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Rob Whiteman: Officers are afraid to speak truth to power. It’s time to end the blame game

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The gist of local government governance is that officers recommend and members decide.

The relationship of trust means councillors will consider officer advice even if they take an alternative course and officers will respect the decisions made.

Rob Whiteman, chief executive, Chartered Institute of Public Finance & Accountancy

Rob Whiteman: Weakening the position of senior officers ultimately weakens members too

However, these old virtues no longer exist in all councils.

Officers are often scared for their jobs in challenging potentially bad decisions and there can be antipathy to expert advice. Too much focus can be given to internal party management rather than evidence-based reasonableness.

Recent messages from the Local Government Association, that officers should move on if they disagree with elected members, are distinctly misplaced and unhelpful. It compounds mistrust when officer advice is misconstrued as their personal disapproval.

Any individual reform to governance of the past decade, in its own right, may appear reasonable, but taken in aggregate, the abolition of the Audit Commission and the standards regime, removing the independent appointment of external auditors and the weakening of the protection for statutory officers means sometimes councillors expect to hear only advice they like.

I have seen too many cases of finance directors rightly warning members that reserves are inadequate, with the result, within a year or so, of their severance of employment and the relegation of the s151 role to a lower management tier.

A wise councillor told me early in my career arguments about whether officers or members run the council only take place in badly run authorities. My experience at the Improvement & Development Agency reinforced this.

Good councils have strong and effective officers to support strong and effective members. When one side routinely criticises the other, it often demonstrates a lack of confidence or ability on their part. It’s not a zero-sum-gain where reducing one strengthens the other. Reducing the status of officers eventually weakens the members.

These discussions are not limited to local government. The National Audit Office and Public Accounts Committee have raised concerns about deteriorating governance in central government. But we cannot shy away from the view of many local government professionals that good governance in councils is now harder to achieve than it was a decade ago.

We need a discussion on how, after a period of being hollowed out, the checks and balances need enhancement. It’s time to knock on the head Eric Pickles’ populist policy direction that officers stand in the way of political decision making and that their perceived power must be reduced.

Officers are not just ciphers to give compliant advice or face the sack. They have a duty to act in the public interest as well as support their administrations.

There is a future crisis developing in which councils cannot appoint to their senior roles. The sector needs to promote the need for highly effective managerial leaders. It would be risible in other public services and the corporate sector to suggest an organisation does not need a chief executive or the chief finance officer is not a top-table appointment.

The blame game toward highly stretched professional roles should stop. To perform well, councils need effective leaders who respect the need for strong chief executives, finance officers and other professionals.

Rob Whiteman, chief executive, Chartered Institute of Public Finance & Accountancy

 

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