Who comments?

Written by Gareth Young on . Posted in Our blog

12th September 2013

Say what you like about local government officers but some of them are extremely well trained professionals.

They are therefore likely to be well placed to comment on all sorts of things of public interest from a professional point of view; deploying their years of training, experience and expertise to comment on local proposals. However, whilst the expertise of these local professionals is deployed behind the closed doors of the council chamber it rarely, if ever, finds its way into the public domain unless specifically requested by the local councillors.

In many ways this is right. The politicians who run our councils are the publically elected filter who are meant to take the expert input of the officers and then to make decisions in the public interest.

The same restriction applies to lots of public servants although slowly but surely this is breaking down. Head teachers are even more independent than they once were, senior firemen and police chiefs are often expected to comment on all manner of things in the local area and then we get to the NHS.

Be it the local GP operating alone or the newly minted Clinical Commissioning Group leaders or an administrator from the local hospital the views of NHS professionals increasingly reach the public unfiltered.

Consider the difference between this and the expertise of the professionals who work in local government. In general you will never hear from that professional without their views being filtered through that of a local politician.

This is understandable in some ways; after all you can imagine the public relations problems that councillors might face if their officers were regularly disagreeing with the positions espoused by the members. This can be frustrating to officers who might have a professional judgement to make on a situation and yet are not allowed to comment publicly.

For example, if a politician thinks that the local populace don’t want the near-by hospital or fire station to close the officers from the local authority would not be expected to contradict this; no matter how technically correct the closure option might be (and before anyone writes in I do not advocate closing any fire stations, hospitals or for that matter libraries).

I understand this, indeed it fits in with the model of ‘officers advise; members decide’ that has existed for decades.

However, I think this is increasingly difficult to justify in a society that is more diverse than ever and where more and more decisions are being made away from the local authority.

Where decisions are being made outside of the strict council confines surely we need to be ensuring the widest possible series of views are shared with the public rather than putting them through the same political filter we would make to internal decisions. If members then decide they want to disagree with these professional opinions surely that is their imperative.


Not exposing the public to the detailed thinking of professionals just seems like a very old fashioned way of managing things. If a decision is not one for the council chamber perhaps the maxim should be changed to ‘officers advise to help the public decide.’

Posted: 5 years 1 week ago by RachaelMack #1222
RachaelMack's Avatar
Since last autumn councils have been obliged to publish certain officer decisions on their website (see pages 9-10 But it's up to each council to decide what to publish, so is inconsistent. it would be a great area for national guidelines like 'publish all decisions where x% of a budget is affected', but instead was left to local discretion.
Posted: 5 years 1 week ago by Gareth #1224
Gareth's Avatar
Thanks, I'd forgotten about that (deserving a post all of it's own!)...

I find that piece of transparency quite entertaining... Anything that an officer is allowed to decide is probably not that interesting to a member of the public (perhaps the odd contract award?) but anything where we might be interested in an officer opinion is probably a member decision and so no transparency of that advice is required.

It's also worth saying that deciding what constitutes a 'decision' is fairly tricky for all involved. Is the stationary order a 'decision' and whilst it is obviously not where you draw the line on the way up the 'serious' scale is a matter of quite some judgement... Ironically, probably ends up being a councillor decision!

I think the issue is perhaps less the decision and more the expert opinion that goes into making that decision... If officers do advise and members do decide wouldn't it be nice to be more explicit with what that advice looked like?

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