Part 2: Why We Addressed this Subject

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

Changed Circumstances Since 1994

The chief executive is a key figure in a local authority’s administration. Positive working relationships between the elected members and the chief executive – based on mutual trust – are critical to the proper functioning of the local authority.

Since our 1994 report we have seen indications of growing tension in the relationships between elected members and chief executives. Increasingly, friction (or outright conflict) has arisen in the course of recruiting the chief executive.

In our view, the following developments over recent years have contributed to the growing tension:

  • The preponderance of newly-elected councillors. Each election since 1989 has resulted in about one-third of all mayors being replaced. In 1998, over 40% of elected representatives had not previously held the position that they were elected to.
  • The new planning regime from 1997-98 that required councils to make strategic long-term decisions. Some councillors have commented to us that this commitment to a long-term direction limits their council’s discretion and increases managerial discretion among its executive officers.
  • The apparent increase of factionalism within councils. A policy that is adopted by majority vote and continues to be opposed by the minority can, when the chief executive comes to implement the policy, result in the minority regarding the chief executive as partisan and ‘taking sides’ against the minority.
  • The implications of the clarification of the five-year advertising requirement for the chief executive position.

Other contributors to the growing tension seem to have been:

  • poor management of how the chief executive is recruited and performance standards are set and reviewed;
  • the absence of a central source of advice and guidance (which the State Services Commission can provide in the central government sector) on the recruitment and performance review processes and other aspects of the employment relationship; and
  • a failure on the part of both elected members and the chief executive to observe the distinctions between governance and management.

Implications of the Five-year Advertising Requirement

We explain the “five-year advertising requirement” in paragraphs 3.14-3.17 on pages 20-21.

The fixed term nature of the chief executive’s employment agreement can deter councils from raising performance concerns with their chief executives until the agreement is about to end – rather than at the time when such concerns first arise. As a result, chief executives don’t have the opportunity to address performance issues during their term of appointment.

The statutory requirement to advertise the chief executive position no less frequently than five-yearly can influence the behaviour of a council and its incumbent chief executive. In 1999 the Solicitor-General gave us his view of the intent of the five-year advertising requirement (see paragraph 3.17 on page 21). Since that time, local government has seen a significant rate of turnover in chief executives.

A consequence of the high turnover has been the loss of experienced chief executives and their replacement by managers from outside the local government sector. The responses we received from the new chief executives suggest that they are not so concerned about the impact on them and their career prospects of the five-year advertising requirement.


The diverse interests and objectives of individual elected members can make it difficult for a council to adopt a unified approach to managing the relationship with its chief executive.

In some circumstances, this diversity and the relationships between the elected members may create factions within the council. Disagreements among elected members and the formation of factions can strain the council’s relationship with its chief executive, leading to major tensions and disagreements.

Chief Executive Recruitment and Performance

A poorly managed appointment and subsequent performance review can strain a relationship between employer and employee. Often, concerns about the appointment and performance of chief executives are raised informally rather than in the appropriate forum.

When a council does not follow formal procedures for reviewing performance the chief executive could be led to assume that, over successive review periods, they are performing well. Only at the end of the term of appointment would the chief executive become aware that they will not be re-appointed.

In government departments, the recruitment of chief executives (and their subsequent performance review) is managed by a single central agency – the State Services Commission. This arrangement helps to promote a common understanding of performance expectations and standards across the sector, and ensures that a consistent set of appointment and review procedures is followed.

In contrast, the employment relationships between councils and their chief executives are not governed by a common set of understandings and procedures. Instead, councils approach their responsibilities as employer of the chief executive in different ways.

Distinguishing Between Governance and Management

Establishment of distinct boundaries between, and expectations about, the respective roles of the governing body and the chief executive (and any other senior executive officers) promotes clear accountabilities. However, the actions of both elected members and chief executives can blur these boundaries. Fundamental conflicts over roles can have damaging consequences for the relationships between elected members and chief executives.

Councils are made up of elected members who have a variety of policy aims, personal interests, and working practices. Therefore, councils may not have a coherent and consistent approach to their responsibilities, or a shared understanding of the boundaries between the roles of governance and management. Chief executives must learn to work with elected members who may have very different objectives and ways of working.

page top