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The Middle Man
Local Government Chronicle – 6 August 2009

Alastair Robertson is retiring as head of the chief executives' trade union. He tells Mark Smulian why its members should be alert for the knife in the back

A terrible scream issued from Alastair Robertson's phone when he picked it up. "Just get me out of here," yelled a distraught chief executive on the other end.

A familiar scene for Mr Robertson, who has been secretary of trade union the Association of Local Authority Chief Executives (ALACE) for a decade. He has had a ringside seat on how the delicate relationships his members have with council leaders can go spectacularly wrong.

He's also had a day job as chief executive of Watford BC but next month, at 60, is retiring from both, after which he hopes to become a consultant, write a book on management, read about science and take up flamenco dancing.

Mr Robertson got involved in ALACE after he became chief executive of Three Rivers DC in 1989, having been "a kind of shop steward" since his student days in Glasgow.

His role at the association is something between that of a lawyer and a counsellor when members get into difficulty.

"At the top it's a very lonely role," he says. "You can't pour your heart out to senior staff because they look to you to lead the way."

The post has given Mr Robertson considerable insight into why relations go wrong. At root, it's to do with people straying into areas that are not theirs.

"There is territory that is ours, and territory that belongs to the politicians, and then there's this space in the middle where they can overlap," he says.

"I feel very strongly that we have to take our cue from politicians. If they want to come right up to edge of our territory let them do it, and if they want us up to the edge of their territory then we do that. If it's split in middle, the onus is on us to make it work."

Mr Robertson thinks chiefs can be lulled into a false sense of security until an apparently friendly relationship sours.

"I say to people they must never forget that the politicians are your employer, and although elected members will say 'We work together', when the chips are down they forget that and remember that you work for them. And if they're not satisfied they can get rid of you.

"It is our job to make the organisation politically and managerially seamless. In general you're on friendly terms with leading councillors as individuals. But it's not a matter of how many plaudits you get from them, the knife might still go between the shoulder blades next week."

Mr Robertson says he has rarely dealt with cases where "someone has had their hands in the till or assaulted the mayor". The issues are usually far less clear cut.

"One can always debate if there are problems about competence," he says. "It's quite common for people to be given a bonus and within months face the threat of removal.

"I'm convinced some leaders say they're happy when they're not and things keep festering until a small incident sets things off."

But applicants eager to become chiefs may leap in without investigating what lurks behind a council's slogans.

"I've been critical of colleagues who I don't think do due diligence before applying for a job," he says.

Yet sometimes a place has a history of problems. "People will research all sorts of stuff about social issues in an authority, which is great, but won't do proper research on why the last chief went or why there have been three in the past six years."

There's another side to the issue, he adds. "A lot of councils kid themselves about what they are looking for. Places big themselves up but when you look past that jargon it's not quite like that.

"So they say things like 'We want a new broom' because that's what they think they need. They then say, 'Clear out this dead wood' and the chief starts to deliver, but if the politicians get cold feet the chief is left stranded. An inexperienced one, in particular, will struggle."

Chief executives do seem to be walking the plank more often. In 1999 Mr Robertson had one consultant working with ALACE members and "he was not run off his feet". Now there are three: Peter Bounds, Roger Morris and Richard Penn, all former chiefs.

One factor was the comprehensive performance assessment - chiefs presiding over 'poor' or 'weak' ratings could find themselves rapidly removed.

Another was that the days when chiefs were "a bit like the civil service" when administrations changed are gone. Since the 1990s, a change of political control can mean an incumbent is regarded with suspicion.

"A number of them turned to chiefs who'd been there for maybe 10 years and said 'You've worked with Conservatives and we don't trust you to serve us'," he says. "Those chiefs were astonished, but now a change of administration - or even just leader - can see a change of chief."

A third factor is the vulnerability of women. "Women make up 20% of chief executives but at any one time they are a lot more than 20% of our caseload," he says.

"It's a good question why, one that needs study. Some have hypothesised that they went to more difficult councils - those that struggled to appoint - so they stood a better chance, or to councils that felt they needed a multi-tasker, which women are allegedly better at.

"There are all sorts of theories, but the fact remains that a higher proportion of women find themselves in difficulty and it makes me wonder why. I suspect it says something about local government."

Mr Robertson says he has seen recruitment to senior jobs in councils broaden enormously since he began his career as a graduate management trainee with Coventry City Council nearly 40 years ago.

"The talent pool is growing, but I think probably you see it less at chief executive than at chief officer level. When I started, it was very difficult to move to other parts of the public sector, and almost impossible to move beyond it, but nowadays people may start in local government but transfer into health, criminal justice, the civil service consultancies or outsourcing companies.

"Some come back to local government, so they can have a hugely broad range of experience, wider than people like me have got, and that has a lot of advantages." But it can also be a source of friction with local politicians. People who have spent much of their careers outside local government will not know its political subtleties. Yet perhaps because of the rise of the cabinet system, nor will those inside it.

"I came up from the old committee system and learned the political nuances, but executive arrangements make it more difficult to learn your trade because generally speaking everything is now concentrated in cabinet and relatively few staff deal with portfolio holders," he says.

While ALACE seeks the best for its members, 10 years' experience has convinced Mr Robertson that discretion is often the better part of valour. He has seen chief executives made seriously ill through their determination to fight a battle to clear their reputation, rather than accept a compromise.

"Usually ALACE advises people to do a deal and get them out, which is quite difficult if you genuinely feel you are in the right. We can have to say: 'In your best interests, don't put yourself through this.' We have to be quite brutal with people."