Life of a council CEO: conflicted, harassed and insecure

Local government CEOs are subject job insecurity, conflict of interest and harassment, a West Australian study has found.

Tracey Hirst

“Overall, the key concern was the tension at the councillors–CEO interface,” the study in the Australian Journal of Public Administration finds.

Researchers from the University of WA and RMIT canvassed the views of 43 current and recently departed CEOs, including 39 men and four women.

The study comes in the context of an ongoing review of the WA local government act and hopes to bring to the table some ideas for reform.

Its publication follows the release of a preliminary industry report, prepared for Local Government Professionals WA and released in November 2019, which found that CEO stress levels are three times the national average.

Job insecurity

CEOs reported experiencing job insecurity and felt they were sometimes the victims of poor HR management, lead researcher Tracey Hirst from the University of WA’s business school said.

“A big part of what CEO were saying was they felt a high level of job insecurity in the way that their role is set up,” she told Government News.

CEOs said councillors were often ill-equipped to grasp governance, finance, urban planning, teamwork, leadership and strategic planning, which sometimes resulted in misunderstandings and tensions.

CEOs also felt that the performance feedback they received from Councils/councillors was of poor quality.

“Councillors aren’t necessarily skilled in managing staff,” Ms Hirst said.

“So when it comes to anything to do with recruitment or performance management or protecting their health and safety at work, all these things could be challenging for people who didn’t necessarily come to the job with the skills.”

Conflicts of interest

Another key theme to emerge from the survey of CEOs was the potential to find themselves in a position of inherent conflict of interest, particularly in relation to mandatory whistleblowing requirements.

This was because a councillor could simultaneously become both the object of a CEO allegation of wrongdoing and the CEO’s ‘protector’.

“Being employed by council yet having to legislatively report when elected members aren’t abiding by legislation – there’s an inherent tension in that, when you’re coming to performance evaluation, when you’re coming to contract negotiation.

“The way system is currently set up allows for these things to occur.”

The report proposes that if CEO whistleblowing on dodgy councillor behaviour is to be a priority, they should perhaps be removed from the direct employment of council “to mitigate potential retribution for ‘speaking up’.

Harrassment and threats

CEOs also said they were subject to “unwarranted pressure” from persistent complainants and sometimes faced accusations and threats that made them fear for their safety and that of their families.

They said they wanted some sort of review body to protect them from this sort of behaviour.

“A recommendation may be for the state government to delegate a body to which LG referrals can be made about persistent complaints,” the researchers propose, adding this could prevent complaints escalating to aggressive behaviour and prevent public resources being wasted dealing with them.

Scant progress

LGPWA CEO Candy Choo says the association is committed to building a an efficient local government sector that provides good services for the community, but not at the cost of the health and safety wellbeing of staff, particularly at senior management.

Candy Choo

However she says there’s been scant improvement since the 2019 industry report.

“Unfortunately we haven’t really seen an improvement in the situation,” she told Government News.

Ms Choo said the most successful and effective local governments were the ones where elected members and administration where on the same page and where there was good commiunication.

“When that relationship breaks down it absolutely has detrimental impact,” she said.

Ms Choo welcomed the introduction of universal training for councillors last year but says its effectiveness is yet to be evaluated.

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7 thoughts on “Life of a council CEO: conflicted, harassed and insecure

  1. Its a cumulative effect. CEOs often restructure organisations so that they can get rid of personnel they do not like. They are quick to offer redundancies. They make others feel insecure as well

  2. It would be good to see a similar study of former General Managers in NSW Government as it will demonstrate the tension about whistleblowing and what happens to those GMs who do blow the whistle and are not protected by ICAC or whistle blowing legislation!

  3. Seriously, GM,s in nsw are a protected species,!
    I think they all need a hug in WA. and get on with their job and stop whinging,
    I do agree that some Councillors are ill-equipped to carry out their responsibilities, but so are many GM,s

    1. You have got to be kidding Rob. GM’s are regularly punted for absolutely no valid reason in NSW. In fact the senior staff contract means no reason is even required. The bullying of senior staff and utter lack of accountability of Councillors due to a poor Code of Conduct process makes the life of a GM precarious at best. Your ill advised attitude leads me to believe you may be a Councillor.

      1. John!! I am am not a Councillor.
        Your comment about GMs being punted for no reason is just rubbish. Like any large private enterprise where the CEOs don’t deliver, they get moved on. Local government GMs usually walk out with their 38 weeks pay and can always find themselves new positions.

  4. Seen it often in remote locations . Fraudulent operators or “Post Turtles” promoted via the “ Peter Principle “ and bringing disrepute to the organisation.
    Complainants are the real victims under the current adversarial system of compliance structure. The power brokers or fraudsters need removing. Not with a redundancy payout and rehiring as a contractor whilst his partner or wife remain employed in the same organisation. (Nepotism and cronyism protecting these fragile individuals that suffer from Dunning and Kruger syndrome. )

  5. Conflicted, harassed and unsecured??? Please. The role of the CEO is to run the operation, the councillors endorse the strategic direction. Many CEOs lack the the competence and experience for the role yet have base salaries of $200k or more plus benefits. They have progressed to the role because of tenure rather than fitness for the role. I have little empathy for CEOs that feel they can’t handle the pressures of such a well paid job.

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