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'Is it ever legitimate for council officers to thwart political will?'

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There is a story going around about a clandestine resistance group operating within the White House, thwarting the excesses of an unpredictable and volatile American president. According to past prime ministers this is nothing new to our own government.

Margaret Thatcher’s favourite TV programme Yes Minister reflected her view that the civil service tried to frustrate, delay, hinder and subvert her government’s policies. Tony Blair likewise referred to pulling the levers of government and nothing happening.

It would be naive to assume that in local government politicians don’t have their own suspicions. Why does change take so long? Are the issues raised by officers genuine concerns or delaying tactics?

It is true that officers sometimes disagree with the direction and policies the leadership wishes to pursue, but it’s not their place to gainsay them. Officers don’t have to agree, they just have to get on with making it happen.

Officers and councillors often believe they alone know what the average person in the street needs. Councillors often talk of officers building empires and officers mutter about councillors chasing votes. Nevertheless, the relationship is friendly, outwardly deferential and rarely adversarial.

But not always. I remember a director angrily pulling up a senior manager for a report written by one of their managers that said: “Unfortunately this course of action is unacceptable to councillors.”

This, the new director said, was an example of officers believing they knew better than councillors, overstepping the mark and forgetting their role. The word “unfortunately” reflected what managers felt was the reality of the political environment.

The difference in recent times is that council leaders and their cabinets, encouraged by central government, have become more assertive and ideologically driven. Thus the changes they want to push through are more radical.

This invites the question: should Northamptonshire CC’s officers have done more to stop the authority going bankrupt? More broadly, should officers who advised against wholesale outsourcing and unfavourable contacts with the private sector have spoken out publicly?

And what should officers do if a far right group gains control of a council and aims to introduce a hostile environment to gypsies and travellers, rough sleepers, street beggars and the unemployed? Resign in protest, perhaps?

One alternative is to stay and resist from within, obstruct and a least try to dilute the more extreme measures. Or they could recognise that however abhorrent or ill-advised politicians’ views are, they were elected legally with a mandate.

Officers arguably serve the whole council – not just the majority party – and have a responsibility to ensure public funds are spent wisely. As professionals, they might be said to have values that require them to speak up.

But officers don’t decide policies, don’t set budgets, don’t agree priorities and don’t have a political mandate. They draw up strategies to deliver on councillors’ agenda.

What are sometimes perceived as delaying tactics or risk aversion are legitimate and proper attempts to make the plan workable, financially responsible and less risky. Usually.

Blair McPherson, former director, Lancashire CC

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