Parade-ground generals fail to lead on council’s Front Line

CROYDON COMMENTARY: The lack of true, front-line service experience among some of our council’s executive officials creates fundamental problems in the management culture at the Town Hall, writes ROD DAVIES 

If we are to change the nature of the council, then we must grasp the relationship between Culture – Strategy – Policy. Each informs the other.

Nathan Elvery: the council CEO, lacking in front line experience

Nathan Elvery: the council CEO, but he is lacking in front line experience

Thus if the policies are not delivering, we must look to the organisational culture. This is a vast task. We might focus first on the selection of senior management.

If we were to look to another massive public sector organisation, the British Army, we would see that operational functions are divided into Combat, Combat Support and Support. At a local council level, these would align almost exactly to council Front Line, Front Line Support and Back Office.

When developing strategic leadership (that is, generals), the Army requires that potential senior strategic leadership starts in a Combat arm. You don’t get to be a Field Marshal if you’ve progressed through the ranks of the Pay Corps. This is all very logical and obvious because the general staff need to understand what it is like to be at the sticky end of things, and need to be able to establish their credibility.

In local authorities, it is often markedly different. Frequently senior strategic management have never been on the front line. It wasn’t always the case.

In the mid-1990s, the concept of the “internal market” emerged as a means of instilling a more efficient business ethos into public services, at least in theory. Frequently, this development cast the existing front-line service providers into the role of the contractor and the back-office staff into the role of client. Once this quasi-contractual relationship was established, it created a division between the Front Line and Front Line Support and the Back Office.

The culture at Croydon Council head offices works against those providing front line services

The culture at Croydon Council head offices works against those providing front line services

Those running the newly emerged Back Office “client” frequently demanded pay rises to reflect their new-found “status”, and they also secured exclusive access to training budgets. The Front Line contractor had to provide for training from the contract budget awarded to them by their erstwhile Back Office colleagues.

But the total value of budgets for Front Line services was reduced, year by year, as the cost of the Back Office operation increased as a proportion of the total. Clearly, for ambitious local authority employees, the route to the top was no longer through Front Line experience but as the Back Office client.

This culture shift occurred surprisingly rapidly and it was well entrenched by the start of this century. The Back Office now controlled the communications between services and the elected councillors, and they were able to use this to promote themselves. Having no Front Line experience, they argued for and favoured new recruits that resembled themselves. Increasingly the important factors in leader selection was based on contacts across the public sector rather than demonstrable experience of leading the Front Line. Suddenly, it was as though the entirety of the British Army senior command were composed of generals who had no battle experience. It is obvious that that would be a recipe for disaster in an army. It ought to be equally obvious how the same principles might apply for local authorities.

Thus some councils recruited shiny bright young Chief Executives who had spent not one day on the Front Line delivering services to the public. Often, they had started out as policy officers and progressed up the Back Office career path. Having daily access to councillors, they developed the skills they needed to impress them.

But once they had achieved high office, and the accompanying six-figure salaries, they were faced with the demands of the Front Line. So they established “strategic management teams”, another tier of management paid for by the tax-payer, to operate between themselves and the Front Line staff, that kept the hoi polloi at bay. And sometimes evolving an astonishingly aggressive stance towards staff.

Front line services, such as bin collections, lollipop road patrols and street cleaning, have been cut-back, while the council's back office has thrived

Front line services, such as bin collections, lollipop road patrols and street cleaning, have been cut-back, while the council’s back office has thrived

Lacking any understanding of the operational needs of the Front Line, they often made poor investment decisions (again, at the expense of the Council Tax-payer), and believed their own rhetoric of ever-increasing efficiency targets. “Efficiency is in our DNA,” was typical of the sort of remarks made.

Of course, their management “suites” were unaffected by the economies being imposed elsewhere in the council: a senior management team must be able to present an appropriate atmosphere to potential “partners”.

Frequently Back Office operations appeared bloated with staff and resources, at a time when other services were being closed down.

Inherently, morale in the Front Line suffered, thus further reducing the quality of service provided to residents. Had the bright young things running the Back Office any real experience of service delivery, they would have probably been far more equitable in bearing the burden of cuts.

Of course, the bright young things do have an Achilles’ heel. Their value was based on their contacts, and what happened if their contacts lost influence or position? For one chief executive this happened. His key contact, a senior person in a key ministry, began to lose influence once Gordon Brown took over as Prime Minister, and he was out of the door once the government changed. Having no leadership skills, being the author of several leadership disasters and no key contact to offer, this CEO was compelled to leave.


If the elected leadership of local authorities are not to repeat these errors, they need to establish what leadership culture they want and what characteristics determine this. If they are content with distant, hands-off management drawn from Back Office careerists, then nothing much needs to change. If they want to see an organisation led by experienced and knowledgeable staff, then they need to look for people with real evidence of leadership in tough conditions.

What elected officials need to bear in mind continually is that their council is not given public money just to maintain the Town Hall, the council’s head offices and the executive suites. They are given money only for the delivery of services to the public.

It is the Front Line that generates the income, and thus the Front Line should be the customer for all the Back Office internal support services. And if the Back Office functions cannot demonstrate true value for money, then they should be outsourced wherever possible. Thus, when seeking to determine the levels of efficiency, our councillors must analyse the ratio between Front Line, Front Line Support and the Back Office costs – it may be a very shocking formula for many councillors, and it could be terrifying for senior management.

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2 Responses to Parade-ground generals fail to lead on council’s Front Line

  1. derekthrower says:

    The sad fact is that the Generals are probably negotiating themselves nice little redundancy packages after aligning themselves far too closely with the past regime.

    When you hear of the vast sums these people are allocated you would think they would have the flexibility to cross barriers, but despite being always willing to be pleasantly surprised. I very much doubt it.

  2. Rod Davies says:

    I would like to emphasise that my comments were, and are, general comments about the nature of some local authorities and other public bodies. I would hope that we all move away from personalities and focus on whether organisations are fit for purpose and what can be done to make them fit for purpose.

    I have provided, I hope, some food for thought and hopefully got some people thinking about what makes an organisation fit for purpose.

    Whatever we do it must be objective and rational, and based on the business objectives for the council to deliver the services we need at a price that we can afford.

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