The world of 1989, when political restrictions on local government officer roles were brought in, and the world of 2017 are very different.
It is no longer controversial that certain council officers should not be free to voice their personal political opinions. The value of impartiality in people occupying key roles is widely recognised as important.
But now, with the blurring of the boundaries between how we operate as professionals, citizens and in our personal lives, it is time to rethink how these restrictions work.
Social media has made the casual interactions we have with our friends and families more permanent and potentially more public.
Irrespective of the use of new technology, political restriction does still have a chilling effect on the ability of the staff subject to it to be active citizens. As a politically restricted officer, I felt unable to respond to council consultations or participate in civic life by signing petitions or writing to newspapers, even though I didn’t work in an area covered by my employer’s authority.
Was that overcautious? Perhaps, but this kind of self-policing that goes beyond the formal restrictions in the regulations is not uncommon. Better safe than sorry, after all, and you never know when a view expressed in public now, seemingly innocuously, might take on a different flavour in future, particularly if you change employers.
I understand the political context in which these regulations were introduced. There were concerns about twin-tracking (where a senior local authority employee is also an elected member of another local authority) and there was a perception that the radical Labour-led councils of the time had “captured” their officer corps. But retaining these regulations without reform is absurd.
Councillors are adults; they know officers hold political opinions and they trust officers to set those opinions aside when it comes to working with them. Officers must be able to use their professional judgment to determine when and how they express themselves in public and private. We must come up with a more pragmatic approach than at present to this critical issue, which affects officers’ rights, under the European Convention, to privacy and freedom of expression.
This affects council employees now but it will also have a significant effect on the future local government officers who are growing up online. Many will, as teenagers and young adults, be posting content online that is publicly accessible. This online activity will be central to their identities. Once in the workforce, in member-facing and more senior positions, they will consider these restrictions unacceptable.
The aim now should be to maintain mutual respect and trust between members and officers in a permissive environment that still allow officers to express themselves as private citizens.
Ed Hammond, director of local accountability, the Centre for Public Scrutiny