What would an efficient Council look like?

I hear that my blog on Councillors finding freedom difficult is attracting interest around the country. I am being asked to provide some more thoughts on how a good Council could become more efficient and successful, now it can cast off the government controls and bureaucracy.

I would suggest Councillors begin at the top of their organisations. Many Councils are top heavy with officers brought in to respond to labour’s endless circulars, questionnaires, special grants, plans and requirements. Now we see the end of the Comprehensive Area Assessments, regional plans and the pressure to set up Partnerships, much of this needless central bureaucracy can be swept away.

Councils need good management. The management positions should reflect the priorities of the Council, and should have job titles we can all understand so we know who is responsible for what. A new Council might look something like this:

Strategy and Policy: Leader of the Council advised by Majority/coalition Councillors

Chief Officer: Head of management team, adviser to Leader and ruling Group on strategy, responsible for implementation of the strategy. Responsible for smooth running of the Council and for regularity. The post is not comparable to Chief Executive of a company, as it is not revenue and profit responsible, and takes the general strategy from the ruling Group’s manifesto. Pay should be less than the Prime Minister’s.

Chief Finance Officer

Chief Education Officer

Chief Social Services Officer

Chief Environment and Planning Officer

Chief Officer for Regulation and public protection (trading standards,police liaison etc)

This team of five Chief Officers could have the following principal reports:

Education: Head of Schools
Head of libraries and cultural affairs
Head of Special Education

Social services

Head of childrens services
Head of adult services
Head of social housing

Environment and Planning

Head of Highways
Head of public transport
Head of Planning


Head of Personnel
Head of IT and back office services
Head of property and capital programme

That makes a total of 18 senior officers. It would be possible to reduce this further if Chief Officers would take on one of the named functions reporting to them themselves. The Chief Education Officer, for example could also be Head of Schools. The Environmental Chief could also be the Chief Planner.

This structure would simplify the Chief Officer’s task, with just five direct reports. Chief officers meetings would be smaller and shorter. From time to time when the Chief Officers’ group reviewed specialist areas, they could bring in the next tier of officers in the relevant subject area. Each Chief officer would have fewer than four direct reports.

This is a model for a Unitary or County authority. Districts would need less, as they do not carry out fucntions like Education and Social services. They might even be able to share Chief Officers with neighbouring authorities.

It would have the advantage of letting the public know who did what in a straightforward way.


  1. Hugh
    July 24, 2010

    A well thought through arrangement with good span of control underpinning.

  2. JimF
    July 24, 2010

    Or, looking at this another way, think about the per person value which each Unitary or County Authority brings to each of the inhabitants of that area, in each segment of the Council's work. What would the average person be prepared to pay the Council, for example, for police liaison in their area? Or adult services? Or education when your Government's policy is for free schools to opt out of local control? Do we really need all these things run by the Council anyway? For many of them the Council could just be a commissioning and monitoring body, ensuring that standards were being maintained locally amongst a series of private sector sub-contractors. For others, like environment and planning, it probably does make sense to have in-house services, but even they can and are run as quasi-businesses which make some return (chafges for planning, pest control etc,) Councillors would be elected on the basis of their ability to successfully monitor and maintain standards over each say 5 year period.
    Let's look at this from the bottom, up shall we, rather than decide how many CXOs we need to run a largely unreconstructed and bloated bureaucracy?

    1. Richard Manns
      July 24, 2010

      I appreciate your fear of the lack of focus in this blog on taking out bureaucracy, but there's limited scope in a blog post!

      I'm not exactly versed in council function, but all those jobs have simple and intuitively-defined titles, and unless Free Schools grow explosively, for example, the gov't has no plans to remove these areas from council responsibility. Whether they all need a full-time worker to do them, or whether they can be combined, has to be for the councils to decide.

  3. JimF
    July 24, 2010

    Without proper democratic accountability, which is key to this, your Chief IT Officers find all sorts of crazy things to do with their time and our money:

    "In May 2008, IT bosses at Tameside decided to create a town hall on an island in Second Life to engage hard-to-reach groups, like those with mobility problems, youngsters and people with 'issues surrounding self-esteem'.

  4. Mike
    July 24, 2010

    I work in one of the largest council's in the country, and like this Council, you have ignored Procurement as worthy of a 'Head of…' Our Council has a huge external spend which has massive impact on the local economy, yet Head of Procurement is more junior than Head of Libraries.

    Where does procurement sit in your list? Is it just 'Back office'?

    Rubbish public sector procurement is at the heart of the the overspend over the past decade or so, and should be at the heart of where bad habits are eliminated.

    1. Mike Stallard
      July 25, 2010

      I look at your post and see that it is not written in English. No, I am not being fernickety and rude. I am just saddened that you, and to a greater and greater extent we, have to communicate in Newspeak and that the iron seems to have entered our souls. Spend, massive impact, overspend. Procurement means dealing with us messy and vulnerable human beings desperate for a job. More Junior than shows that this is a hierarchy running for its own sake. Why ARE Libraries less important than Procurement (I love that word – it sounds like kerb crawling)?
      I beg you just one thing: please do not take this personally. It is much more important than that.

      1. Sam
        July 29, 2010

        Procurement is indeed a back office function, just like IT (although I might guess it would come under "property and capital programme"). Back office functions are certainly important (and a good procurement department can significantly reduce the price you pay) but procurement isn't what a council is for. Education, Social Services, Planning and like like are all things that the council needs to do. Procurement and IT are things that it needs to do in order to accomplish its mission (if you'll pardon the hideous Americanism).

  5. lola
    July 24, 2010

    Well, you could scrap 'education' entirely and just let the money follow the child to 'free' schools.

    1. Stuart Fairney
      July 24, 2010

      Yes, absolutely. Ron Paul makes the point that the NY public educatin service employes about 5,000 people in admin. they educate about 80% of NY. The church schools who employ the other 20% employ 27.


  6. @JohnnyNorfolk
    July 24, 2010

    This is far to simple to understand. we may know who does what with this, and this would never do for the dont blame me local authorities.

    Mr Pickles should impliment this at once.

    1. Mike Stallard
      July 25, 2010


  7. Javelin
    July 24, 2010

    Public sector contracts are one sided and very costly to the tax payer.

    The Government SHOULD publish standard contracts for local councils to download for all NEW employees and they should look a lot like private sector contracts.

  8. Mark
    July 24, 2010

    Eric Pickles has been doing a great job with clearing the decks of many of the bureaucratic wastes demanded of councils. A zero based approach to their function (i.e. what is essential) would certainly produce a much lower cost structure as you illustrate. The big risk that remains is that even with the requirement to publish spending itemised down to £500 there is much scope for bribery and corruption, aided by in some cases fraudulent election on the back of postal voting, etc. School place allocation, a nice property from the housing department while jumping the housing queue, "favourable" planning permission, award of contracts for particular services etc., etc. remain as areas where more transparency is needed, and sanction to stamp out abuse. It is a key plank in making devolving power from Whitehall work.

  9. English Pensioner
    July 24, 2010

    But what's happened to all the "Outreach Advisers", "Ethnic Relations Officers", "Public Relations Officers", "Keeping in Touch Co-ordinators", "Equal Opportunities Enforcers", "Sustainable Development Officers", "Climate Change Advisers",
    "Partnership Support Officers", "Breast Feeding Support Co-ordinators", "Athletics Network Development Officers", "Enviro-Crime Enforcement Officers", "Smokefree (Tobacco Control) Alliance Co-ordinators", "Domestic Violence Co-ordinator", not of course forgetting our old friends, the "Health and Safety Officers" ?
    How can we possibly manage without all these people?

    1. Derek Buxton
      July 26, 2010

      "How can we manage without all these people" much, much better, they do nothing for lots of money, our money.

  10. StrongholdBarricades
    July 24, 2010

    The one caveat I would like applied to all council jobs is:

    "Is it publically accountable, and if so to whom?"

    If it isn't publically accountable then the position should be abolished because if I can't vote against the policy then why should I allow that person to spend my money?

  11. Rachel Joyce
    July 24, 2010

    This looks excellent and well streamlined, but I think you also need a Head of Environmental Services (aka rubbish collection, graffiti removal/ cleanup/ tree planting and parks). At the moment you have listed :

    Environment and Planning

    Head of Highways
    Head of public transport
    Head of Planning

    Perhaps highways and public transport could be combined and environmental services added.

    Reply: I assume these will be contracted out services, with the overall Chief Officer responsible for contract renewal.

  12. Steve Tierney
    July 24, 2010

    You need to include a "head of procurement" in your scheme and it needs to be either at, or very near, the top table. The problem with many councils procurement process is that there are so many different streams all able to buy in and outside of the structure. A single, well-chosen, well-trained procurement head who had far-reaching power and control of spending would solve many of the problems of over-spending and be a single accountable figure.

    Reply: I have also seen Councils appoint such a person and end up spending more on buying things.

    1. David Price
      July 24, 2010

      Why wouldn't the CO and CFO be responsible for procurement strategy (ie cost control) with each department head having a responsibility to execute it? What would these heads be doing if they aren't managing the costs, standards and people?

      As to controlling overspend, I think you need something far more robust than another empire within the council. Perhaps deduct 5% from salary for each 1% of overspend?

    2. Mark
      July 24, 2010

      Buyers need expertise in what they are buying, and negotiating skills. By all means offer them a centralised support for legal drafting when more complex contracts are involved, but don't try to centralise the whole process. Contracting out is often fraught with problems because a contractor may lowball to win business, take on you employees, and then leave you with no alternative but high renewal costs. It also requires much more complex agreements than a series of short term arrangements. Look at the mess of PFI contracts as an example.

  13. Acorn
    July 24, 2010

    A bit naive JR. I think you underestimate the size of the business that is a County Council. These councils can't do anything that is not permitted by a Westminster law. There are a lot of Westminster laws. Badly drafted laws lead to badly constructed operations at local government level. Many laws overlap and confuse at the sharp end. Stuff gets duplicated and some misinterpreted by the best of local government officers. Nature being what it is, ambitious officers and local politicians see opportunities for mission creep and empire building.

    The problem starts at Westminster and Whitehall. Fully unitise local government. After you have decided how may you want. Structure them like private sector companies. Allow them to go bankrupt if necessary. Allow them to raise most of there money locally, with a national balancing fund for demographic abnormalities. Simples!

    1. pperrin
      July 24, 2010

      Brighton and Hove City Council have recently launched a commercial PR agency (competing with other private companies who are taxed to finance the councils very existance!).

      I don't know what 'westminster law' explicitly gave them permission to compete with local businesses.

      1. Acorn
        July 25, 2010

        Local Government and Housing Act 1989. The Local Authorities (Companies) Order 1995 [SI 1995/849 amended by SI 1996/621]. Try those for starters.

  14. Matt
    July 24, 2010

    Why will central government not leave local government alone to get on with it. On the one hand government says it is giving freedom to lg and then dictates pay and council tax rises. Why? Can local councillors not be trusted? I think your structure is sensible but agree whole heartedly with the comment regarding the council being more of a commissioning body. Lg still delivers a lot of services the private sector is more than capable of delivering.

  15. Chris W
    July 24, 2010

    Before deciding on who is needed maybe the first job should be to clearly define what the council must do, what things it could do if it wished, and what it must not do.
    Next all functions of council must be made democratically accountable so they work within the wishes of the people. For example – Why do the government feel that local housebuilding needs to by-pass local planning departments, doesn't this demonstrate a realisation of how out of step local planning departments are with local wishes? I belive many other local government functions are equally so and a few elected councillors can't control all the functions.

  16. Martin
    July 25, 2010

    A couple of things I'd add to the list

    1) Can the department be shared with neighbouring local authorities? That way the overhead can be cut.

    2) Make sure there are no deputies who do very little except cover for holidays !

  17. christina sarginson
    July 26, 2010

    This blog really worried me and the list of senior officers you have suggeted. Having worked for the public sector myself for many years I saw a lot iof people try to give advice on the running of the organisation most of them did not know how the organisation ran or what the organisation did. Make of that what you will!!!

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