I recently wrote about the tendency of local councils to expand ‘innovative’ new departments, while at the same time failing to safeguard mainstream service delivery (Vampires at City Hall). Ian Healey responded, saying “..without numbers (of posts involved) or examples, it is difficult to see this as more than a partisan grumble. It may all be as you say, but what to do?”
As they say in Parliament, he makes a good point. In reality, it’s impossible to provide details. This is because council officers deny the information to the public, on grounds of staff confidentiality. It’s obviously right that the public should not have details about individual post holders and the exact level of their pay. However, it’s entirely improper that the very existence of these posts, their responsibilities and seniority, and crucially their broad salary grades, are shrouded in mystery.
During the recent public consultation that preceded Brighton & Hove’s budget-making, I telephoned the finance department to ask for more information – in particular about staffing structures and the costs of posts. I said I couldn’t answer the council’s questionnaire about budget priorities, unless I really understood the options. I was told that such detailed information wasn’t routinely provided because “it wouldn’t be fair” to the staff concerned. I persisted and was subsequently informed that more detailed information was available online if I cared to look. Unfortunately, it was not – or was so well buried that only a hacker could have found it.
I was annoyed at the refusal, but thought I’d get round it by speaking to councillors. However, I was stunned to learn from the two councillors I approached – both highly competent and holding senior positions – that they too were routinely denied detailed information about staffing. This was despite the fact that this was a very important and hugely contentious budget, in which cuts were to be agreed. Now, these were politicians and I am not naive. It may be that they actually did have access to the information, but were unwilling to admit that I and other members of the public couldn’t have it. However, from their somewhat confused and even embarrassed demeanour, I suspect not.
The implications of this, if true, are stunning. It means that the councillors we democratically elect to run the city, finalise budgets and agree strategies on our behalf, have been doing so with partial information – and that the people who have withheld key facts are those paid to carry out the council’s decisions. Elected councillors, accountable to us, are being ‘managed’ by people who ought to be accountable to them. If this is the case, I do wonder why we bother to vote. It’s a serious case of tail wagging dog.
I lament the loss of old fashioned senior council officers, who were hard working public servants – and generally accepted limits to their own authority. This all seemed to change in the late 1980s. Senior public ‘servants’ started to study for MBAs, ape the private sector, demand extortionate salaries and tell their workers there was ‘no such thing as a job for life’. Claiming to be ‘managing change’, they decimated services, cut the posts of manual staff who carried out the traditional work of the councils and justified their own promotion and pay rises by developing small fiefdoms of white collar staff, working in new and fashionable fields of endeavour.
Back in the day, senior council officers would have worked in the same local authority until they were 65, left with a secure pension and spent their retirement in unpaid good works. However, since the early 1990s, too many senior managers have taken early retirement at 50 or 55, sometimes with a golden handshake as well as a stonking great pension, then joined quangos and set up consultancy businesses selling their skills at inflated prices to – you guessed it – local authorities.
Where once senior council officers informed and advised elected members, and accepted they had operational not strategic responsibility, this new breed of senior officer, unaccountable, arrogant and well-paid, seeks to lead, not to serve. In such an environment, elected councillors, some new to their roles, reliant on officers and often earning far less than them, can readily be manipulated. Where there is no overall political control, it must be particularly easy for latter-day Sir Humphreys to play one politician off against another.
There have always been council officers who successfully managed, manipulated and flattered elected councillors into submission. However, the present situation in Brighton & Hove, in which senior officers withhold information and politely exclude councillors from crucial decisions about politically sensitive or senior staff appointments, is something new. I suspect councillors are concerned and frustrated, but that a culture may have developed that seems impossible to challenge.
But challenged it must be. A council which operates according to the priorities of an unaccountable elite is a dangerous beast and this is particularly so at a time of service cuts. My suggestion, now the election is over, is that councillors try to put aside partisan loyalties and come together to assert their position as elected representatives. Not for their sakes, but for ours.