Collaboration and sharing is the name of the game in local government. Combined Authorities, sharing Chief Executives, sharing services, sharing management teams: a growing number of authorities are joining forces to deliver their objectives, find efficiencies and make savings.
West Lancashire Borough Council, however, took sharing and collaboration in a different direction three years ago. Rather than sharing its Chief Executive, the Council dispensed with the post altogether. In a radical move, Kim Webber and Gill Rowe, became Joint Managing Directors.
Bringing a fresh approach to the Council, in the last 3 years Kim and Gill have placed emphasis on their joint commitment to:
The two MDs share power, status and responsibility. Whilst Kim is the head of paid service, Gill is the monitoring officer and returning officer. In addition, they share management of operational service delivery: community services and street scene are led by Gill; planning services, housing and regeneration by Kim; and corporate services is shared.
The Leader of the Council, Councillor David Westley, explained: “A focused approach to delivering the Council’s objectives, whilst reducing top management costs were the main drivers, without however damaging the efficient running of the Council. Like councils all over the country, we had no choice but to trim back our spending, and when we were looking for savings, we felt it was only right to consider making reductions throughout the organisation not only at the middle and the lower levels but at the top as well.
“At the same time, we recognised that local government was entering a whole new era and that we needed a new approach. Though we’re a small authority our services are essential to our residents and we’ve never been shy of innovation, the joint managing director model is one which we believe continues to meet our specific needs as we go forward and works locally. Whilst it wouldn’t work everywhere, the skills and qualities that Gill and Kim bring mean this continues to be a good model for us, this bold step delivered substantial savings while protecting frontline services but also provides a style of governance that supports the ‘strong leader’ model with a professional, committed resource focusing on West Lancs.
While one or two other Councils have since considered this type of power sharing arrangement at the top of the organisation, West Lancs was originally the only authority to have put this particular model into practice, but it could prove a useful approach for other Councils in the future and several enquiries have been received. While formerly the Council’s top management team had a fairly traditional shape (Chief Executive, two Directors and a third tier of Heads of Service), the current structure is more streamlined.
This innovative approach has reaped benefits, with key achievements for the Council being:-
Kim explained: “This innovation has worked extremely well and is now familiar to councillors, staff and partners. The joint Managing Director system provides for excellent working arrangements, as joint Managing Directors we have equal status and equal responsibility and it is very much a partnership approach. At the same time, we are responsible for specific service areas and specific service managers so we don’t double up on decisions or step on each other’s toes.”
Gill said: “It offers the opportunity for us to work together in a very collaborative style and it obviously provides enhanced cover at the highest level. There is no hierarchical division of work – the emphasis is on joint work, on reaching agreement, on sharing decisions and responsibilities.
“Kim and I have worked together for many years and have complementary management styles and great respect for each other’s skills and abilities.”
Kim continued: “Strategic decision-making is very strong as two heads are better than one. The Leader is the dynamic public face of the Council. Partners approach us jointly and receive a seamless service.”
The structure continues to be part of the implementation of the Council’s Business Plan, which sets out measures to reduce spending by 30% between 2011 and 2015 while protecting frontline services. Reducing management costs is an important theme, management posts have been reduced in many of the main service areas in order to preserve frontline jobs.
Cllr Westley said: “This is a challenging, but also exciting time for local government. Collaborative work with other Councils is to the fore, and changes will continue to happen and we must be ready to address these but at the same time maintain our priority services in a way which are affordable to the Council and our residents. I’m confident that our joint Managing Director structure gives the Council the capacity and flexibility to adapt and respond to whatever lies ahead.”