Relationships ‘key’ to council performance

It comes as a shock to realise that, however large a majority you have secured to achieve a particular ambition for your residents, you alone are not going to achieve it.

Whether it is a simple project for your ward, or a district or county-wide project, you will not succeed unless you are able to harness the technical expertise, energy and project management of your council’s officers.

I have five golden rules for effective working with officers. None of these is rocket science, but each of them can be easily overlooked in our council work.

First, officers are different from members. They are neither more nor less important; just different. Some officers in your council will excel at the detail that members would find mundane, while campaigning with passion and chancing your job in the ballot box feels incomprehensibly risky to officers. 

For a high-performance council to function, you need both sets of skills, in harmony. So we members will get the most from our officers if we understand the difference.

Second, officers are an invaluable resource. In all of the council roles I have held, the technical expertise, collective memory, candid advice, and innovation of officers who have worked to support me has been invaluable. We should exploit the amazing resource available to us, uniquely, as councillors.

Third, work at building relationships. Excellent member-officer relationships do not just happen; they need nurturing. They should always be professional and appropriate, and based on mutual trust and respect. 

If your role means you work closely with one officer, you may wish to set and agree parameters; what you expect from the officer and what they can expect from you. Such a shared understanding can help both parties achieve their ambitions.

Fourth, choose the appropriate level of officer. There will be times when dialogue is robust. It is important to know when to progress your issue from a highly technically qualified, but junior, officer to a more senior manager. 

We get the best from our officers by avoiding a conflict between our demands and their objectives, which have been set by their managers. In case of conflict, we need a conversation with the manager, not the junior officer.

Finally, remember that officers are human – and so are we! Officers will put more energy into your project if you motivate them by sharing your vision and enabling them to take ownership of the goal. And they can be pretty good at helping you out of the inevitable trap that we can all fall into. But that is where you can always tell how successful you have been at developing excellent relationships. 

Working effectively with council officers can make or break your (and your council’s) ambitions. As part of its Community Leadership offer to councils, the LGA has developed a masterclass, jointly written and facilitated by an elected member and an LGA adviser, to explore these golden rules further. If you would like it to be run in your council, to help you succeed, please get in touch with the LGA’s Leadership Team.

For more information about the LGA’s Community Leadership offer, including its masterclass on officer-member relations, please contact Alison Edwards on 020 7665 3857 or email her at alison.edwards@local.gov.uk.

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