Officers and Members – A response

Two days in a row for the same picture… Gotta love ‘Yes Minister’

Sometimes a post we write generates a little debate. Often this debate takes place on twitter or on the comments section of the post but sometimes one of our readers is inspired enough to write a more lengthy response and sends it to us direct. When this happens we like to, with permission, publish the response and see what the rest of our readers make of it. Today is one such day; yesterday’s post about officers and members argued:

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.

I hope you enjoy today’s post, join in the debate and if there is anything you’d like to contribute do comment below, tweet or drop us a line at but not before you’ve enjoyed this:

When I was a relatively junior officer, I was told by my boss that officers run the council despite the members, and I think that there are times when this is true. This might charitably be characterised as protecting members from the consequences of their intentions or actions, particularly when they have not taken the initial advice of officers.

Of course I understand the democratic accountability argument, but the reality is that most councillors are selected by a handful of party hacks who are generally struggling to find anyone to stand, and are elected by 40% of the 33% that can be bothered to vote. That is hardly a ringing mandate to do anything, so let’s not get too teary-eyed about it.

Before you write me off as a cynical bureaucrat, let me say that I have worked with some great councillors, who have a clear vision about what they want to achieve, and the ability and intelligence to drive it through. Generally they understand that the minutiae of actually running the organisation should be left to the officers, whom they rightly hold accountable for delivering their objectives. As your blogger says, things are achieved then that would never be achieved without that political intervention. This is when democracy really is working. More needs to be done to persuade people of this calibre that local government is something in which it is worth them investing their time.

Sadly they have been in the minority, and I have seen Cabinets that clearly demonstrate the paucity of talent available in the controlling group. Too many councillors are concerned with their own ego, PR, and place in the group pecking order and focus more on the latest group coup d’etat than on delivering a better life for the people they represent. Many turn up for meetings clearly not having read the papers (true of some officers too, of course) and make decisions they don’t understand on matters that don’t really interest them.

At worst, they think they know more than the officers about the topic in hand. I have seen the Council’s annual accounts checked by a councillor with a calculator who then questioned the Director of Finance about a £100 discrepancy due to rounding in a £15m budget. Another leading member who worked in IT insisted that he wanted a certain brand of computer purchasing. And, although this is probably less so in these days of austerity, there has been too much focus on conferences, information trips and other jollies. Particularly for non Cabinet members, there has been a real sense of giving them something to do while the Cabinet makes the decisions.

The best councils have a clear distinction of roles, in my view. Members are there to set the vision, policy, direction and budget of the organisation. The running of the council, providing that these are all being delivered in an appropriate way, should be none of their concern.

So actually my conclusion is the same as your bloggers’s. Members and officers both run councils, but they should have discreet spheres of activity. Members shouldn’t try to be managers, just as officers shouldn’t play politics.

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12 Comments on “Officers and Members – A response”

  1. Phil Mason Says:

    Here here.

  2. Michael Coughlin Says:

    In my experience, it is more complicated and fluid than, broadly, ‘members do policy and strategy and officers do the running, unless something goes wrong’. Each needs to understand the parameters of their roles, the areas of legitimate overlap and areas where it is always best to seek the consent of the other to enter into. Working this well, while maintaining a clear focus on outcomes for residents requires high levels of trust and interpersonal skills on all sides. Hence the LGA offer to support Council’s ‘Top Teams’ and Council’s going through changes of political control.

  3. localgovalso Says:

    First off, please don’t confuse turnout with mandate. 40% may be weak, but it’s a damn site higher than we ever got.

    If the officer base doesn’t have faith in its members, or vice versa then you are dealing with a failing council with a democratic deficit. Of course we’ve all worked with Members who make bafflingly strange decisions, but surely as local government officers, one of our most significant roles is to advise and guide members on what they want to do (particularly if it’s illegal, pointless or contrary to every piece of evidence ever produced).

    One of the most depressing things I’ve ever heard was a senior director of a council complaining about the lack of strategic vision held by a leadership…. Stop bellyaching and help them develop one. This isn’t playing politics, it’s trying to move an area forward. And there are 1001 ways of doing that without being overly party-political.

    Does it matter that a member thought a discrepancy was a problem in the budget? I should imagine ‘that’s down to rounding’ didn’t take an enormous amount of time out anyone’s life. If the member’s not familiar with finance, perhaps they thought that a mistake in 100 might be indicative of a mistake in 1 million?.

    If they’re not reading the papers, then re-think what you’re providing them.

    To me, the officer member relationship, like the relationship between a social worker and a police officer, or a GP Commissioner and a Head of Social Services or any professional relationship is a partnership, and like all partnerships needs lines of accountability, but also, it needs the flexibility and the responsiveness to adapt to changing situations.

    Frankly, if I read this post either as someone interested in standing for local office I’d come away considerably less interested in working with people who apparently want to sneer at my office, my potential decisions and only wants me around when it suits them.

    The phrase ‘part of the problem’ springs to mind.

    • LGworker Says:

      @localgovalso you’ve written the response I was thinking! So thanks you.

      There is only one thing I would add: As on Officer who works very closely with Cllrs I get to go to meetings were Cllrs across Councils meet up. Yesterday I was at the CfPS conference (yah you can tell what my job is now!). One of the things that came up from one of the Cllrs, “What do you do with Officers who act as a barrier to your work.” When this was said there was a general sound of agreement from the other Councillors in the room. So you see we, from the Cllrs point of view, can be part of the problem.

      Now WLLG has sorted out this problem are they going to turn to the other messy relationship; that of Local Gov and Central Gov???

    • Alfred J Prufrock Says:

      I’m sorry you see me as part of the problem. Of course I believe in a partnership between officers and members, and perhaps that didn’t come across as it should have done. But a good partnership depends on partners understanding their respective roles and having the skills to perform them. I have always tried to have a good working relationship with members, based on mutual respect for our respective roles, and in the main I have succeeded. My point about the member checking the accounts was my astonishment that he felt that it was necessary.

      It was certainly not my intention to sneer at members, who give up a lot of their time, mostly with good intentions. However, too many try to be managers. One told me that he regarded himself as the Chief Executive of his ward.

      Someone I employed from the private sector expressed her amazement that whereas in her previous organisation the more important the decision the more expertise was required of the person who took it, the opposite was true of local government, where really important decisions were made by people who had no expertise at all. It’s an interesting perspective.

  4. A. Nonymous Says:

    Quoting, “The best councils have a clear distinction of roles, in my view. Members [councillors] are there to set the vision, policy, direction and budget of the organisation [NB directors also have this responsibility]. The running of the council, providing that these are all being delivered in an appropriate way, should be none of their concern.”

    I actually disagree here. From my experience of the days when the mission statement was a fad, if you look into the concept, the mission statement should include both a vision for the role of the organisation in society and at the community level (stakeholders etc.), but also the detail of how that vision will be achieved. For this latter the direction level of the organisation needs the expertise and knowledge of managers (and technical staff!).

    Management and technical staff need the organisation to have a strong sense of direction for the future, it I would suggest takes a knowledgeable management and a supportive culture from technical staff to maintain this sense of direction – the modern world we live in is far too complex without, this level of co-operation is needed.

    This is essentially no more than maintaining the strong coupling that, e.g., a sole proprietor would have between his/her role at a community level and getting the work done (either themselves or through others).

    This, folks, is what is needed:

    “A Labour MP has told the House of Commons that UK businesses need better management rather than deregulation.”
    BBC Democracy Live, 24 May 2012

    Research shows (backchannel for citation) that monkeys with additional vocabulary are more able to successfully solve problems than those monkeys with fewer words in their vocabulary. I rest my case.

  5. Mike Says:

    I would disagree that ‘Members shouldn’t try to be managers, just as officers shouldn’t play politics.’

    If we accept that politics is about power relationships then officers have no choice but to engage in the ‘game’, although I agree to some extent that ‘party politics’ is slightly different.

    In my experience engaging with and fully appreciating the politics in a given context is a prerequisite to successful action.

    • Realist Says:

      But does “engaging with and fully appreciating the politics in a given context is a prerequisite to successful action” really mean the same as “engage in the ‘game’”?

      Yes officers should understand the politics, but they should at all costs avoid becoming part of the ‘game’!

      • A. Nonymous Says:

        Professionalism I think is the relevant concept here, as a public servant.

        Exploring the syntax of the subject then conceivably an officer may have to engage with political (in the politics sense) issues if those issues encroached on issues of professionalism (the public would expect no less – and we need to be able to make those expectations, or we wouldn’t get out of bed in the morning 😉

  6. jgharston Says:

    “Another leading member who worked in IT insisted that he wanted a certain brand of computer purchasing.”
    It happens the other way around as well. Some pimply-faced youth in IT refused to acknowledge my 30 years’ IT/computing experience and repeatedly insisted his proposed implementation would work against my insistance that it wouldn’t because “you’re just a councillor”.
    About six month later, the PFY’s implementation was scrapped.

    (For those interested, it was: everybody will have a shared user logon within a section, and everybody will share the same data, all members will log on as XXXPartyGroup. Initially, it was: all members will log on as ElectedMember!)

    • Tone Says:

      Thank goodness the PFY’s plan was scrapped, it’s contrary to just about every security rule in the book!

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