‘Are you getting it right?’, ask Audit Scotland in a guide the commission produces in ‘an improvement series for councillors and officers’ on how council s work, entitled: Roles and Working relationships.
This is a document well worth any of us reading in its entirety – it’s not too long and it’s easy to read, presented in bite sized nuggets. It is usefully explanatory and it is revelatory of the way things go wrong.
Unsurprisingly, it casts light on the sources of some of the gymnastics we have all been watching from the sidelines in the floor exercises in the SNP group in Argyll and Bute Council.
We have selected some of the ‘thought bites’ in the document as examples of its usefulness in decoding and addressing the current situation and how it got there.
The respective roles
‘Councillors have a complex and demanding role: representing their constituents, providing direction and scrutinising service performance.’
‘Council officers give professional advice and are responsible for operational leadership and management.’
This means that what is supposed to happen is that:
- policy comes from councillors;
- implementation of policy comes from council officers;
- council officers’ delivery of implementation is scrutinised by councillors.
Some of the behaviours that undermine the operation of the ideal schema above – as well as undermining responsible governance, are identified in the section in the document on Working Together.
The ‘thought bites’ in the document result from extensive research and observation of the operation of Scottish local authorities, which Audit Scotland is uniquely positioned to acquire.
Some useful samples here include:
‘Trust, confidence and good conduct between councillors, and between councillors and officers, are essential for building and maintaining good relationships, and supporting good leadership, management and performance.’
‘In those councils where relationships are already strained, the financial pressures could make matters worse.’
‘In many of those councils making least progress in best value, a lack of clarity about roles and responsibilities and poor working relationships were contributing factors. In the most serious cases, problems included heightened political tensions among councillors and a lack of trust and mutual respect among councillors and between councillors and officers, which affected their ability to work together.’
‘The best performing councils are able to identify when to set aside political differences and work on a constructive basis to support the work of the council, and to deliver outcomes for the community as a whole. In these councils, councillors from all political groups generally agree on the overall priorities for the area, with debate focusing on how best to deliver them.’
‘Tension between councillors and officers often occurs when councillors seek to deal with individual issues relating to their ward or an individual constituent, without giving due consideration to the needs of the council as a whole. ‘
‘Our audit highlighted examples of intervention by elected members in service delivery which resulted in changes to priorities and allegations where elected members have, on occasion, used their influence to secure preferential treatment for constituents.’
‘We also found examples where officers became too involved in defining the direction and plans for the council or did not take full account of councillors’ views.’
‘Difficulties can occur where there is lack of clarity about individual responsibilities, where councillors and officers lack experience and where councillors lack confidence to carry out the full responsibilities associated with their role. Training to improve understanding and awareness about roles and responsibilities, as well as activities to develop the confidence and skills of councillors and officers can help to support improvements.’
‘Councils are responsible for ensuring councillors and officers are aware of and understand their respective roles and responsibilities, and what is expected of them in terms of conduct and working practice.’
Councillors’ Checklist for supporting good working relationships
The Audit Scotland document provides a useful checklist for each councillor to use in the privacy of their conscience to interrogate their own behaviours. It is:
- ‘Are our relationships with other councillors, and with officers, professional and constructive?’
- ‘Is there a climate of trust and respect?’
- ‘How well do we work together as councillors to deliver the best outcomes for our communities?’
- ‘How well do we work with officers to deliver the best outcomes for our communities?’
- ‘To what extent do we share information and engage with each other openly?
- ‘How well do we understand the importance of good working relationships?’
- ‘How well do we understand the Councillors’ Code of Conduct?’
- ‘And how well do we apply its principles?’
This entire document – which contains links to more detailed information on a range of aspects of the proper working of councils, is worth every thinking member of the electorate – of which there are many here – reading and keeping to hand.
In the sort of chaos we have been forced to live through – and which council officers have been forced to work through – this document is an oasis of objective good practice, reminding us how things must be.
The document raises issues, in what it addresses and in what it does not address, that we will shortly return to in an article on a related matter.