Partnership working, mutual respect and a shared vision are crucial. Councillors and officers are indispensable to one another, and together they bring the critical skills, experience and knowledge required to manage an effective council.
This relationship is unique and is not replicated in any other type of business or organisation. Although the roles are clearly defined on paper, in practice there are blurred boundaries – and sometimes overlapping issues, which can create problems.
Councillors and officers have a collective corporate responsibility. If they do not fully understand each other’s distinctly different roles, however, this can lead to misunderstandings.
The most effective councillors appreciate the distinct contribution that elected members and officers make to the running of the council, and the boundaries between them. For example, officers must act with political impartiality, serving the whole council rather than particular groups or councillors.
But they also understand the areas in which roles and responsibilities overlap, and councillors and officers must act together to provide democratic governance. If they work in isolation, and there is little or no communication between them, it is easy to see how strategic direction and delivery become disconnected.
This inevitably has a detrimental effect on services and makes it difficult for councillors to act effectively as community leaders, advocates and champions, providing the community with clear communication about priorities.
However, this partnership also involves a third dimension – that of the local community.
Members of the local community are both citizens, with rights and responsibilities, and customers of the council. Without an appreciation of this vital third ingredient, community leadership and engagement is less effective.
‘Respect and honesty’
“Effective councillor/officer relations depend upon trust and clear and honest communication in both directions. You certainly don’t need to be friends ; what you do need is to respect and understand your distinct roles.
“Consider officers’ positions and their competing priorities and restrictions. This can avoid potential frustration or confusion about what might otherwise be perceived as obstructiveness. If officers don’t appreciate your role as a councillor, it’s better to address it than try to work around it, because it will cause problems down the line. My golden rule with officers is ‘no surprises’, in either direction.”
Dave Hodgson (Lib Dem), Mayor of Bedford
“The relationship between the leader of a council and its chief executive is a key one. When it is going well, there is very little a council can’t achieve; if there are issues that remain unresolved, the opposite is the case. Like any relationship, it takes time and effort to get the most out of it – it is a complex, multifaceted relationship that is neither static nor ever shifting in nature.
“As councillors, we not only have a relationship with the officers with whom we work , but also help mediate the relationship between them and the communities we serve. Sometimes challenging, always respectful, never forgetting that our role is a unique one to enable and effect change, both within the council and beyond the walls of the council offices.”
Cllr Peter Fleming OBE (Con), Leader of Sevenoaks District Council