Why Chelsea should never run a local authority


When comparative success is not enoughFootball is a behemoth. It influences the moods and lives of millions, and has more money sloshing around it than a NHS IT project. Over the past twenty or so years it has developed from a passionate sport to a global business, where politics have as much impact as at any town hall.

Recent events at one major club are catching the headlines right now, with the story breaking as this one is typed. Chelsea have sacked their manager Carlo Ancelotti after a trophy-less season, citing their high levels of ambition and the lower than expected performances over their campaign.

So how does this in any way relate to local government?

Carlo Ancelotti was the manager of that football club. He was responsible for developing the strategy for success and working closely with those responsible for implementing that strategy to ensure that his vision was transferred into action. He was scrutinised regularly from all angles, and worked with those who controlled the resources available to him. In effect, he was the Chief Executive of a local authority; in charge of an organisation worth several million pounds and trying to achieve the goals set out before him by those who pay the bills.

In this analogy these bill payers turn from Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich into politicians, primarily local ones. They set out their targets based on their own standards of success and push to acheive these. If Abramovich decides that the Champions League is the only true measure of success then every other trophy in the cabinet won’t be enough. Likewise, should local politicians choose a set of targets to reduce waste, reduce childhood obesity or trim the staff budget by 20% then any other high results will fall short.

Mr Abramovich has the perogitive in that case to wield the p45 and bring in a new face who he believes will deliver, which in this case he has done. He has ignored last years Premier League and FA cup double – the first in the clubs history – and the fact that they finished second this year, making the semi-finals of the Champions League in the process. He had targets, these weren’t met; time for a change in the dugout.

Local politicians can act similarly. They are voted in on the back of their own and their party’s manifestos, and then push to ensure as many of their promises as possible are delivered. Often this can be a radically different list on the surface from their predecessors, and result in funding and resources being redirected from one area to another. Pressure to do this is placed on the chief exec, who needs to manage the interface between political and operational and try to achieve targets with whatever he has available. There have been plenty of examples of chief execs holding a different opinion than their elected officials, or perhaps not meeting exceptionally high targets before being forced out in one way or another. A new, more ameanable replacement is then found and installed who will promise to deliver their targets until they are then replaced, only to then find themselves at odds with newcomers, and so the cycle repeats.

As we recently explored, knowing when to have a backbone and being able to stand firm is tricky enough for junior managers, but you would expect their more senior counterparts to be better at managing these situations.

Chief executives and senior managers need to be given time to plan, implement and evaluate the impact of their long term strategic plans. There is a huge difference between the long term plans developed by much of local government which may not play out and bear fruit for five or ten years, and sometimes even longer. This is totally at odds with the much more frequent turnaround of local councillors and politicians, who come and go several times over the course of such a plan and impact upon it in various ways. Sometimes this is a positive impact, but it can also be negative, and can drag a plan a long way from its intended goals and outcomes.

It’s no secret that the major reason behind the success of Manchester Utd has been the longevity of their manager, Alex Ferguson. He set out a long term plan for the club and then saw it through, and even when things were not going entirely to plan was allowed to continue and see things out. We even mentioned him as one of five famous individuals we would like to see working for local government, which has to be the highlight of his managerial career.

Chelsea on the other hand have gone through manager after manager, and their success has never seemed to be as embedded or constant as their northern rivals. They have also consumed far greater resources to get to where they are today, a situation which cannot be transferred over to local government.

We need to see our chief executives and managers given the trust required to develop a long term plan and the trust to see it through. The more often the churn of senior staff, the more the wheel is reinvented and progress is reset. Stability and clarity of vision go a long way, both in football and local government.

Welovelocalgovernment is a blog written by UK local government officers. If you have a piece you’d like to submit or any comments you’d like to make please drop us a line at: welovelocalgovernment@gmail.com

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