"Unfortunately this is unlikely to be acceptable to the politicians". The interim director was quoting from my report. "This is exactly what I am talking about". The tone was sever and accusatory but not address to me but to her senior management team. " Officers seem to think they know better than members, they are forgetting they were not the ones elected. This is exactly the attitude the leader is complaining about". Clearly she was referring to a conversation that had taken place before I entered the room to present my report. From the body language and the fact that no one responded I gathered this had been a telling off not a discussion. My management report was swiftly dealt with, accepted with the deletion of the word " unfortunately".
It was many years latter until I fully understood what was happening in that room. The relationship between officers and members has changed a lot in the intervening years. For a start local authority councillors are more professional these days allowances have been replaced by salaries for those who have a lead responsibility for a service(s) and numerous large committee meetings have been replaced by a decision making cabinet. The biggest change is not structural but how officers and members work together. Looking back I would have to agree with that interim director,managers in social services did think they knew better, they were often cynical about councillors, seeing them as not prepared to upset the trade unions, wanting to avoid criticism in the local press , more concerned with popularity and getting re elected than taking decisions based on a business case or the advice of the professionals. Everyone had examples of social service committee agreeing a policy only for a member to contact a managers on behalf of a constituent to insist this person be given a home help or a day centre place dispute the fact that they didn't meet the criteria agree by committee. It was the same about budget cuts as soon as it got messy the politicians would fade into the background and leave the managers to take the flak. Of course as officers we had our methods for getting our way. If we wanted to get something through social service committee we ensured it was well down the agenda knowing that only the first 3 or 4 items got discussed before the members ran out of steam and voted along party lines to get through often 20 or 30 items all with detailed papers attached. A good chair was someone who could protect his/ her departments budget, who could carry their group in a vote and who did't interfere in the running of the department.
I don't think this way of working was restricted to social services it was the same in education, housing and environment. This "officers know best just leave us to get on with it ", wasn't just restricted to senior management. A few weeks after I witnessed the Director. putting her senior managers straight about respecting the role of councillors I attended a compulsory workshop on making services more customer focused. Something that had come directly from the leader of the council as part of shifting away from the " professionals know best". I was present whilst the workshop leader had a stand up argument with a librarian over which books lending libraries should stock. The facilitator said it should be the most popular and noted that feedback from borrowers complained about the lack of multiple copies and therefore the long wait to get something from the best sellers list. The librarian was out raged at the idea that the limited book budget should be spent in this way, the purpose of a library was to make good literature available to any one. "If people wanted to read trashy novels they could wait until they came out in paper back".
Of course these days it not just the relationship between officers and members that's changed but between the council and the people it serves. Put another way the argument isn't about which books to stock but whether we can afford the library.
The harsh financial climate, the redundancies, service reductions and closures have changed the relationship more than than salaries and a cabinet. The leader of the council and the relevant portfolio holder are the ones giving the media interviews, or addressing public protest meetings to defend their budget cuts. Whilst the business case isn't the whole story in a politically sensitive environment it gets a hearing. Unpopular decisions are made. The trade unions power is diminished. Officers can see that members put in a lot of hours in the evenings and weekends listening to the publics views and exposing themselves to criticism , they genuinely want to make a difference.
Put another way this explains why councils are a lot less likely to be officer led, good for local democracy you might argue or you might say this explains why ideology sometimes wins over the business case.
Blair McPherson author of Equipping managers for an uncertain future published by Russell House www.blairmcpherson.co.uk
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