Authority figure

Coal Board consultant, leisure planner, council chief executive, health boss - Terry Hanafin is Mr Local Public Services. By Paul Gosling
`My message to young people early in their career is not to get themselves into cul-de-sacs. There is no job for life any more, so you have to make yourself attractive in the jobs market."

Terry Hanafin's advice to graduates and junior executives is worth listening to as he has achieved the rare distinction of being chief executive both of a health authority and a council. He achieved this after a career break from local government to work for the King's Fund College conducting management training and consultancy for health trusts. That gave him the diversity of experience to manage virtually anywhere in the public services.

His commitment to public services is a birthright. Born into a working- class family but going to university at Oxford, the experience not only led him to the public sector as a vocation, but also took him to Brent council as an elected Labour member for 10 years. Other chief executives, notably Mick Lyons at Birmingham, have also found their political histories no bar to top management, although senior officers are no longer allowed to be politically active.

But Terry Hanafin is also an example of another trend in public services - the rise of the corporate manager. His degree course included study in operational research, and his first job with the National Coal Board was as an operational researcher, in effect an internal management consultant. He moved from there to become a leisure services planner in Greenwich borough. He then joined Camden borough as a corporate planner, but soon decided the authority was not committed to the concept. "The lesson is if you are in the wrong job get out quickly," he says.

From there, at just 25, he became head of corporate planning at Lewisham. "It was a really tough job," recalls Mr Hanafin. "The first two weeks were the worst two weeks of my life. Most of the chief officers told me my unit was a waste of time and money, and the ones that didn't made it pretty clear that was what they believed."

Gradually, though, he gained the trust of the chief officers as well as councillors. His responsibilities increased, and he oversaw the transfer of over 30 services from the disbanded GLC, which he describes as "probably the most satisfying job of my life" despite personally disagreeing with the abolition.

By the time Terry Hanafin left Lewisham for his stint at the King's Fund his job had been repeatedly expanded and revised, and he had become redesignated assistant chief executive. He returned to Lewisham two years later as chief executive.

For a few weeks in 1992 Mr Hanafin achieved notoriety in the fly-on- the-wall BBC TV documentary, Town Hall, starring as the affable chief executive coping with the back-stabbing of the ruling Labour group. Those programmes illuminate his explanation of why he allowed himself to be head-hunted by Croydon health authority when his five-year contract at Lewisham was completed.

"I do believe in local democracy, but the reality in many local authorities is that they are not very satisfying because you don't have the space to use your skills and experience productively," says Mr Hanafin. "Members treat senior officers with little respect. Just look at the turnover of senior staff in some authorities."

Mr Hanafin believes all councils should consider codes of conduct that spell out the roles of councillors and officers, requiring councillors to leave employees the scope necessary to carry out their work.

If local government is sometimes the arena for too much eccentricity, and too many attempts at declaring independence, the reverse may apply as a manager in the National Health Service. "At Croydon I am part of a national service. The real issue is how much discretion we have. The more we have the greater the argument for local elections to boards," suggests Mr Hanafin.

"There is not a lot of discretion in my view. As soon as anyone tries local rationing they get told you will not do this. Given that the Secretary of State for Health appoints chairs and members of boards, it is very clear where the accountability lies. Guidance isn't guidance in the health service. There is not a lot of policy discretion, but there is a lot of managerial discretion."

In a sense, moving to Croydon Health from Lewisham council was no advance, as the total expenditure was much smaller, and he moved from having charge of 11,000 employees to just 150. But the challenge of controlling an organisation adapting to the health service reforms was something Terry Hanafin found irresistible.

The process of change is not yet complete, and Mr Hanafin is not interested in moving until he has seen through the transformation. That takes him at least to the end of the renewed three-year contract he signed last year, and after that he would be attracted by a different sort of challenge at a large NHS trust, a major executive agency, or even a return to local government. But this time only a major authority, such as a big county, would interest him, and only if he was given the assurance that he could get on with his job without undue interferencen