Are the officers to blame?

Talk to the hand!

I was recently reminded of a very bad decision I had been involved in.

Quite a few years ago I worked on one of the trendy community empowerment projects that were so prominent in the mid-New Labour period. This particular one gave chunks of money to community groups for them to spend on basically whatever they wanted. I know that these schemes existed throughout the country and the quality of the spending varied from commissioning murals right through to investing in long term community resources.

The scheme I worked on was relatively small and despite being in a small area didn’t really generate the sort of interest we would have hoped for. About 15 people came forward and wanted to get involved in the decision making.

Being a local authority, and thus not wanting to give up total control, we had set some rules for the spending in the local area. These, simply put, dictated that the money needed to be spent on ‘things’ and/or improvements to other ‘things’. We also did some initial consultation work, in conjunction with some local councillors, that identified some of the key concerns of the local residents.

Unfortunately, despite all the hard work we made to make the decision as ‘reflective’ of the community’s views as possible the small group of 15 local people had other ideas.

I won’t go into the details of what they wanted to spend the money on but it is safe to say that it did not involve building or buying anything. In fact, the only output from their proposed scheme would be a report.

This same report has recently been causing controversy in the local press of my old local authority. Being a curious sort I dropped a line to some of my old colleagues, most of who have now left the authority, and asked them what they thought of it. The first response I received probably summed up how we all felt:

It was a barmy decision made by the steering group members not the council officers

As comforting as this might sound it isn’t quite true. Although I remember clearly the protests me and my colleagues made the steering group, referenced above, went over our heads and protested directly to the local councillors and the director of my Department. Either, or both, of them could have stopped this from happening and neither chose to do so. In fact they actively endorsed the decision despite it’s obvious flaws. Likewise, my manager could have gone in all guns blazing and demanded that the decision not happen. He chose not to do so.

I tell this little story because it raises some of the key questions we all face as officers.

Should we stand by if ‘bad’ (we can work on defining this in a later post) decisions are being made by residents or even councillors? Do we have responsibility for every decision that is made? Did my Director do the right thing by letting this small issue pass when it would help him have a quiet life? Did we, as junior officers, protest enough?

The story is back in the  press and to a certain extent rightly so. The money (although a very small amount) wasn’t spent in the way we wanted it to be spent and the public have not benefitted from it. My former superiors and the local councillors (who may have changed since) will be asked to answer for their actions and I have a relatively clear conscience.

The question is: are the officers to blame?

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2 Comments on “Are the officers to blame?”

  1. Headhunter Says:

    Great example.

    It’s the kind of question and situation which gives my private sector colleagues a headache.

    This is the kind of situation that apparently turgid and painful council processes were invented for, it seems to me.

    There will have been formal mechanisms for you to offer professional advice and for those above you to add their own before a decision was finally taken, probably on consultation with elected members.

    In my (simplistic?) opinion, if you deployed those mechanisms your conscience is clear. If you fudged it knowing it would be unpopular then you are partly to blame.

    Of course, as a player in a complex (small p) political web you have to make such trade-offs, possibly for a greater good. This may have been relevant in this case too.

    Far more complicated than a John Humohries like search for “someone to blame” can handle really.

    • Thanks Headhunter and a really good point about the difference between the public and private sectors. I once asked a senior manager how best to get things done in local government and he told me to learn the scheme of delegation. Technically correct, and as you say I would have met the test of deploying the mechanisms (as we all did above).

      However, despite this it does leave a certain bad taste in my mouth… Could we have gone further? Should we have gone further? Sometimes we have to accept that we did all we could but sometimes the processes are a safety blanket that let us do slightly less than that and pass the buck up the chain?

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