected members and the chief executive – based on mutual trust – are critical to the proper functioning of a local authority. We have seen indications in recent years that relationships between councils and their chief executive have deteriorated. The current high turnover of chief executives may be one symptom of this deterioration.

In our 1994 report, we expressed the view that a council should ideally retain its chief executive for at least five years. Since that time, the responsibilities of a local authority chief executive have become more complex and even more wide-ranging. These factors give further weight to that argument.

The advice we provided in our 1994 report on management of the employment relationship between the council and its chief executive is still relevant. In conducting this exercise we have sought the views of elected members and chief executives on a number of issues associated with different aspects of their relationship.

The key aspect that we examined was how elected members and their chief executive manage their relationship in the grey area between governance and administration. Difficulties in managing that part of the relationship appear to be a common cause of problems between councils and their chief executive. We suggest ways in which this situation might be improved.

We are grateful to elected members and local authority chief executives for their contribution to this report. We hope that the report will help elected members and chief executives to find their own understanding of their respective roles and develop the mutual trust necessary to work together in the interests of their communities.


K B Brady
Controller and Auditor-General

24 July 2002

1: In this report we use the term “local authorities” to refer to city, district, and regional councils.

2: The Audit Office: The Employment of Local Authority Chief Executives, September 1994, ISBN 0 477 02846 2.

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