Officers and members: who is in control?

By Elisabeth Skinner. Mel Usher argued on this blog (February 28th) that “the nature of the relationship between senior staff and councillors in local government, across the board, is one of the most complex and difficult to fathom. Essentially it is about who is in control”.  In theory, the council is in charge with the staff responsible for implementing council decisions.  As suggested, it is not so straightforward.

The Think Tank is particularly interested in what makes a successful local council (town, community or parish council).  It is clear that a council failing to resolve the relationship between the councillors and the council’s chief officer is highly likely to struggle to achieve success – however success is measured.  As Mel says, the relationship is “symbiotic; a combination of push/pull, of ideas and discussions, of give and take and compromise”.   The staff and members of a successful council may see themselves as a team, sharing goals linked to the welfare of a local community and respecting each other’s roles.  

The council’s chief officer is a key player.  Many hours of debate have been spent seeking a more appropriate name for a council’s chief (and sometimes only) officer who, traditionally, has been called a clerk.  This is a title that suggests an outdated secretarial role placing power firmly in the hands of the council.  On the other hand, a Chief Executive (or CEO) gives an impression of a lead manager who is very much in charge of a large staff team – inappropriate for councils with a lone officer or a tiny staff.  Could the term ‘chief officer’ be more widely applied with neutral implications?

Mel draws attention to a potential clash of cultures between the elected member and, say, its chief officer.  He implies that the officer is bound by rules of law and procedures that deliberately slow down decision making while councillors are adventurous in the actions they want to take – and quickly.  Mel suggests that the training clerks receive may be to blame for reinforcing outdated and simplistic ideas of local councils and their functions.  If this is indeed the case, then teamwork and success will be difficult to achieve.  

As an educator responsible for the training of many local council officers, I am bound to object.  Our goal is to help chief officers understand the laws and procedures of local councils thereby keeping their councils out of trouble while helping them achieve action and innovation for their communities without unnecessary delay.

How do you see the roles of officers and members in a local council?  Do officers and members in your council work together well – making time to develop productive working relationships?  What happens when an officer or member tries to show who is in control?   How is power or control handled between officers and members in the most successful councils? ���

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *