Councillor James Robb of Helensburgh is concerned to be certain of exactly what the CEO of Argyll and Bute Council, Sally Loudon, is saying and not saying in the press statement she issued on the ‘independent’ investigation into the Jo Smith Spygate affair.
The Council’s Communications Manager advocated the use of what she chose to call ‘Spy Accounts’ in covert surveillance of council critics and campaign groups fighting against council decisions. Jo Smith advocated such activities in a formal presentation to her public sector peers, in which she claimed as an achievement her own implementation of such strategies on the council’s behalf.
Following the widespread public sense of betrayal when The Herald revealed this, Ms Smith was suspended and the CEO eventually instigated an investigation less ‘independent’ than had been demanded.
The CEO’s statement about this investigation was less than satisfactory in many respects, some of which we pointed to at once.
Councillor Robb is clearly anxious to have clarity on some core issues.
He says first: ‘I am not clear what the terms of the investigation are or what specific allegations are being investigated. It may be helpful if you could clarify these and also the expected timeframe of the process’.
For him, the issue here is that members require a definitive statement of what is being investigated, withj the CEO fully, clearly, openly setting out the specifics rather than allowing the speculation which is damaging to the employee concerned and, more importantly, to the Council itself..
Mr Robb identifies one paragraph of the CEO’s statement:
‘As matters stand, I can confirm that as a result of preliminary enquiries, I have established that the Council’s Strategic Management Team, together with our extended chief officer support base, has no knowledge or information of any cultural problem within the Council that has resulted in any form of inappropriate covert surveillance of social media or that any such activity has ever been authorised or conducted. It of course goes without saying that should the investigation highlight any such wider issues of concern then I will expect to receive recommendations for wider investigation. Any such recommendations will be acted upon.’
Not unreasonably, Councillor Robb is asking two questions:
- ‘Could you clarify on what evidence you have reached this conclusion?’
- ’Have any enquiries been undertaken to ascertain any knowledge of the questionable activity by staff or members?’
For Argyll does not seriously imagine that elected members knew anything of Ms Smith’s self-declared activities in this grubby field, although some senior councillors may well have received useful intelligence from her without knowing how and where she got it.
We do not, however, accept for one moment, that senior officers knew nothing of this. That would be against the protocols of line management (And Ms Smith is managed from the CEO’s own office); and against psychology and contextual insights.
It is known that in her previous job at Midlothian, the then Sally Reid was admiringly close to the work of the Communications Manager there; and that she arrived at Argyll and Bute fired with notions of what she could herself instigate in this field.
This is not to suggest that Midlothinan were involved in anything like Ms Smith’s surveillance activities. It is though to establish a pre-existing interest by the CEO in the spectrum of usage of communications. In this context, and with Ms Smith managed from her own office, it is improbable that the CEO knew nothing of Ms Smith’s wheeze in using online ‘Spy Accounts’ for covert surveillance.
Ms Smith was appointed after Ms Reid’s arrival. It is beyond credibility that, with her own interest in the field, the CEO would not have engaged energetically with Ms Smith in exploring the spectrum of communications strategies that might be employed in the various interests of the council.
It will be interesting to see what response Councillor Robb receives to his request for these clarifications.