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City councillors and officers told how to behave with new rules of engagement

City councillors and officers told how to behave with new rules of engagement

🕔07.Sep 2016

Rules governing the working arrangements of Birmingham city council officers and councillors have been re-written to make sure elected members and staff perform separate and distinct roles, and treat each other with respect.

Proposed changes to the council constitution seek to promote “greater clarity and certainty as to working relationships between members and officers”.

If the new system is adopted it will ensure that members receive objective and impartial advice and that officers are not subject to accusations of bias, and any undue influence from councillors, according to the rule changes.

There’s also a clear warning that the bullying or intimidation of officers by elected members will not be tolerated.

A member-officer protocol, currently a small 470-word section of the constitution, has been comprehensively upgraded to almost 1,500 words and will be adopted at the September full council meeting.

Paragraphs on working relationships set out what is expected:

Both members and officers are servants of the public and they are indispensable to one another. But their responsibilities are distinct. Members are responsible to the electorate and officers are responsible to the council as a whole.

The conduct of members and officers should be such as to instil mutual confidence and trust. The key elements are recognition of and a respect for each other’s roles and responsibilities. These should be reflected in the behaviour and attitude of each to the other, both publicly and privately.

The changes, driven forward by council leader John Clancy, are designed to address criticism in the Kerslake Review into Birmingham city council’s governance arrangements which found confusion over the roles of members and officers and quoted an unnamed cabinet member as stating that “councillors pretend they are officers, and officers occasionally pretend they are councillors.”

Kerslake warned:

There is a blurring of roles between members and officers. The relationship needs to be reset and officers given the space to manage;

We have found that the clear boundaries that should exist between the roles of members, who should set the strategic direction of the authority and hold officers to account for delivery, and the operational role of officers have become blurred. For the council to improve this must change.

Members need to have a realistic vision for the city and the council’s future that is achievable. Officers need to be honest about the tough decisions and trade-offs that will be needed to get there. Issues need to be confidently raised and dealt with rather than ignored or put off.

The new rules call for a high standard of conduct between members and officers at all times and adds that the two groups should “treat each other as they wish to be treated.

There is a warning against “personal familiarity” between members and officers which it is said could damage the relationship of mutual respect and prove embarrassing to other members.

Both elected members and officers must take care when challenging decisions to do so in a “constructive and non-confrontational way”.

Earlier this year a study in to working relationships at the council lifted the lid on years of complaints by officers that they had been treated badly by councillors.

Research by Birmingham University uncovered damaging tensions, with older councillors accused of lacking respect for younger officers, particularly women.

Elected members often regarded themselves as more important than officers and displayed a lack of respect, while many officers were unduly “deferential” towards councillors, the survey claimed.

The new rules of engagement state:

Nothing in this protocol is therefore intended to stop members holding officers to account for decisions made under delegated powers. Nothing herein is intended to inhibit constructive criticism delivered with courtesy and officers should not feel their employment is at risk as a result of such intervention.

Members should guard against putting inappropriate pressure in particular, on junior officers and need to be aware that it is easy for junior officers to feel at a disadvantage in their interactions with members.

A new section of the protocol makes it clear that officers must serve the council as a whole and not any political group or any individual member of the council.

All officers must, in their dealings with political groups and individual members, maintain political neutrality and treat them in a fair and even-handed manner.

Officers must respect the confidentiality of any party group discussions at which they are present. When information is disclosed to an officer during discussions with a party group and that information should not be passed on to other groups.

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