The Sham of British Local Democracy

Many years ago I used to work in a combined Politics and Public Administration Department at a University. There was a bit of friendly rivalry between political philosophers, of which I was one, and Public Admin academics who we rather disparagingly described as ‘plumbers’. Public Administrators weren’t interested in big issues of policy or ethics, they just wanted to make sure public bodies were effectively administered. In the years since I’ve come to realise describing them as ‘plumbers’ was grossly unfair: to plumbers, who are at least accountable to their customers. Doctrines developed by public admin academics have pretty much made sure local government bureaucrats are accountable to no one, and that is why British Local Democracy has become a sham.

The problem arises from a doctrine in public admin called the policy/operations split. In theory this means that the elected representatives are responsible for policy and the public officials are responsible for operations. For example, in the day to day running of the NHS, this would mean that if there was a scandal of poor care in the NHS, such as Stafford Hospital, the Secretary of State for Health would be able to hold up his hands and say, “nothing to do with me Mr and Mrs Voter, running the hospital is an operational matter, I can’t be held responsible. It’s the fault of Mr Stafford NHS Manager.” The trouble is Mr Stafford NHS Manager can’t be voted out by the electorate and he is protected by the full weight of employment law which makes it almost impossible for him to be sacked. With respect to national government most people realise it’s garbage and rightly do heap odium on national politicians if there’s a major operational screw up.

Yet this is not what happens in local government. Consider the case of Joyce Thacker, she was head of Rotherham Social Services during the Rotherham abuse scandal and rode out 3 critical reports, and years of press scrutiny. She only eventually resigned (note resigned, not sacked) three weeks after the Jay report revealed at least 1400 girls had been systematically abused over several years. Even then she received a £40,000 pay off. This happens because in local government the policy operations split is far more strictly observed than in national government. It’s not just Rotherham, Sharon Shoesmith, the head of Haringey’s children’s services during the Baby P scandal, was awarded £679,000 after she claimed for unfair dismissal.

Local government officials are pretty much accountable to no one for their mistakes in operational matters. They also fiercely guard their fiefdoms, so unless you’ve got awkward councillors who are prepared to push boundaries and risk falling out with local government officers, the officers could almost literally get away with murder if it was defined as an operational not a policy matter. And if they are caught out, as Sharon Shoesmith was, then a gift from the taxpayer of £679000 is hardly punishment. Most local government officials, therefore, cannot not be held to account for their everyday actions. They are virtually unsackable, the split between policy and operations is never as clear cut as it is made out to be in academic papers so there is always wriggle room. As a result a culture of arrogance and immunity is rife amongst local government officers. They do not see themselves for what they are, servants of the public, but masters of the public, they guard their privileges without resort to common sense or sense of proportion. Councillors, who we elect, are rigorously barred from intervening in ‘operational matters’ so even those who have been elected with a genuine mission to undertake public service opt out of challenging their officers, and spend their time going round in ever decreasing circles chasing up the gripes of their electors which they, mostly, have no power to remedy.

What is the answer to this conundrum? I’m a life long Tory, but from now on I’m voting for whoever promises to be obnoxious to local government officials. I want to vote for Councillors with the guts to take on the tin pot little Hitlers who put obedience to petty regulations before the well-being of the communities that they should serve. In future I’m going to vote for whoever promises to lance this boil on the backside of the body politic. I would urge everyone else to do the same. Whoever you vote for, don’t vote for the 3 main parties. Vote independent, vote for the awkward squad. Let’s try and win back a semblance of democracy and vote for anyone who promises to make local authorities work for us, not against us.

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