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Councillors and officers are very different animals, but in order to succeed, they just need to learn to get along,...
Councillors and officers are very different animals, but in order to succeed, they just need to learn to get along, says Mel Usher

The relationship between senior councillors and senior officers is unique and potentially the most subtle of any in the public or private sector. I have never seen a change programme successfully concluded where there are serious problems between these two groups.

In most struggling councils you usually find deep down that these two groups are dysfunctional. It is a vital relationship that needs working at. It does not matter whether you have a strong set of councillors and weak officers or vice versa, as long as problems have been aired and choices made.

Councillors are drawn from the world of politics. If you want to be leader you often have to find out who your allies are, make sure they will back you and plot to have the existing ones removed. Councillors often like uncertainty - it allows them to keep options open. On most occasions they want to be elected

to change things - you don't often see election leaflets that say: 'Vote Bloggs - I want to keep everything as it is now'. They like to tell stories drawn from the lives of their constituents and so would I if I had been woken up at 8am on a Sunday morning with a housing benefit query. Many want to be confrontational, to score points from the opposition; at times they take up a cause on what appears to be a whim - Mrs Smith's gate is broken so something is wrong with the whole of the repair service.

On the other hand we have the senior staff. On the whole they are bureaucrats who know how to operate the system. Generally they try to work in sequential, logical ways and they like to draw conclusions from facts. Many are committed to the present or the past, and have been personally successful using proven methods. As a result they may be risk averse. Some are still steeped in the canteen culture which says that if only councillors would go away the officers could get on with some real work. So eve n at the most senior managerial level, politics can be a murky world outside.

So there you have it, the most crucial relationship in any council is a mosaic of in-built tensions. However, sometimes the positions are reversed and it is the councillors that are slow to change and the management keen to move on. It is almost irrelevant, what is needed is an understanding of the relative positions.

When the pace of change is relatively slow, all of this might not matter - both parties generally stay in their corners , come out and shadow box now and again but usually return with just a few bruises. However, unless conscious steps are taken to understand and strengthen it, this distant relationship - the one most critical in the life of any council - can prove to be far too fragile to cope with robust challenges and a full-blown change programme.

Mel Usher



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