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Jim Graham: Officer and member roles are outdated. It’s time for radical change

Jim Graham

I concur with the thrust of Rob Whiteman’s article published in September, which said politicians must stop blaming senior officers when things go wrong.

I do, however, think the blame game is but one permanent feature of the officer/member interface and will persist. From my experience, the scenarios Rob described usually manifested themselves as displacement behaviour where members were failing/putting off addressing their own issues. That said, it doesn’t help to become tribal and with both members and officers displaying a wide range of competencies in any organisation, leaders need to tackle incompetency proactively.

If this blame game is a manifestation of poor/weak governance it raises the question as to what good governance should be in a post-austerity, consumer-orientated public sector. In trying to shape a new model, I would suggest the paternalist traditions of organising work around member and officer needs must be addressed.

It is questionable whether the cabinet/scrutiny model has delivered improved outcomes for citizens or the improvement of internal decision processes. This is not a plea to return to the faux-reality of committee models; rather, it is the question of whether artificial role creation is a model we can continue with.

The plague of partnerships we have all tried to maintain resulted in the diffusion of energy and activity; often, partnership maintenance takes over from the delivery of collective outcomes. Rather than tackle the confused picture – in the citizen’s eye – as to who is accountable for what, we create ever more partnership vehicles so no individual organisation or constituency of interest feels left out. ‘Keep it complicated’ appears to be the mantra.

The continuing prevalence of centralism evident in national/local interfaces, where significant decisions tend not to be passed to local determination, does not make an attractive proposition to pursue a political career. Local administration does not equate to local governance. Many of the tensions in a member/officer interface arise from the latter group’s activity being fashioned by individual secretaries of state.

We all have an interest in setting high standards for public services. But even though local government often complains that central government is unfairly tough, local government is often not tough enough on itself. It appears to be almost an unspoken desire to retain a good enough, but fundamentally anaemic, local public sector, which will not be in a position to challenge centralism. Tackling failure may also require imagining a new model for the local public sector and that can feel like an unwelcome job too far for a centre with its own challenges.

Regulation and peer reviews have their place in quality control. It is questionable whether they have both delivered the improvements in the public services that drive the theoretical underpinnings of both. I do not think we have challenged ourselves enough in enabling consumer power to have some authority in questioning the almost monopolistic relationship public bodies have with their local citizens. It would be good, for instance, to see an active public tackle failing bodies with the authority to switch to other suppliers. A change at the ballot box alone is no longer enough.

Finally and most importantly, our models of governance still feel like we are holding onto pre-technological solutions. Representation is still physically and geographically manifested, yet technology challenges both and fundamentally enables citizens to bypass the old order. Place is now a different proposition and no place is so unique that it requires its own unique governance. That is a failed argument usually deployed to keep an organisation in existence.

So I would suggest the role of member and officer as currently understood might be outdated. A citizen-centric view of the public sector challenges both groups to redesign and change the very behaviours and attitudes of organisations. If we give a more pronounced role to activist consumers, we do not need the numbers of either members or officers we presently deploy. A slimmed-down officer and member bureaucracy will require high levels of talent nurtured in both groups.

One current wicked issue does offer a potential platform for making such changes: the integration of health and social care. It will not succeed if social care is passed across to the monolithic, acute-dominated NHS. It will equally be problematic to fragment solutions based on present local authority units. Combined primary and social care boards complete with patient/care user representation operating at scale, delivering a national care service, strikes me as something worth pursuing. Whether there is an appetite for such change is still in doubt but system failure could trigger a scenario where a radical national solution yet comes to pass.

Jim Graham, former chief executive, Warwickshire CC



Readers' comments (2)

  • Jim Grahams comments are timely though perhaps do not go far enough.Is it not time that we had a Royal Commission on how public services are delivered and governed?We need a far reaching debate on whether we want local government with appropriate accountability or rather public administration

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  • My interest levels spiked on the last paragraph which felt like a career's worth of wisdom was concentrated in a few sentences!

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