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MENTOR - WELCOMING THE CLASS OF 2006

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As officers brace themselves for an influx of councillors, Claire Seneviratna looks at how to cope with the newbies...
As officers brace themselves for an influx of councillors, Claire Seneviratna looks at how to cope with the newbies

Nobody likes change but come next week there are going to be new councillors winning seats all over the country.

The councillors themselves can expect all manner of hand-holding - with everything from crash courses in finance to lessons on IT skills - but what about the council stalwarts? The dedicated officers who are expected to greet regime change with indifference? How can they deal with the change and ensure new members are able to work effectively?

Rob Whiteman, chief executive of Barking & Dagenham LBC, says: 'Where political change does take place, it is important not to be defensive or try to say 'this is how we have worked in the past'. We have to accept the new political balance and be helpful towards the incoming majority'.'

He adds: 'Councils will stand little chance of succeeding if members and officers do not work in partnership with each other. We need strong members who give political and community leadership and effective officers to deliver their ambitions.'

For Alan Warner, director of people and property at Hertfordshire CC, council officers have a moral duty to respond to a change in political leadership with equanimity.

'They should be professional enough not to be bothered. We are all here to serve the council, not political parties. If an officer gets upset about a change in administration then they shouldn't really be there.'

He admits that on a purely practical level there can be some initial tensions when eager new councillors try to shake up the system.

'Of course it can be hugely frustrating for council officers to have to reverse everything they have been doing over the past few years because a new party or new members quite rightly want to stamp their mark on the authority. But it is about having respect for members and what they do. We have a serious responsibility in terms of advising them of protocols and ways of doing things but we can never be political animals.'

For Pascoe Sawyers, director of the Improvement & Development Agency's leadership academy, this initiation process needs to be handled tactfully to ensure both officers and councillors get off to the right start.

'Officers will need to build relationships with members who were previously a minority party. Above all they need to quickly establish trust and get over any old antagonisms.

This can be particularly difficult as new lead members may not fully understand the limitations of their power. Professional advice may be interpreted as thwarting their authority and allegiance to the previous

administration.'

Acting like a sulky teenager can only harm the efficiency of the organisation at a time when a level head and a steady hand are needed to ensure consistency of service to customers.

As a final reassurance to nervy officers on the eve of local election day, Mr Whiteman says: 'Don't be fearful of change and an influx of new individuals coming on board - it is often more daunting for the members coming in to a massive organisation and the associated bureaucracy than the other way round.'

Take the pain out of regime change

>> Start at the top The chief executive and senior managers must manage staff and services immediately after the changeover.

>> Meet and greet Encourage councillors to meet staff through visits, presentations or walkabouts. Make sure that communication with staff is good. Where changes need to occur manage the outcomes, emotions and interest groups.

>> Common ground Emphasise what you both have in common - set out clearly the differences in your roles, where they overlap and find out how you might best support them. Agree channels of communication. For example, when councillors have an idea about a particular service it is often best to first run this past the appropriate director rather than take it to the political group.

>> Team building Awaydays for the new executive and management can be an opportunity for officers to better understand their political priorities and iron out any kinks in the relationships.

>> Be self-aware As an officer, be aware of your own emotional response, and how your actions and behaviour may be interpreted.

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