Are officers or members really in charge?

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.

To help them do this they often rely on the Government guidelines and legislation and sometimes start to push their own agendas. I have worked for heavily officer led authorities and the one thing that is common amongst them all is that they are less imaginative and innovative than the member led authorities. Due to the lack of a driving vision those councils tend to fall back on the classic bureaucratic traits of being as efficient as possible.

The question that this leaves us with is does it really matter?

Currently, we are seeing a trait across Europe of people looking for ‘technocratic’ governments and there is a case to be made that if the local authority just provides efficient services does it matter whether there is a councillor directing it? Wouldn’t a technocratic council be preferable?

This argument is categorically wrong.

Anyone who thinks a council run by the officers alone is a preferable situation is deluding themselves.

The politicians are the representatives of the people and it is the people we directly work for. If we don’t have a local democratic mandate then what is the point? Indeed, as explained above whilst officer led authorities can be efficient over the short term are they really doing their best for the local community?

I’d argue that without that democratic mandate and drive it becomes very difficult.

Now, this argument always leads to the proportionality question. Do I want the leader of my council signing off every new appointment to the organisation or checking every purchase order over £500?

Absolutely not

But that is not because I do not recognise his or her right to do so. Indeed, if that is what they think is the best use of their time I would reluctantly agree to it. Whilst I totally recognise that the politicians are well within their rights, and correctly so, to do whatever they want to do on these issues, I would still rather they didn’t.

Not because I am some sort of tribal bureaucrat but just because in 99% of the cases the politicians should have bigger and better things to focus on. And it is when councillors focus on these big issues that really good things happen.

The reason we have officers is to get on with the job of providing the services in the way decided and designed by the politicians. The reason we have politicians is to make these decisions and then to make sure that they are implemented in the way they planned. A good councillor will always act in the interests of the community who voted for them and through those good councillors, good officers will have a direction to follow.

Do councillors or officers run local authorities? The rather messy answer is both, and rightly so. In my experience councillors should be in charge but officers must be freed up to make the decisions that councillors do not have the time, capacity or inclination to make.

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4 Comments on “Are officers or members really in charge?”

  1. Phil Mason Says:

    One minor missing point. A good officer will provide thorough, timely, impartial and unbiased advice to members to allow them to make good leadership decisions.

    This I see is a crucial role of an officer and critical in officer member relations.

    • Realist Says:

      Sadly though Phil, there are many who don’t meet your definition of ‘good’ – they want to climb the ladder and see a ‘partnership’ with a pet Councillor as a good way to do this, so they provide the advice that the Councillor wants, rather than that which they need.

      It is however a very risky strategy!

      Politics and politicians can change, almost with the wind – the officers role is essentially to provide stability, although this must be done with a mind-set of continuing improvement and where necessary radical change – the real trick is to get the Councillors to support, own, and lead this.

  2. jgharston Says:

    “A good councillor will always act in the interests of the community who voted for them”
    NO NO NO NO NO!!!!!
    A good councillor works for *ALL* of their community, whether they voted for them or not.
    Indeed, whether they even got off their arse and voted AT ALL.

    Councillors must NEVER just work for the people who voted for them. That creates the worst sort of pocket fiefdoms that infests certain corners of local government.

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