Can CAS halt its revolving door of chief executives?

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Robert Armour questions how the effectiveness of a board that has allowed its dirty laundry to be aired in the public press 

1st March 2016 by Robert Armour 0 Comments

Margaret Lynch, the Citizens Advice Scotland chief executive, finally got sacked last week after languishing suspended for months, waiting for a panel of trustees to sound the death knell.

I’m not sure how these things go but I’d imagine it would be a bit like one those trials you get in North Korea where, face down at all times, you’re forced to flagellate yourself, endure hours of criticism before being given the privilege of paying for your own bullets for the inevitable execution.

While only the wildly optimistic ever expected an outcome other than Lynch picking up her P45, few would have expected the deluge of bad blood to come flowing out of CAS in quite the way it has.

Over recent weeks CAS has sprung more leaks than a Poundshop colander

I’m choosing my words carefully here but I can’t help but find it hugely disappointing – and hugely unprofessional – that confidential information normally privy only to trustees and senior staff should find its way on the desk of the country’s leading investigative journalist, not once but twice.

That in itself warrants an investigation. This, remember, is one of the country’s leading campaign groups, lauded by the great and the good for supporting the vulnerable and helping people with welfare advice and advocacy services. Yet over recent weeks it has sprung more leaks than a Poundshop colander and seems unable to hold onto senior staff.

It’s easy to join the dots here and see a hatchet job in the making. The first leak was boardroom minutes showing a spat between Lynch and certain trustees. The headline issue coming out of that story was that CAS, under Lynch’s tenure, had at one stage only 11 days reserves left in place.

Then just days after she got the boot, a massive piece in the Sunday Herald detailed every nook and cranny of Lynch’s expenses over her entire tenure as chief executive. Let’s face it: publishing anyone’s expenses never looks pretty, and Lynch’s looks quite shambolic: car repairs, cash withdrawals, alcohol tabs and regular taxi journeys all conspire to look as if she’s been doing something wrong.

It appears Lynch had been using the company credit card for personal items and while that may have been sanctioned in some shape or form, when the proverbial hits the fan it’s a hard situation to justify when you appear to use public money for private purposes, whether or not they are paid back.

It's possible Lynch as been guilty of little more than carelessness but when the knives are out that alone can get you sacked. There’s a lesson to be learned for all staff of voluntary organisations when it comes to dealing with cash that is ultimately from the public purse: be whiter than white and commit to the same standards a Parliamentary Standards Commissioner would expect from those holding public office.  

It has to be remembered however this isn’t a criminal investigation. At no time have trustees of CAS explicitly accused Lynch of impropriety. It’s feels like a smokescreen deployed to divert from the main issue, whatever that may be.

Whatever the outcome of her appeal and potential tribunal, Lynch did fail as chief executive of CAS because she dared to defy those with the real control at CAS: the board.

Made up of member bureaux, and criticised for being staid, traditionalist and old fashioned, CAS steadfastly refuses to believe this crisis comes from the top. Until it does, the revolving door of chief executives looks set to continue.