Posted tagged ‘councillors’

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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Race to the bottom

March 29, 2012

Shouldn't we be pulling people up rather than pushing them down?

Recently I found myself once again in a meeting with some of our local councillors.  They were as usual a friendly and interesting bunch of souls, attempting to do their best by their constituents and planning a public meeting for local people to engage on the goings on of our council.

The subject of meeting papers came up, with one councillor spending five minutes peering at a printed excel table of five point type and miniature lines.  As they struggled I made the point that it’s a shame that we can’t zoom in on paper in the same way that we can on computers or tablets.  It was as if I’d accused them of witchcraft.

I then spent a good ten minutes or so hearing them discuss how they were against any person in a meeting, be they councillors, officers or members of the public, attending a public meeting and making use of any form of electronic device to store or access papers and information.  Their thinking was that this gave these people an unfair advantage over everyone else in the room as they could access more information more easily and more quickly; therefore this made others feel uncomfortable, so it was deemed better to have everyone on a lower but level playing field.

I was stunned to say the least.  As they were councillors and as they were changing mid-meeting from jolly and positive to boisterous and negative I decided not to make a larger discussion of this, instead getting back on topic and filing it away for later absorption and deliberation. (more…)

An education

March 13, 2012

Because movie stars are cooler than councillors

We love a guest post and today’s is a really interesting one. The post discusses what, in many areas, seems to be a growing disconnect between councillors and officers. It then looks at what might have been one of the causes; the collapse of the committee system. We hope you enjoy today’s post and if you have something you’d like to submit please drop us a line at welovelocalgovernment@gmail.com… but not before you’ve read this:

When local government moved to the Cabinet system, it lost the best political training ground for council officers of the future. The old committee system had many faults; slow decision making and too many late nights being just two of them. However, what the committee system did provide was an opportunity for local government officers to learn the intricacies, rules and unspoken regulations of working with elected members. And in my experience local government is poorer without it.

I don’t work in Democratic Services now, but that was where I started. It gave me the best possible education for a future in the public sector and it’s only now that I’m beginning to realise it.

From the outside I was an administrator.

But when you are on the inside of the committee machine you realised that you were part of something much bigger than that. You are a relationship builder, secret-keeper, networker, diplomat, confidant, counsellor (to councillors) and on occasion, even a muse.

Most importantly you learn how to deal with personalities and politics; and more specifically the personalities IN politics.

You are taught about delegated powers, governance and constitutions. You see how decisions are made, why some take hours of discussion whilst some go through on the nod. You see how some members really do represent the people who put them there, but how others are just in it for themselves.

And back in the old days, every senior officer knew how to work this system and knew their place in it. They understood the most basic rule: it’s all about the council tax payers and the people who represent them. The tax payer is not only your customer; he is also your boss.

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A question of standards

January 25, 2012

Guest post alert, and this pleases us.  As regular readers will know, WLLG Towers is home to more than one brain, but even between us all we find a fair few corners of the local government world about which we know pitifully small amounts.  If you happen to have some thoughts to share about any such corner then please send them in to us at welovelocalgovernment@gmail.com, as did today’s fantastic guest blogger DSO.  Enjoy!

In those heady days after the last general election, the coalition government sat down and hammered out a document, The Coalition: our programme for government, subtitled “Freedom Fairness Responsibility”. Included in the proposals for local government was a sentence which met with cheers from many local councillors: “We will abolish the Standards Board regime.”

Now, the Standards Board regime might have had a lot of reasons to be disliked, but it would never have been established if there hadn’t been a need for some oversight of ethical standards in the conduct of local councillors. The vast majority had no trouble sticking to the Code of conduct although they might have resented the necessity of legislating requirements to treat people with respect, not bullying and not to abuse their position for personal gain.

The real problems came from those determined to breach it on principle and from the complicated framework for dealing with complaints: investigations could drag on for months, there was secrecy concerning what information was seen and by whom, and no one was ever satisfied with the outcome of a Standards Committee hearing. Some of these criticisms were addressed when the regime was overhauled in 2008, transferring most of the work to local councils to speed up the process and bring local knowledge into play, but at the same time increasing costs for the local council. Everything had to be filtered through a first-stage committee meeting which could consider only evidence from the complainant and, based on this one-sided view, had to decide what to do next: investigate or drop it. An authority in the southwest received more than 800 complaints from one resident, and had to meet to decide what to do with each of them as the legislation didn’t allow the Monitoring Officer any discretion to dismiss clearly vexatious complaints. (more…)

The Local Government Chess Board

January 19, 2012

But where are the Knights?

‘Do you ever get the feeling that you’re just a pawn on a big chess board?’

So asked Sarah Norman during a discussion of public sector job losses and the attempts by the Government to move those jobs to the private sector; either by moving the service into the private sector or by losing public sector jobs and replacing them with a growing private sector.

However, the wider question Sarah asked is a profound one.

I think we expect our leaders to be something akin to chess players, making their small moves but always doing so with an overall plan and a view of exactly what is happening across the whole chess board.

So as we like to do with profound questions here is the We Love Local Government guide to how our leaders, and others in local government, play chess:

Eric Pickles: Mr Pickles is a chess player with just one strategy. He’s learnt it really well and is consistent and well drilled in its delivery. However, if people try to deviate from the ‘cuts’ strategy it can flummox him and make him make mistakes. However, those that underestimate him and dive straight him, not seeing the wider strategy, often end up with their king lying face down.

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We know best?

December 7, 2011

Advice: often asked for, not always followed

Whilst attempting to remain within the bounds of anonymity, I am happy to share the fact that I have two children.  They are at the age when they not only have their own opinions, but they are increasingly willing and (more worryingly) able to eloquently explain how their opinions differ and are superior to my own.  Where they are explaining why their choice of music is better I’ll smile and wave, but when they try to explain why you can eat a diet of nothing but fast food and still stay healthy I can’t help but disagree.

In my mind, and despite their protestations, there are simply some situations where I know best.  I can disagree with them about what I perceive as small things, but when it comes to more major issues like their safety or their health I am loathe to let them make decisions which I have clear evidence to support my assertions that they are wrong.

This head to head battle came to mind recently when I witnessed a version of the same struggle taking place between an officer, some local residents and a handful of councillors.  To provide an outline, the former had recommended a course of action for a project which was different to the ambitions of the residents and therefore against the wishes of the councillors.  This had been going on for some months, and eventually resulted in the elected officials simply noting the officer’s concerns and overruling them.

In this situation, both sides were both right and wrong.  The officer felt that it was entirely within their role to robustly defend their position and push for their professional opinions and recommendations  to be followed.  The councillors felt it was their job to represent the interests and desires of their constituents, and the residents simply wanted the project to be delivered as they believed that it would make a positive difference to their area regardless of the contrary advice from the professionals.

It seems that there are those of us who are officers who are generally very happy to engage with the public on either of two areas; where we expect the end result to match up with what we are recommending, or when the issue being discussed is non-controversial or not actually that important in the grand scheme of things.  Of course, it goes without saying that there are many who take a more enlightened view and offer multiple and real opportunities for residents to get involved, but those who don’t usually see engagement as a part of their job description often aren’t as willing to do so.

Essentially we are happy to discuss things when it addresses what residents want, but not when it addresses what they need. (more…)

Defending democracy

October 5, 2011

Not a plastic advisor in sight

Local Authorities are not particularly democratic, at least in the way they are run.

A local authority is a very complex organisation. In order to provide the required governance of this complex beast into the hands of the demos we elect councillors to monitor and manage the activities of the council. This would be a tricky job were these representatives fully qualified in running a local authority, or very knowledgeable in the areas they are in charge of, and had full time responsibility for the activities of it.

It becomes very difficult indeed when the councillors are part time representatives with limited time to get under the skin of issues, few meetings to really analyse council policies and a whole range of other responsibilities not attached to running the local authority as such. Add to that a mass of regulation from central Government and it is very hard to say for certain that the actions of the local authority represent the will of the demos.

So when I say that local authorities are not particularly democratic I mean it in the above sense.

Obviously, the issues detailed above are numerous and multi-faceted. They also only just scrape the tip of the iceberg of the local democratic deficit.

However, for the rest of this post I want to look at only one aspect of a councillor’s democratic duty: their role in understanding, scrutinising and setting direction for the activities of the council.

(more…)


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