‘Right Eric, I have had enough. When you and your acolytes have been purposefully dishonest about local government services I am fine to disagree. When you slash our budgets and then blame local government for closing services I can understand that this is politics. But when you have the bare-faced cheek and total lack of integrity to attack council officers for giving impartial advice that you disagree with I have simply had it.
Pickles, I’m calling you out!’
So started what was going to be an epic rant about Eric Pickles’ latest salvo in the war about the council tax grant.
For those who missed it Mr Pickles said the following:
‘Particularly to finance officers, there is a danger here of being involved in politics, in a way. There is a referendum [trigger], and to suddenly find yourself mysteriously arriving in that place between zero and where you have to face the electorate is a highly political decision.
To put it another way I’m happy to use the headline from the Public Finance magazine:
‘Don’t meddle with council tax freeze’, Pickles warns FDs
As you imagine what especially annoyed me about this is that Mr Pickles had just tried to drag officers into the debate about council tax. He should know better. Much like civil servants local government officers are, especially at the level of finance director, politically neutral.
However, I took a deep breath and decided that having a Monday post upset with Mr Pickles two weeks in a row was the beginning of an unhealthy obsession; and continuing that rant was going to be bad for my blood pressure.
Also, there is an element to which the Secretary of State had a point. Not a good point or a correct point but a point nonetheless.
You see, whilst the advice given by the finance director and other senior officers will always be based on their professional opinions it is absolutely inconceivable that they would be unaware of the political context in which their advice is to be given.
A good senior officer will know which options would be palatable to their members and also how these proposals should be presented to them at various council committees. They’ll understand that where a piece of advice does not fit with the council’s ideological preferences it is best to run it past the cabinet member in private far in advance of when it might meet the public space. They’ll produce proposals that meet the council’s priorities whilst making sure they are totally honest with the members about the implications of those priorities.
Altogether they will spend their whole working life existing in a political context; not necessarily agreeing with their political masters but being aware of it at all stages.
If we are to take Eric at his word then he is arguing that officers should blunder around blindly and take no notice of the political context they operate in.
I think that would be a mistake.
Whilst it should remain true that officers advise and councillors decide we should also expect officers to be aware of who their councillors are and the sort of decisions they will want to make. To suggest otherwise is either deeply naive or highly cynical.
I don’t believe Mr Pickles is naive.
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