Officers and Members – A response
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 email@example.com 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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