An education

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… 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.

These days many of the senior managers I work with don’t understand local politics and think they don’t need to. They don’t know the names of local members and they don’t care because they rarely have to deal with them. They totally lack political awareness and this can often lead to their downfall.

I’ve seen the best laid plans come undone because someone forgot to brief the relevant local member or worst still the cabinet member. I’ve seen officers dismiss emails from councillors as unimportant; and then sit in bemusement as their service gets a bashing in the local press (and still not make the connection). I see inexperienced senior managers regularly making a fool of themselves at a scrutiny committee (the few that are left), either by showing too much arrogance, or worse still, being naïve and giving too much away.

Lots of things have changed in local government. But whilst we still have elected members, the cogs of local government will still need to be oiled, regularly, carefully and with the right tools.

And without the committee system our senior managers aren’t getting the political education they need to do their jobs well and serve the people they are paid to serve.

The gap between officers and members is getting wider and that’s the last thing local government needs.  The wider the gap between officers and members, the less useful members become to their residents, the less faith people will have in local democracy. It’s a vicious circle.

I don’t necessarily think we should return to the committee system, but I do think that every officer should have a placement in Democratic Services – or Members Services as it was called in my day. It’s the best political education you will ever get and servicing members never did me any harm. 😉

Welovelocalgovernment is a blog written by UK local government officers. If you have a piece you’d like to submit or any comments you’d like to make please drop us a line at:

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5 Comments on “An education”

  1. Magnificently well put. Would go a lot further though. There needs to be a root and branch clear out of senior managers who clearly subscribe to a political ideology incompatible with working in local government.

    It is not different a form of entryism, than Militant achieved in the Labour Party in Liverpool, for people who ideologically cannot stand the concept of lay elected members running the Council to be employed by it. And yet too many Council’s in England are run by such people now.

    The article states, “The wider the gap between officers and members, the less useful members become to their residents…” the reverse is also surely true. Officers who just don’t ‘get it’ are equally useless to the Council for the damage they do to its standing and to the dangerous decisions they will take.

    Nowadays Town Hall corridors echo to the chummy language between Officers and Members that would have made Dame Shirley Porter blush. The Committee system which clearly set out the relationship ie Officers advise on technical matters and Members decide, especially on subjective issues, needs to restored as the basic structure of every Council. Only then can this tide be reversed.

  2. LGWorker Says:

    Completely agree about the importance of working with Members and how a lot of senior Managers have lost this. You miss out that it can be very fun working with Cllrs.

    However, I don’t think this means we should go back to the committee system. Though it will be interesting to see if this relationship between Officer and Cllr changes in those Councils now going back to such systems (see Briton and Hove and Kensington and Chelsea). Though I do think some work needs to fall on the Cllrs side. I’ve worked in some organisations were some Cllrs (Cabinet and Backbench) make sure they meet with and at times cause difficulties for the Senior Mangers. These managers have very quickly learnt how to work with politicians and recognised their boss is the Cllrs.

    Finally, I know many Cllrs who say the one think they did like about the Committee system was that they got to meet the Junior Officers and find out the truth (now they feel they only every see the Senior lot).

  3. UleyGirl Says:

    It’s about respect and understanding everyone’s role – and yes having a sense of humour. Cllrs are people doing a thankless task, help em out officers!

  4. Karen Franek Says:

    What stikes me from the comments made so far is there still persists a”them and us” mentality. That’s the real problem – not the committee-v-no committee or any other structure.

    Elected members and officers have the same job to do: provide the best, most cost effective services they can for their communities. It is for both councillors and officers to open two-way dialogue. And all officers should remember that councillors are the elected representatives – the middle men – of the communities they served.

    Communication is the key. So over to the communication departments to start closing the virtuois circle.

    Regarding the point about Dame Shirley Porter (above): it was precisely because she had a too chummy a relationship with some officers that things started to go wrong. I know – I head up Westminster’s Press Office during the early 1980’s. Those of us with any moral and professional fibre never crossed the rubicon.

    I have also served as an elected member for a county council:and made it my business to “tour departments” and meet as many (if not all) staff as possible.

    Perhaps like in any walk of life it is not the system that’s at fault – it is the people.

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