Never in the same role for long, interim directors parachute
into clean up the department or hold the fort until the
appointments committee secures the right person for the big job.
Derren Hayes meets the bosses who
don’t want to hang around
Ian Davey has more in common with former Tottenham Hotspur football
manager David Pleat than many might realise.
Just as Pleat was handed the reins at Spurs last September to keep
the manager’s seat warm for the remainder of the season until
a permanent successor was found, so Davey has been given a one-year
brief to act as caretaker for Sutton’s top social services
But although this caretaker role is still relatively unusual in the
football world, it is becoming increasingly common in top-tier
management in social services. Directors’ posts can become
vacant overnight and need to be filled quickly and this
merry-go-round of moves has spawned a new breed of full-time
The role has some unique demands and it can be difficult to make
changes while maintaining the respect of front-line staff, senior
politicians and managers. So what are the pros and cons for the
employee and the employer?
One plus is the money. Interim directors are paid salaries more
akin to those earned by football managers. One interim says he
“wouldn’t get out of bed for less than £700 a
day” and knows of others paid more.
There are no official figures for the number of interim directors
in the UK, but everybody believes there are more now than five
years ago. The Society of Local Authority Chief Executives
(Solace), which also recruits senior public sector managers for
councils, says its interim management market is worth £10m a
year – 10 times what it was just four years ago.
The widely held view is that interim directors are mainly called
upon when the teacups start flying in the chief executive’s
office. There is some truth in this. The increased pressure to
deliver three stars in the performance ratings means the tenures of
social services directors are becoming shorter.
Steve Wild, interim director in Cumbria, is one of the most
experienced in the role. Since becoming an interim in 2000 after
four years as permanent director in Sefton, Merseyside, Wild has
headed five social services departments. Because Sefton was on
special measures when he joined, Wild has become a specialist in
taking charge of struggling departments. But don’t call him a
“That’s far too aggressive a term,” he says.
“It’s inevitable that, when I go in, people are fairly
disenfranchised in what they are doing. But it is essential that
you don’t say, ‘I’m going to do it this
way’. You need to use and recognise the skills around you,
build on them, and people will respond.”
Wild says it is also important to provide leadership on what needs
to improve while allowing senior staff and social workers to get on
with their jobs.
He has never applied for interim posts – Cumbria approached
him to improve its children’s services – and his
tenures lasted between six and 16 months. Unlike many interims, he
believes the role has to be full-time to stay on top of the
constantly changing political agenda.
Care consultant and former social services director Peter
Smallridge says the key issue for an interim post is how many days
you are expected to commit to it.
“Everyone wants you to do five days a week,” he says,
“but it’s difficult to find someone who’s free
for that length of
time. Everyone wants you to start tomorrow, but you shouldn’t
be that free if you are any good.”
Smallridge sees the role as “steadying the ship”, often
during a period of transition, and providing a “health
check” on the department. “Sometimes you need someone
fresh who has not been tainted by running the department but who
also has the experience,” he says.
Former director Brian Parrott, who runs a health and social care
consultancy, had a three-month stint as interim director at
Cambridgeshire Council in 2003 while a new director was recruited.
He says the interim’s qualities should include experience,
lack of baggage in that authority, a particular issue they can
champion and prompt availability.
“It should be a straightforward agreement that begins and
ends without complexities. It is about quickly building
relationships with elected members and gaining their trust,”
Mark Rawden, head of resources at Solace, says authorities are
developing a “bespoke approach which helps them get more bang
for their buck”. He says they are becoming more comfortable
with the concept of employing interims as they recognise the
importance of maintaining continuity and leadership. “There
is also a better pool of interim directors to choose from now, and
clients say they are very happy with the results, flexibility and
cost-effectiveness of the arrangements,” he says.
Mike Leadbetter, who recently left an interim post at Ealing
Council also believes chief executives have recognised they cannot
afford to risk a loss of direction or morale in social services.
“Before, it didn’t receive that attention,” he
“Many three-star authorities have no hesitation in appointing
an interim, but I don’t think any organisation should rely
too heavily on them because you need people with longer-term
This is certainly the view of the Commission for Social Care
Inspection. Although some believe it frowns on interim
arrangements, its policy is to take each case on its own
Some experts estimate that at any one time at least 10 per cent of
the 150-odd councils in England have interim directors, and most
believe the number will increase to cope with the proposals of the
Children Bill. And with separate directors for children’s and
adults’ services on the cards by 2008, many are considering
using an interim while they reshape departments.
In Sutton, the previous social services director has been seconded
to the primary care trust to oversee the integration of adult
services with health. The council has also decided to develop a
“You are going to see more interims while authorities decide
whether to go down the same route,” says Davey.
That can only be a good thing, says Leadbetter. “Sometimes
directors can stay too long and suffer from the Alex Ferguson
factor. A new coach can bring fresh ideas and
Davey, and Spurs fans, will be hoping he’s right.
‘You come in with no baggage and an objective
You do not need to look much further than Ian Davey to find an
advocate for life as an interim. After spending 13 years as
Rochdale’s social services director, Davey left in January
and moved to France.
“When I left, interim management wasn’t top of my list.
But, having talked to other colleagues who said it was a rewarding
career I began to consider it,” he says.
The Sutton job came up in March after the existing director was
seconded to the primary care trust to oversee the integration of
adult care with health. The post offered Davey the opportunity to
keep his hand in but still gave him flexibility – he works
four days in Sutton and goes home to France for the rest of the
The one-year contract will culminate in an inspection of the
authority’s older people’s services in February, and so
far Davey has found it a positive experience. “I have a
timescale, deadline and brief to improve adult services. I’ve
had the full support of everyone and I’ve found it a
Davey says other senior managers are dealing with developments in
housing and other core areas, enabling him to focus on adult
He believes one of the main advantages of being an interim is that
“you come in with no baggage, an objective view, and more
freedom to ask awkward questions”.