Posted tagged ‘council’

Are officers or members really in charge?

June 12, 2012

Any excuse…

One of the many criticisms targeted at local government is that councils are not really run by the locally elected politicians but instead are just run by council officers. Some council officers agree with this sentiment but instead of seeing this as a criticism believe that councils would be better if councils were indeed truly run by their officers.

It’s often been said that if you annoying people on both sides of an argument then you are probably doing something right.

However, although the truth probably lies in the middle of the two positions it is still an issue that is worthy of further debate. And unlike the relationship between civil servants and ministers (thanks in part to Antony Jay and Jonathan Lynn) the relationship between officers and members is comparably under-studied.

There are two questions that need to be answered:

  1. Are members or officers really in charge?
  2. Does it actually matter?

To answer the first question there is both a technical answer and a practical answer.

In the technical sense councillors are mostly in charge. All major decisions need to be made by the council or cabinet and whilst smaller decisions can be made by delegated officers (usually senior officers) the delegated authorities that allow for this are constitutional, controlled by the councillors anyway and can easily be removed.

Anyone who has worked in a local authority can also attest to the fact that councillors can and do interfere in almost every area of the council, even if sometimes they focus disproportionately on smaller areas. However, and this is a big however, the extent to which a local authority is truly run by the councillors is open to debate.

Technically, the councillors are in control and practically they do get involved in all sorts of areas but the extent of their control is limited to their capacity, and desire, to be in charge.

And this is where the debate really begins.

Because, in all areas where the councillors, for whatever reason, choose not to be in charge officers are left holding the baby.

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Local government meeting etiquette and the laptop

October 25, 2011

'Product Placement' with no payment

I have a colleague who brings his laptop to meetings. He claims he is trying to be paperless, and whilst I am happy to stroke my chin and claim that ‘it will never last’ as he lugs his enormous council issued laptop around the place, at least he is trying.

However, the mere fact of him having his laptop in meetings, and the fact that many councils are moving towards having laptops rather than desktops for their staff, raises a number of ‘meeting etiquette’ questions that we need to de-bunk.

Sitting there typing away in a meeting for some reason seems a little rude but is it any worse than sitting there taking notes on a piece of paper? Well, of course not.

But whilst it is fine to take notes on a laptop what if he uses it for other reasons?

In a meeting last week the discussion turned to a Government announcement and as quick as a flash there was a tap tap tapping in the corner and my colleague had the relevant document on his screen and started reading it out. Although impressed, one of my older colleagues did mutter as we left that:

‘I wonder if that’s what he spends the whole meeting doing?’

Now, let’s move past the fact that what he actually did was damn helpful to the progress of the meeting; what if he did spend every meeting surfing the internet, checking his e-mails and generally catching up on other work? Is this a problem?

There are two inter-related issues here:

  1. Is the member of staff paying attention?
  2. Is the member of staff contributing at the appropriate moments?

If those two criteria are met does it matter? And even if they don’t is the laptop the problem?

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Away with away days

June 7, 2011

Corporate bonding?

As regular readers will know, we at WLLG love a good guest post, and today’s submission is all about the council away day. If you’ve got an article or topic you’d like us to share with our readers send it in to welovelocalgovernment@gmail.com, but not until you’ve enjoyed this.

The TaxPayers’ Alliance (the soi disant independent, grassroots campaign for lower taxes) have fixed their sights on another example of public sector profligacy – council awaydays.

This is based on research carried out by Sky News. Sky News are playing their part in exposing the scandalous extent to which councils fritter away the taxes of hard-working families by launching a blog to investigate these issues, called Waste Watch.

Councils up and down the land are spending huge sums of money financing jollies for staff – some of the more interesting items include £80 for laser tag (Rutland DC), Leicestershire County Council, who apparently “splashed out” on £231 for a barge, and Basingstoke and Deane BC who spent the princely sum of £111.55 on a portable toilet. Presumably this was for quite a small awayday – you can only fit three or four people inside one of them, at a push (believe me).

It’s good to see that the press and campaigning groups are zeroing in on this expenditure, which adds up to £2 million across every council in the land, rather than concentrating on less pressing concerns such as defence procurement and the cost of policing reform.

The TPA finish their article by saying:

Councils need to make better use of their own resources and learn from councils that have managed to arrange away days but at no or very little cost to the taxpayer. Councils keep telling us they’ve made all savings possible, these findings tell us this is not the case.

Leaving aside the last sentence (the figures almost certainly are 08/09 or 09/10 ones – I doubt whether a single authority is spending anything like the sums quoted during this financial year) this sounds pretty sensible. It is also interesting because it tacitly admits the utility of awaydays – the attack is not on them going ahead in the first place but how much they cost.

So how useful are they? (more…)

Computers don’t respect boundaries so why does council IT?

April 19, 2011

So what exactly does McDonalds have to do with council IT?

One of the under-appreciated parts of any local authority is its IT department. Unseen by members of the public and bemoaned by council staff people only care about IT when their computer stops working and even then it is assumed that it is just some stupid IT tech who has got something wrong.

This is, of course, silly and local authorities are becoming increasingly reliant on all sorts of IT networks, applications and systems. In today’s guest post, a ‘techy’ (which is a technical term!) discusses how savings can be made, even within the increasingly complex information technology world.

If you have a guest post to submit then please send it to welovelocalgovernment@gmail.com

It has been obvious to me for some time that many public sector budget items have been unnecessarily duplicated time and time again for no apparent reason other than territorial integrity. Centralised procurement of goods and services has been highlighted as one area where huge savings can be made.

Imagine, for example, a hugely efficient private sector operation like McDonalds allowing each branch to negotiate and buy its own supplies of buns and burgers etc from different suppliers. It’s total nonsense since there is no way that the best deals on price and quality could be negotiated other than by one or two central buyers speaking for the whole McDonalds empire with its massive buying power.

Yet, for reasons of history and cultural difference this is just how vast chunks of the public sector have been operating with the inevitable result that individual departments have been spending far more than they needed to on everything from paperclips to computers.

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Internal markets in the council

April 14, 2011

Now, that's what I call an internal market

I had a Chief Executive who said that if the work we were doing was not directly benefitting or serving a member of the public then we were probably doing the wrong thing. In the same organisation we were told to focus closely on what the needs of our customers were and seek to deliver it. Finally, I was told, as a member of a support service, that I needed to ensure that I was delivering what the frontline service needed and not just what I felt was important.

All of the three statements are correct and not necessarily mutually exclusive.

However, they do highlight the complex position that people within support services are often in. On the one hand they usually have a formal role to undertake, such as audit, finance or legal services. On the other hand they are working for a public service and therefore should be serving the public and finally they are a SUPPORT service so should really just work for the service they are supporting.

It is a quandary that local authorities have long been trying to straighten out and one of the favoured tactics is to set up the internal business unit, or if this is a bit much, the approximation of an internal business unit.

The support service can then charge the frontline services in the council for their work.

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The indispensable few

March 31, 2011

The indispensables ones aren't always highlighted in gold

Everywhere I have been in my local government odyssey there have been some constants. Bad catering, poor heating systems and numerous complicated templates are just an example of the commonality possessed across the local government sector.

Another, often unsung, constant is the presence of one person who knows everyone and everything about the team, and often the council, you’re working in.

I call these people the indispensable few.

The indispensable few don’t occupy senior roles within the authority.

Some will be PAs (long established as the most powerful position in any organisation) but more often than not the indispensable colleague is just an ‘ordinary’ member of the team, an ‘ordinary’ officer or a service manager, usually of a small service.

This person will have a set role to perform but will be found helping anyone and everyone achieve their goals. They will be a source of news and information but won’t be gossipers in the traditional sense of the word. They’ll know what’s going on but have a clear idea of what can be shared, to who and when. They will often be taken into the confidence of half the organisation; and never let anyone down.

The individual in question is the person we turn to when we need advice and aren’t ready to go up the chain to our manager etc.

They’ll know who to call and where information can be found.

In summary, the indispensable few act as the grease that helps the council operate smoothly. Without them I’m pretty sure the council would not function nearly as well.

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In Members we trust

January 7, 2011

Something for the Councillors to work their way through

Another guest post today; this time combining (in a slightly odd way) Sean Bean, buffets, outbuildings and our trust in local councillors. If you have anything you’d like us to put up on the site please send it to welovelocalgovernment@gmail.com … But not before you’ve read the post below:

Growing up we all have people that we idolise, sports people, actors, pop stars etc. For me, about 5 years ago I went through a phase, or shall we say a mild obsession, with the 90’s historical drama Sharpe, based on the Bernard Cornwell novels. As to be expected, I was a very big fan of Major Sharpe, as played by Sean Bean. He seemed to be this amazing character who could take on the entire French Army single handed and always got the girl(s).

A couple of years ago I had the opportunity to meet Sean Bean, or more specifically hang around in his company a bit stalker-like, while he had lunch. To be honest, he was quite short and not as rugged as I had hoped, needless to say I was a little disappointed. The old adage, ‘never meet your heroes, you’ll only be disappointed’ was indeed very apt.

Sadly, I would apply that same advice to your local Councillors.

(more…)


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