Northampton Borough Council’s officer staff say that their working relationship with councillors is no longer 'unhealthy' - but that they are still sometimes pressurised to change their professional opinion.
The authority’s officers, which help draw up policies, accept that their day-to-day dealings with elected councillors is getting better, but some issues still remainm according to an internal report by BDO.
Both councillors and officers were asked to rate their working relationship on a scale of one (very poor) to ten (excellent). Councillors scored an average response of 7.73, with many commenting that the officer team is ‘the best they’ve ever had’. But the relationship was marked slightly lower by officers, with an average response of 6.24.
Of more concern to the council though was that officers indicated a score of between five and six when asked if councillors pressurise officers to change their professional opinion on any council business matters, or do anything which ‘compromises their impartiality’.
The BDO report states: “Members and officers interviewed for the review highlighted that the council has been on a journey from an unhealthy top-down culture where members were dictating policy, through a period where members adopted more of a ‘hands off’ approach to policy-making, and now to a position where the balance between political direction from members and advice and implementation from officers is more even.
“However evidence from interviews and surveys conducted for this review shows that issues remain.
“Participants in the review felt that the leader of the council [Cllr Jonathan Nunn] and the Chief Executive [George Candler] are setting an improved cultural tone for both members and officers respectively which will permeate through both groups.
“We have been able to verify that the council has made significant improvements to its member and officer relationships but there is still some way to go to achieve the standards set by the best councils.”
The report was discussed at both the recent Audit Committee, and the Standards Committee at The Guildhall on Monday evening (March 25).
Councillor Brian Markham, a member of the standards group, said: “All members of this committee took part, and the thing that stood out for me was that the councillors who were interviewed thought it was better than the officers who were interviewed.
“Things are better than they were two to three years ago, but it surprises me that some officers still think they are being pressurised to do things they don’t want to.”
The report recommends that there is ‘clearer communication by group leaders to their respective political groups of the existing protocol’s rules around influencing officer decisions’.