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 firstname.lastname@example.org… 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. 😉
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