Part 4: The Roles of the Chief Executive and the Elected Member

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

What the Local Government Act Says

The Local Government Act contains a number of provisions that can be considered to bear on the roles of chief executive officer and elected member. What might be regarded as the ‘foundation’ provisions are section 37K – which specifies the purposes of local government – and section 223C – which directs every local authority to conduct its affairs in a particular manner. (See also paragraphs 4.5 and 4.6 on the next two pages.)

There are a number of provisions in the Local Government Act that relate directly to the position of chief executive (and any other appointed “senior executive officer”). But there are none that indicate as directly what an elected member should do in the discharge of that position.

Chief Executive

The chief executive is:

  • the principal administrative officer (section 119C(1)(a));
  • responsible to the local authority for employing staff and negotiating their terms of employment (section 119C(2));
  • expected to be a person who (section 119C(3))–
    (a) can discharge the specific responsibilities placed on [her or him];
    (b) will imbue the employees … with a spirit of service to the community;
    (c) will be a responsible manager;
    (d) will maintain appropriate standards of integrity and conduct among employees …;
    (e) will ensure that the local authority is a good employer; and
    (f) will promote equal employment opportunities

The chief executive has four particular responsibilities (section 119D) for:

(a) implementing the decisions of the local authority:
(b) providing advice to members of the local authority and any community boards:
(c) ensuring that all the functions, duties and powers delegated to him or her or to any person employed by the local authority, or imposed or conferred by any Act, regulation or bylaw are properly performed or exercised:
(d) ensuring the effective, efficient, and economic management and planning of the local authority

Elected Member

An elected member needs to be familiar with and responsive to the purposes of local government specified in section 37K – in particular, those purposes that affect the way that the local authority interacts with its community:

(a) Recognition of the existence of different communities in New Zealand:
(b) Recognition of the identities and values of those communities:
(c) Definition and enforcement of appropriate rights within those communities:
(d) Scope for communities to make choices between different kinds of local public facilities and services:
(e) For the operation of trading undertakings … on a competitively neutral basis:
(f) For the delivery of appropriate facilities and services on behalf of central government:
(g) Recognition of communities of interest:
(h) For the efficient and effective exercise of the functions, duties, and powers of the components of local government:
(i) For the effective participation of local persons in local governmen

An elected member also needs to act in a way that contributes to the proper conduct of the local authority’s affairs in accordance with section 233C – in particular that:

(a) … business is conducted in a manner that is comprehensible and open to the public:
(b) Clear objectives are established for each of
[the local authority’s] activities and policies:
(c) Conflicting objectives and conflicts of interest are resolved in a clear and proper manner:
(d) So far as is practicable, … regulatory functions are separated from… other functions:
(e) … performance is regularly measured… in relation to stated objectives and is capable of being so measured… :
(f) … local communities, and where appropriate, central Government, are adequately informed about the activities of the local authority or community board:

On taking office every elected member must sign a declaration that they will put the interests of the local authority ahead of any special interests they may represent within their district.

Our Understanding of the Chief Executive’s Role

Based on the functions and responsibilities described in paragraphs 4.3 and 4.4, our understanding of the role of the chief executive is that it is to:

  • provide leadership to the administration of the local authority’s affairs, bringing to bear the characteristics specified in section 119C(3);
  • act as the link between the elected members in their governance capacity and the executive and administrative staff;
  • discharge the particular responsibilities set out in section 119D; and
  • discharge whatever other responsibilities have been delegated to her or him by the council.

Councils rely heavily on the advice they receive from their chief executive. Accordingly, it is essential that the council and the chief executive function as a team in an environment of mutual respect and trust.

Our Understanding of the Elected Member’s Role

Based on the legislative provisions referred to in paragraphs 4.5 and 4.6 and the point made in paragraph 4.7, our understanding of the role of an elected member is that it is to:

  • represent residents and other members of the local community (consistent with sections 37K and 223C);
  • set the strategic direction for the local authority and determine policies consistent with that strategic direction;
  • delegate the management and administration of the local authority to the chief executive; and
  • monitor and evaluate the performance of the local authority against council policies and plans.

Elected members are expected to make important decisions about the governance of the local authority – dealing with a wide range of policy matters that are often complex, subjective, or unfamiliar – requiring careful judgement. These tasks pose a significant challenge for individual members and for councils as governing bodies.

The Views of Elected Members and Chief Executives

We asked elected members and chief executives how they saw the respective roles. The views of both groups were similar:

  • elected members are responsible for governance and for setting policies for the local authority; and
  • chief executives are responsible for administration of the local authority.

Many respondents noted that policy formulation requires significant input from both the chief executive and staff.

These are some of the problem areas between the roles that elected members and chief executives identified:

  • Border-line between governance and management is probably the most difficult issue, there is sometimes the feeling that council only gets told what management wants them to know.
  • Councillors trying to be managers instead of focussing on policy and strategy and chief executives and staff trying to develop policy.
  • Councillor's role is policy and communication. Chief executives implement the policies. Councillors tend to micro-manage - not strategic.
  • Needs to be a 'board to chief executive' type relationship but depends on the skills set of councillors.
  • Potential for difficulty … if the chief executive becomes too politically aligned with one political faction.
  • Chief executive sets out to instruct and inform councillors on how they should act, an impertinence, it should if anything be the other way.
  • Difficulties occur when chief executive is evasive and lacks integrity.
  • Chief executive organises and carries out such projects with little input on how from councillors when councillors would rather use different techniques.
  • Councillors should be able to work together with the chief executive without personalities surfacing.
  • Councillors owning up to their responsibilities to respect staff.
  • Personalities cause the most difficulty.

Our Views

Legally, a council is a single, homogeneous entity. In practice, it is made up of elected members who may have quite different views and objectives, and represent quite different constituencies. Elected members and chief executives need to be aware of these differences.

An important feature of the relationships between elected members and the chief executive is distinguishing the council’s governance role and the chief executive’s management role. Sometimes, the two roles are not easily separated, and it is up to the council and the chief executive to develop an understanding of their separate responsibilities.

Making such a distinction is particularly difficult where the council and the chief executive share responsibilities or have overlapping interests, and where the boundaries between governance and management are blurred. Difficulties seem to be most apparent in relation to:

  • the management of staff (see Part 8 on pages 61-66);
  • responsibility for policy development (see Part 9 on pages 67-75); and
  • management and reporting by the chief executive (see Part 10 on pages 77- 84).

Both elected members and the chief executive must continually monitor their relationships, identify issues affecting the governance-management separation, and identify and resolve potential conflicts.

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