The rise of the member led authority
There has been a dramatic change in local government and I am not talking about budget cuts, management culls or outsourcing services. Where once councils were officer led now the politicians are very much in charge. Of course we always maintained there was a clear distinction between the leader of the council who managed the majority party and the chief executive who ran the authority day to day, that balance of power varied between individuals and local authorities.
In the past it made no difference what council I worked for, a large county council or a small unitary authority, a Conservative administration or a Labour administration. Officers "advised" elected members, more often than not members didn't like the advise. It was officers who argued that there was no business case for the local authority to run its own residential care homes for older people, it was officers who argued that terms and conditions of employment should be changed so that the home help service was more flexible, it was officers who argued for a tougher approach to absenteeism and it was officers who argued for redundancies rather than redeployment when services were restructured. In all cases it was officers arguing for unpopular but good business decisions to be made and members who held back. “We’re not sacking people who are sick"," We don't believe in compulsory redundancies ", " We won't impose new terms and conditions of employment you need to get a negotiated agreement with the Trade Union". It was officers who dismissed staff for gross misconduct and members who reinstated on appeal "because everyone deserves a second chance". It was officers who were pushing for change so in this respect they were leading the authority, moving it in a different direction all be it in line with the demands of central government.
Over the last decade and more so over the last 5 years the roles have been reversed. The leader and the cabinet of the average council have been pushing to outsource as many services as possible, terms and conditions of employment have been re written, management posts have been culled, staff have been made compulsory redundant, redeployment isn't an option when the aim is to reduce the headcount, a hard line has been taken on absenteeism resulting in a sharp rise in those dismissed, members no longer hear appeals against dismissals, popular services like libraries have been closed despite high profile protests.
Officers have resisted management culls claiming this goes too far and seriously reduces the level of management oversight meaning there is a greater risk of things going wrong and not knowing about it until it is a crisis. Officers have resisted out sourcing support services ( HR, IT, Legal and Finance) fearing that they will receive a less responsive service and much of the work will fall out side the contract for managers to pick up. Officers have sort to protect services to older people and children but members have rejected special pleading "why do we need so many social workers and why can't we outsource their work?" Compulsory redundancies, imposed changes to working practises and uncertain futures have demoralised staff at the very time managers need their cooperation and good will to make the new arrangements work, to deliver ambitious performance targets and over optimistic efficiency savings.
The fact that some authorities have given serious thought to doing away with the post of chief executive shows the role is being devalued as leaders take control. For good or bad the politicians are calling the shots officers are not so much advising as complying. If that sounds more democratic then remember that democracy relies on a system of checks and balances to protect us from the excesses of the ideologically driven as well ensuring the tax payers money is well spent.
Blair Mcpherson former director, blogger and author www.blairmcpherson.co.uk