The greatest myth in local government: councillors make the policy and staff carry it out.

By Mel Usher.

Introduction 

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 the local council sector it should be clear. As I understand it the Clerk has the baton unless the Council/Committee is in session. However the very simplicity of this statement is also it’s flaw and clashes with the shibboleth that councillors make the policy and staff carry it out. The greatest myth in local government. 

This is not how the relationship works. It’s symbiotic; a combination of push/pull, of ideas and discussions, of give and take and compromise. It takes fairly sophisticated individuals to make this work at the best of times, but is further complicated by a fairly obvious clash of cultures, which if not at least acknowledged, can lead rapidly to tears. One thing is certain most Clerks aren’t sacked because they are  incompetent, most depart because of a relationship fallout. Often because they didn’t understand the dynamics or had been led to believe when training that the local council world was a simpler place. 

So what’s to be done? What I am going to write next should be taken with a pinch of salt, I purposefully over generalise to make a point. 

Staff. 

The staff are bureaucrats…in the best sense,. They are taught to stick to procedures . Rules are important and should be followed  by the book. The staff search for certainty, evidence  and rational arguments. Often there is an overriding internal focus on finance, HR procedures, control of staff and measurement of task performance. This type of approach is incredibly effective in times of certainty, when dealing with large organizations, big ticket tasks, fluid money flows and for the reduction of  risk. At times the staff see the job as merely a means to a pay packet and why not, this might be the tenth year they have undertaken this task in exactly the same way. If you look carefully you can frequently detect a canteen culture that says, “If only the councillors would go away we could really get on  with some work” Oh and yes and just to muddy the waters some Councillors think they are the staff! 

Councillors 

Obviously councillors are elected. They have put their personal reputation on the line for public scrutiny. Often they are on a mission, sometimes a personal crusade, others as part of a group. Often councillors draw conclusions from individual experiences, the grass is not cut this week so everything is wrong with grass cutting. Whilst this approach has obvious drawbacks it can lead to big leaps in making things happen. Usually councillors are community based, concerned about their bit of the world and not so much about the niceties of the overall finances. They can be impatient, distrustful and sometimes work like a pack of dogs….searching for vulnerabilities. That’s why many go in for  correcting spelling mistakes, pedantic interpretations of tradition and minor points of detail. Sometimes they are encouraged in this direction by the staff…it’s safer. It’s fair to say you get some unreasonable councillors who make life very difficult for everyone. Hostilities between councillors is not unknown and can sour many councils. Oh and many have a penchant for dressing up in wigs and cloaks in order to join the travelling chain gang of mayors who seem to tour most counties. 

On a mundane level  staff need to recognise that politics (and I don’t necessarily mean party politics) is different to most walks of life. The majority of our daily transactions, including the most basic, are based on a win/win agreement. If I can win by helping you win or visa versa , that’s great, we both benefit. Politics even at the most local level is often characterised by either lose/win, if I want to get my way you have to be defeated or at least neutralised. Or worse still lose/lose, I don’t mind losing as long as you do too. Again living with this arrangement takes a degree of self awareness and patience. 

Some of you may be thinking, if he’s right how come anything gets done? Good point and maybe a question we should ask ourselves more. There are many wonderful councils run by diligent individuals whether councillors or staff.. Mainly it works because of  good will and off  book agreements that keeps the whole edifice rolling along. One thing is certain most Clerks aren’t sacked because they are         incompetent, most depart because of a relationship fallout. Often because they didn’t understand the dynamics or had been led to believe when training that the local council world was a simpler place. 

So what’s to be done? 

Ways forward? 

If I had a neat answer I wouldn’t be writing it here but pedaling it across the country for a large fee! The usual response to such a problem is to change the legislation so one side or another is fettered, or to construct some kind of intermediary body to decide who is right on individual cases(in fact there is no right in most cases). Indeed I think  these thoughts are already swirling around the corridors of power. 

What if we took a different route and recognised what is really at play here? And perhaps tried to alert the sector to the pitfalls and possibilities. 

Maybe the relationship and indeed the output of local councils  is not as productive as it could be because  we are living the equivalent of two bald men fighting over a comb. The services we have traditionally delivered are no longer relevant, who cares about who cuts the grass verge, us or the county, when there are parishioners living in our community who are so frail they can’t change a light bulb or so poor they have to decide between food and rent? Maybe being strapped to unfulfilling and vacuous objectives sours any organizational relationship? What if we created a more vibrant and real local council paradigm that says let’s at least acknowledge  some of the real issues in this community, who knows we may be able to tackle some of them. 

Maybe too a highly bureaucratised  leadership and cultural style  is no longer appropriate in the sector. Most local councils are small, they deal with steady,  small trickles of money, in and out, and (unfortunately) don’t often change their mission or objectives. However we live in an age of increasing uncertainty whether its climate change, changing community values, big data and social media and a welter of social problems from loneliness to mental health issues. Most communities have also not yet come to realisation that public services as we know them are all but over. Villages and towns will increasingly have to find their own way through knotty problems they once left to others in the state apparatus. Pointers to a way forward can be found through a greater use  of volunteers, raising more money locally to fund, and  ensure the success of,  local groups/charities, spotting and filling in service gaps and looking into the future with a bolder view, centred around the greater use of democratic legitimacy. 

Steadfastly trying to create certainty or harking back to long expired traditions at a local level is a lost cause. What we need to be creating is more flexible organisations , where the words exciting, innovative, transparent, welcoming, experiment, engaging, laughter and even good try but a failure echo around the village hall. 

If we adopted a more transformational and transactional culture perhaps a more healthy relationship will develop. A new vision of what is possible would allow some of the old weaknesses to fall away…they and their supporters are no longer relevant. A clear statement of this is what we want to achieve and we won’t be blown off course by petty squabbling and dead ends is a highly powerful tool. 

Conclusions 

I am advocating a radical rethink of how WE within the sector perceive our role. Becoming a key player at a local level, understanding local issue and being prepared to tackle them in partnership with local actors, whether individuals or formal or informal groups of residents, could not only transform how we see ourselves but also how others judge us too. So let’s shake off the old stuffy image and baggage and enter the 21st century. 

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