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Optimum Interventions

Members and Officers Working Together Through Strengths

I’ve been working with some exceptional people during the past week. Senior officers in local authorities and fire and rescue services who as one writer has it, are “ordinary people doing extraordinary things.”

What’s extraordinary is that amongst all of the inevitable complexity and complications of organisational life in public service (sometimes more complex than needs be, admittedly), they are finding ways to deliver public good in an environment of almost perpetual uncertainty, resource reduction and organisational dilemma.

This perpetual uncertainty manifests itself in a number of ways. In relation to officers working with locally elected politicians, it often surfaces with dilemmas about how best to understand and support the politicians as they cope with reduced funding and the rationing of absolutely critical services.

The day-to-day relationship between officers and members, i.e. the informal working relationship as distinct from the formal governance setting of cabinet, portfolio and scrutiny, is not often reflected upon in wider public debate.

Invariably Councillors seek to serve not because they want to ‘slash and burn’ but because they want to improve the lot of the citizen and make sound decisions about service delivery and resource allocation. Making sound and rational prioritisation decisions though is becoming ever harder in the environment of perpetual cuts and for some it’s starting to feel too close to slash and burn. These dilemmas also carry within them the risk of creating tensions between officers and members.

An example of how the current resource environment is impacting upon officers and their members is the apparent preference for some members to ‘dive’ into the detailed data of services, as officers might describe it, rather than remaining at the ‘strategic’ level of the prioritisation task. Some members of course would argue strongly that the ‘devil’ is in the detail, understanding detail is an essential feature of effective governance and a pre-requisite for making sound choices and decisions.

What of the members whose talents and strengths lie in working with detail rather than the strategic – how might their officers appreciate and harness those talents rather than feeling they need to find ways to limit their expression? After all, it’s not only officers who have strengths.

Another example of the environment impacting on working relations is the challenge members feel when officers then appear not to be responding to the members’ legitimate requests for more data and detail. The ‘management’ of members’ requirements in this way can lead to tensions, as officer seek to mitigate the workload that ensues in providing the data, explaining it and guiding members towards the inevitable higher level decision. There is also the perennial issue of identifying the correct metrics that characterise the health of a service quickly and effectively to the satisfaction of both parties.

In both examples lie the seeds of tension yet also the potential foundation of a new working relationship; one based upon officers and members recognising each others’ innermost strengths, as distinct from learned skills, and work to harness those strengths for the greater good.┬áNot always easily done, but if conversations between members and officers start with a sharing of mutual strengths, a deeper trust might be developed between both groups, whether detail or strategy is the subject of the conversation.

This entry was posted in change, Councillors/elected members, Public sector cuts, Public Service, Public Services, Seeing Systems, Strengths, Supporting leaders, Talents. Bookmark the permalink.

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Steve Lorraine