Officers work for members – or do they?

By Blair McPherson | 02 December 2020

To be a successful senior manager you must understand the difference between these two statements. :‘Unfortunately members are unwilling to go for this option’ and ‘There would appear to be no support in the ruling group for this option’.

If you think both statements say the same thing you’re right. If you think there is no significance in the difference you’re wrong. The different way each statement conveys the same message is a strong clue to officer /member relations. In this case, since both quotes are from officers, it tells you how officers regard members.

In my early days in senior management when presenting a report to the senior management team I made the first statement and was rightly taken to task by the new director. Well not so much me as the whole senior management team. The director used the opportunity to challenge the whole team about what she had identified as the prevailing attitude within the director towards members - namely that officers knew best. She was concerned that her senior managers were setting the wrong tone which was being picked up by staff and members. She expected officers to recognise that they worked for members.

She was making a valid point. But years later as an experienced director I would say that the relationship between officers and members is more nuanced. Not only that but it changes from one administration to the next and from one leader to the next.

The role of officers is to help members deliver their policies. In so doing they will provide professional advice. Some administrations are happier than others to take advice. This advice is usually from a senior officer to the relevant cabinet member or relevant director to a members’ working group. However members wear many different hats, each of which may affect the relationship. As the elected member for a constituency they advocate on behalf of individuals who raise issues with them such as why their bins have not been emptied or why their frail elderly mother was turned down by social services for help in the house. This might simply be a case of getting an explanation or it might be a request for a second option and use of the officers’ ‘discretion’. 

When local authorities ran a large number of their own residential homes for older people members would visit these homes as part of their constituency work and it was not uncommon for them to be lobbied by the officer in charge/manager over some outstanding repairs. The budget for repairs having been cut as part of the financial savings and the repair being classified as non urgent/ not a health and safety issue. However months having past since the request was submitted the member was asked if they could help.

 As an officer I was all too familiar with the scenario of a member voting with their party to adopt a strategy like closing libraries to save money only for the same member then to lead a local campaign against the closure of a library in their patch. A similar thing happened with the restructuring of the service for people with a learning disability where at open meetings for relatives to hear of the proposals and express concerns the most challenging questions from the floor came from the local member on behalf of parents. 

Despite austerity, budget cuts and closures there were/ are occasions when specific grants are won. On one such occasion money was awarded to refurbish a small number of community libraries in the most deprived areas. Welcome good news. However the relevant cabinet member was unhappy that the library in their constituency was not on the list whilst the library in the adjacent constituency was. The problem here was that the member for the adjacent constituency represented the opposition party. Understandably members like to be able to say what they have done for their constituency. They don’t get votes for what they have done for someone else’s constituency. I resolved this issue by bring forward the maintenance cycle for the library so that it was decorated at the same time as those libraries being refurbished.  

My old boss was right to remind officers that they work for members but I’m sure most members would agree it’s not that simple. 

Blair McPherson is a former director, author and blogger www.blairmcpherson.co.uk 


 

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