Posted tagged ‘officers’

Officers and Members – A response

June 13, 2012

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 welovelocalgovernment@gmail.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.

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Are officers or members really in charge?

June 12, 2012

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.

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Neutrality

January 30, 2012

Keeping a Straight Face

‘Right Eric, I have had enough. When you and your acolytes have been purposefully dishonest about local government services I am fine to disagree. When you slash our budgets and then blame local government for closing services I can understand that this is politics. But when you have the bare-faced cheek and total lack of integrity to attack council officers for giving impartial advice that you disagree with I have simply had it.

Pickles, I’m calling you out!’

So started what was going to be an epic rant about Eric Pickles’ latest salvo in the war about the council tax grant.

For those who missed it Mr Pickles said the following:

‘Particularly to finance officers, there is a danger here of being involved in politics, in a way. There is a referendum [trigger], and to suddenly find yourself mysteriously arriving in that place between zero and where you have to face the electorate is a highly political decision.

To put it another way I’m happy to use the headline from the Public Finance magazine:

‘Don’t meddle with council tax freeze’, Pickles warns FDs

As you imagine what especially annoyed me about this is that Mr Pickles had just tried to drag officers into the debate about council tax. He should know better. Much like civil servants local government officers are, especially at the level of finance director, politically neutral.

However, I took a deep breath and decided that having a Monday post upset with Mr Pickles two weeks in a row was the beginning of an unhealthy obsession; and continuing that rant was going to be bad for my blood pressure.

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We know best?

December 7, 2011

Advice: often asked for, not always followed

Whilst attempting to remain within the bounds of anonymity, I am happy to share the fact that I have two children.  They are at the age when they not only have their own opinions, but they are increasingly willing and (more worryingly) able to eloquently explain how their opinions differ and are superior to my own.  Where they are explaining why their choice of music is better I’ll smile and wave, but when they try to explain why you can eat a diet of nothing but fast food and still stay healthy I can’t help but disagree.

In my mind, and despite their protestations, there are simply some situations where I know best.  I can disagree with them about what I perceive as small things, but when it comes to more major issues like their safety or their health I am loathe to let them make decisions which I have clear evidence to support my assertions that they are wrong.

This head to head battle came to mind recently when I witnessed a version of the same struggle taking place between an officer, some local residents and a handful of councillors.  To provide an outline, the former had recommended a course of action for a project which was different to the ambitions of the residents and therefore against the wishes of the councillors.  This had been going on for some months, and eventually resulted in the elected officials simply noting the officer’s concerns and overruling them.

In this situation, both sides were both right and wrong.  The officer felt that it was entirely within their role to robustly defend their position and push for their professional opinions and recommendations  to be followed.  The councillors felt it was their job to represent the interests and desires of their constituents, and the residents simply wanted the project to be delivered as they believed that it would make a positive difference to their area regardless of the contrary advice from the professionals.

It seems that there are those of us who are officers who are generally very happy to engage with the public on either of two areas; where we expect the end result to match up with what we are recommending, or when the issue being discussed is non-controversial or not actually that important in the grand scheme of things.  Of course, it goes without saying that there are many who take a more enlightened view and offer multiple and real opportunities for residents to get involved, but those who don’t usually see engagement as a part of their job description often aren’t as willing to do so.

Essentially we are happy to discuss things when it addresses what residents want, but not when it addresses what they need. (more…)

Are the officers to blame?

September 15, 2011

Talk to the hand!

I was recently reminded of a very bad decision I had been involved in.

Quite a few years ago I worked on one of the trendy community empowerment projects that were so prominent in the mid-New Labour period. This particular one gave chunks of money to community groups for them to spend on basically whatever they wanted. I know that these schemes existed throughout the country and the quality of the spending varied from commissioning murals right through to investing in long term community resources.

The scheme I worked on was relatively small and despite being in a small area didn’t really generate the sort of interest we would have hoped for. About 15 people came forward and wanted to get involved in the decision making.

Being a local authority, and thus not wanting to give up total control, we had set some rules for the spending in the local area. These, simply put, dictated that the money needed to be spent on ‘things’ and/or improvements to other ‘things’. We also did some initial consultation work, in conjunction with some local councillors, that identified some of the key concerns of the local residents.

Unfortunately, despite all the hard work we made to make the decision as ‘reflective’ of the community’s views as possible the small group of 15 local people had other ideas.

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Listen to what’s inside

September 13, 2011

Can local officers help with translation?

Last week we took a look at how Council’s respond (or not) to social media.  Our argument was that generally we don’t, and the comments received pretty much back that up.  This got us thinking about other simple ways in which local authorities could make better use of their organisational ears in order to take the local pulse.

Usually when officers want to find out what local people are saying they will run some form of engagement or consultation exercise.  The quality and usefulness of these activities is a topic for another day, but in essence they involve officers going out into the community in some way to find groups of residents and other stakeholders to ask them what they think about something.  This often takes some time to do and can cost a significant amount to organise, although arguably this money is very well spent and can save that same authority ten times as much by ensuring the services delivered better meet local needs.

However, this still involves reaching out to local people and hoping or expecting them to get in touch; how about turning this around and reaching inwards for a change?

Those readers who currently work in local government (and at a guess, most of our readers do) will be able to conduct their own quick field test by looking around their office and seeing just how many of their colleagues live outside of the borough in which they work.  A solid mixture is normal, but generally speaking a decent percentage of any workforce lives locally.  In fact, in many places schemes are set up to promote precisely this, with positive discrimination offering opportunities for positions and additional training for locals.  If schools are included in the mix, it would not be unusual to see anything up to 40% of council employees having less than a thirty minute commute, which adds up to a significant number of opinions to gather. (more…)