Selecting the right council officers is essential. Get the right one, with the right attitude and ethic, and it is a great asset. Get the wrong one, and you could have serious problems. At best, they might just not be very good, but at worst you could get someone who either feels they should be running the council or even has a party political problem.
As we know, far too often councillors are undermined, obstructed or even actively opposed by officers. It is a severe problem for councillors, voters and taxpayers. If power actually lies in the hands of someone who is not accountable to the people, then it is a recipe for poor service, higher taxes and public disillusionment.
Thanks to the Standards Board and its absurdly overzealous approach to punishing councillors often for simply representing their constituents, officers have more power than ever over elected representatives. Numerous councillors around the country have experienced frankly vexatious Standards Board complaints from the very people who they are meant to be obeying.
For individuals, the consequences of investigation, suspension and even potential banning from public office can be devastating. In terms of public administration, a campaign of well-targeted complaints can even overthrow council leaders by depriving them of the votes and personnel they need to run things.
Not only do potentially troublemaking officers have these powers, but more generally officers (particularly senior ones) keep in extremely close touch from council to council, both informally and through organisations like the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives. You can be sure that as well as swapping professional and best practice tips, which is a welcome thing, there is also a reasonable amount of political horsetrading that goes on, too.
By comparison, councillors are remarkably badly organised in terms of their communication with each other from council to council. Some attempts have been made to rectify that at the level of policy, particularly the Good Council Guide produced by Hammersmith & Fulham’s Stephen Greenhalgh.
When it comes to personnel, though, communication seems to be at an absolute minimum. Most senior council officers nowadays are career local government workers – the vast majority of chief executives and department heads in particular are recruited from other councils.
Of course, they provide references as any normal job applicant would, but at present most councils miss out on a golden opportunity to learn more about them. Surely it would be worthwhile phoning up the leader
of your party’s respective group and asking them what their experience of the individual is. After all, they have seen them in action and will be well aware if they are an absolute star or an openly partisan agitator (or, more likely, anything in between).
Naturally such opinions must be taken in context rather than as pure gospel truth. If they are the council leader, they might want rid of the person by giving them a glowing review. If they are in opposition, they might have a grudge against anyone associated with the administration.
However, used properly their knowledge could be gold dust. Even if such a consultation was done after someone’s appointment to avoid any possible legal ramifications, it would give councillors an invaluable head start – knowing how to approach the officers who wield so much power from the outset rather than having to learn from costly mistakes.
It could be done in any number of ways, from informal conversations councillor to councillor, to a secure online system for people sharing notes and references for council officers they have worked with.
This might well feel uncomfortable, or even underhand, but this is proper scrutiny. There is a huge resource of practical experience and knowledge out there that is being neglected.
Most importantly, at the moment there is a clear imbalance in power in all too many councils. The elected representatives of the people are there to ensure that their constituents get a good service at a good price. To do that, particular as part time executives managing often large full time organisations, they should be using every tool available them. This potentially valuable tool should not be passed up any longer.