This week, Momentum activist Johnbosco Nwogbo argued that the looming bin strikes are the fault of the council’s senior management team, not councillors.
Here, former council leader Warren Morgan responds.
Like a free press and an independent judiciary, an independent civil service is one of the key pillars of our democracy. All are under threat from populist politicians from both extremes of the spectrum.
That is no less true in local government than in Westminster and beyond. Fake news, faceless bureaucrats, biased media and unelected judges are terms bandied about by populist politicians, their spokespeople and “outriders” all too often, and it’s wrong.
Councillors appoint senior officers who in turn manage the staff teams that deliver services, taking decisions under delegated authority from elected members.
Ultimately elected members – councillors – must take responsibility for the decisions and actions of council officers. It is one of the facts of political life; you deal with the fallout from your predecessors, you will see your successes come to fruition after you leave office, and you take responsibility for things that happen on your watch. The buck stops with you.
Officers give advice on policy and decisions for councillors to make decisions on, in Brighton and Hove that is done by all 54 councillors in committees, with officer advice there in the reports for the public to read if they wish.
Quite rightly individual operational matters and staffing decisions are not public; officers and staff at every level in the council have the right not to have their employment issues played out in public.
From the Executive Leadership Team to the front line, council officers do an incredible job under impossible circumstances across hundreds of services the authority has to undertake, many unseen and unappreciated, but nevertheless vital to our economy, environment and public health.
Local government has changed beyond all recognition over the past decade, with officers having to deliver more services and meet growing demand with 60% less funding, facing impossible choices over what to prioritise and what options to present to councillors in terms of what is cut and what is changed.
Local councils and the people who run them have been at the forefront of dealing with the effects of austerity, something those on the left should acknowledge. Most do it out of a sense of public service and as a vocation.
Most could earn more for less in comparable roles in the private sector, largely away from public scrutiny and criticism. They are all human and humans make mistakes, but they are not there to be scapegoats when things don’t go as politicians plan and when party activists want someone else to blame.
Council officers are delivering services and making operational choices under immense pressure, made harder still here where the shifting balance between three political parties leaves them with no majority administration to follow and little stability to rely upon.
Civil servants and council officers cannot speak for themselves in public and should not have to. It is wrong to try to deflect blame when things get uncomfortable, and in the process politicise those dedicated public servants who do so much for our city and our communities.