Friday, 16 September 2011

Downs and out!

It emerged last week that Carolyn Downs, the chief executive of the Legal Services Commission (LSC), is leaving to join the Local Government Association (LGA) as its chief executive. It seems curious to LAG that the world has learnt of her departure not from the LSC or the Ministry of Justice (MoJ), but from her new employer which announced her appointment in a press release. Her departure is also rotten timing given the uncertainty over the LSC’s future and the reasons for the departure of her predecessor.

The chief executive’s job at the LSC has proved to be something of a poisoned chalice in recent years. Carolyn Downs stepped into the role as a stop gap when her predecessor, Carolyn Regan, quit after three and half years at the LSC in March last year. At the time LAG said that we believed that CarolynRegan had been made the scapegoat for long-standing financial management and other problems at the LSC. Prior to Carolyn Regan’s departure the commission had been without a permanent boss for over a year. This was due to the then chief executive, Clare Dodgson, being on long term sick leave. Clare Dodgson had joined the LSC in June 2003, replacing Steve Orchard who’d held the top position at the LSC, and its predecessor the Legal Aid Board, for 14 years. In May 2005 Clare Dodgson suffered a serious back injury while at home, after which she did not return to work and this led to her eventually having to agree to resign in June the following year.

The publication of the Magee review on the future of the LSC was the catalyst for Carolyn Regan’s departure. In his report Sir Ian Magee was critical of the duplication of policy functions between the LSC and the MoJ and recommended that the commission be taken under the direct control of the government, (this change of status to an executive agency is included in the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill). More importantly Sir Ian’s report found serious weaknesses in the financial management at the LSC, which were also reflected in critical National Audit Office reports.

In a surprise move the week Magee’s report was published, Carolyn Regan’s resignation and the appointment of Carolyn Downs on an “interim basis” were announced by the chair of the LSC, Sir Bill Callaghan. Carolyn Downs moved from her position as Deputy Permanent Secretary at the MoJ to take up the post at the LSC. The Board of Commissioners at the LSC had to agree to her appointment with the MoJ. LAG assumes that any temporary or permanent replacement will have to be agreed by both parties again.

In the short time she has been at the LSC, Carolyn Downs has enjoyed a good relationship with providers, despite continuing disagreements with them. Her move to the LGA fits with her background as she was the chief executive of Shropshire County Council for six years. However, given that the commission has yet to make the transition to executive agency status, LAG asks would it not have been better for the MoJ to persuade her to stay on to oversee this or maybe she believed that it was better to get out while the going was good?

Now Downs is out, what about her successor? The ideal candidate would need to be both a brilliant administrator and diplomat. The diplomatic aspects of the job are the most important and to this end building a good relationship with the suppliers of legal aid is a given. LAG would argue that this is superseded by the need for a chief executive who would fight for legal aid in the corridors of power. This means standing up to ministers to tell them when they have got it wrong. To do this successfully, the head of legal aid will have to tread a fine line between diplomatic persuasion and career suicide- not an easy task.

Steve Hynes

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