Speaking the truth to power


It's an often claimed truism that it is a matter of indifference to the public who empties their bins,  as long as the service is good. Members may be ideologically enthusiastic about outsourcing or committed to retaining/returning services in-house but it is the duty of officers to ensure any radical change is supported by a strong business case. 
 
I was a senior manager in one authority where officers made a strong business case for closing all the LA homes for older people but the Labour group couldn't bring themselves to do it so they only closed some of them. The conservative group when in power decided to outsource all the back office services, officers advised that the business case was not strong but were ignored and the subsequent outsourcing failed to deliver the savings  anticipated. 
 
Pragmatic advice is not always welcome and not always acted upon.  If they don't hear what they want to hear members mutter that the chief executives' heart is not in it or the Treasure is being over cautious. The whispering starts , "may be some senior officers were too close to the previous administration", or "may be they have forgotten that unlike members officers were not elected". 
 
The golden rule is that officers like civil servants offer their professional advice in private, express their concerns behind closed doors and help politicians deliver their policies. 
 
The problem comes when the political rhetoric becomes so extreme it leaves no room for  compromise, no scope for co operation.
 
Post Brexit we are a sharply divided population. In the current financial and political climate local government risks becoming equally  divided. 
 
 The more passionately held the views the greater the intolerance, lack of understanding, respect and empathy for those who hold opposing views. This is bound to influence how houses are allocated, how many asylum seekers are accommodated, which faith groups get their grants renewed. 
 
As people become more opinionated and less tolerant they are dismissive of those who hold different views to them, cooperation is replaced by confrontation and conflict, local government becomes polarised as the sides can find no common ground and are unwilling to compromises. 
 
Officers may take the view that their role is to support and advice members, all members, whatever party they belong to. But in a climate where there is no political middle ground, where you are either with us or against us the majority party members may be deeply suspicious of senior managers who make time to brief the opposition or who seek to co operate with other agencies or organisations. 
 
Increasingly chief executives and senior managers will be working in a highly polarised environment, trying to moderate the ideology with some pragmatism, walking a tight rope between maintaining the confidence of all members and  speaking the truth to power. 
 
Blair McPherson former Director of community services www.blairmcpherson.co.uk

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