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By Kerry Lorimer ...
By Kerry Lorimer

A fresh debate about the way the Employers' Organisation is structured and run has been sparked by last week's critical report on the EO for the Local Government Association.

The five yearly review, carried out by the Work Foundation, found the EO suffers 'structural weaknesses' inherent in the split between itself, the LGA and the Improvement & Development Agency (LGC, 28 November).

The EO was told to take urgent action to slim down its governance arrangements and strengthen its corporate centre, which at the moment undermines the EO's impact on national policy.

The EO refuses to comment on the review, saying it is up to the LGA to decide, at this month's executive meeting, which parts of the report it wants to follow up.

'Until it's been through the LGA process, there is no report,' says EO deputy executive director Rob Pinkham.

'It is up to them to decide which parts they think are important and to take a view on what they agree or disagree with.'

Over the past few years, the EO has made a concerted attempt to broaden its focus beyond the narrow confines of employment relations to embrace the full spectrum of human resources issues.

Whoever takes over from executive director Charles Nolda when he retires next spring will need to carry on that process, says Mr Pinkham.

'As a broader-based organisation, we should have the ability to deal efficiently with any people management issues that arise, and we still want to strengthen that,' he says.

'The EO's management and board have been able to manage the whole process of growth and change reasonably successfully, but that doesn't mean the organisation can't be improved,' says Mr Pinkham.

Mary Mallett, president of the Society of Personnel Officers and director of organisation and development at Kent CC, says the EO spreads itself too thinly and needs a greater clarity of focus.

'The EO can be a very confusing organisation to navigate around - it's hard to work out who's doing what,' she says .

The other difficulty is the frequency with which it finds itself 'piggy in the middle' between competing trade union and central government initiatives.

'It would be brilliant if the EO could behave as a real employers' organisation - there to get local government the best outcomes,' she says.

Alan Warner, director of people and property at Hertfordshire CC and vice president of SOCPO, says common membership of the LGA human resources executive and the EO board, as recommended in the report, would move the EO in the direction it needs to go.

'It's absolutely right to have the shortest line between decisions and delivery,' says Mr Warner.

But both said retaining the EO as a separate body is essential to maintain focus on employment issues.

However, some say the report does not go far enough in terms of questioning the need for the EO in the already crowded local government national community.

'The report pulls its punches, it could have been more radical,' says one chief executive.

'You wonder if you couldn't reshape several of the national agencies to get one really decent one.'

The also report fails to address whether or not the EO should be carrying out consultancy work, he says.

'The question is - what do councils want from the EO in the first place? Shouldn't it be the employers' friend, providing really good information, rather than trying to sell you consultancy?' he asks.

'It's like IDeA - when it comes to your council, you wonder if it has come to sell you something, which, if you're 'weak' or 'poor', will be a forced sale.

'That's a real dilemma the report hasn't latched onto.'

Minds are now turning to the LGA executive's meeting next week, when the report will be discussed in detail. Whatever the outcome, there will be plenty of scope for reflection for the EO and its new executive director.

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