Holding council officers to account

Chas Booth argues that holding council officers to account needs something more than grandstanding in the council chamber.

At the full meeting City of Edinburgh Council today, Conservative councillors tabled some motions about very valid and important issues: on improving the council’s bin collection record, for example, or on ensuring that the council’s school estate is properly maintained. These are essential parts of the council’s work, so it is absolutely vital that the council gets these right.

And it is, of course, right that councillors scrutinise the work of council officers in getting this right. After all, it is an essential part of our role as councillors, who are elected by and accountable to the people of our city, to ensure that public funds are being spent properly, and that the essential public services are delivered as effectively as possible.

There are many ways in which we, as councillors, can hold officers to account. The most obvious is that we can lift the phone and ask the relevant officer. Councils are not like Parliament and national government, where backbench MSPs have no direct access to civil servants.  In councils, all councillors have equal access to council officers.  And some of the best solutions I have found to problems that people have raised with me have been through simple conversations with officers.

If we are not satisfied with the response we receive, we can put in written requests for information, which the council is legally required to provide. Or we can use the council’s subject committees – like transport and environment, education, housing and economy and so on – where councillors can ask questions directly of officers, in a way that we can’t do at a meeting of full council.

Green councillors make full use of all of these ways to hold officers accountable, as appropriate under the circumstances.

Probably the least useful way of actually getting things done is the monthly meeting of the full council, which should really be focused on some of the big, cross-cutting issues that face the city. That’s not to say that more specific issues should be absent from the full council, but when it runs to dozens of items, there is a genuine question of how efficient and effective that is.

So, on school repairs, for example, there was an Education Committee two days ago, which the senior officers who manage property, attended. There is also a Finance Committee in early new year, before the full council next meets, which will be getting a detailed report on the condition of all public buildings.  These are fruitful places to get into the detail of what needs to happen.

On bin collections, there was a meeting of the Council’s Transport and Environment Committee just 7 days ago, when our Conservative colleagues had an opportunity to raise questions to officers about bin collections, but didn’t raise a peep. So I felt it was a bit rich of them to put down a grandstanding motion on the subject at full council today, when the officers who actually manage the service were not present to answer and inform debate.

And that’s why I spoke in favour of referring the Conservative motion to one of those subject committees, to allow better scrutiny. In doing so, I used a phrase which, on reflection, was not useful: I said that councillors shouldn’t “meddle in the work of officers”.  That is not a phrase I would use again.  Of course, councillors should indeed hold council officers to account and ensure that they are delivering for our city.  We should do that with all the determination that residents in the city expect of us.  In deciding how best to do that, the priority should be what works in getting the job done, rather than what looks best in the council webcast.

Chas Booth is the Green councillor for Leith and a member of the council’s Transport and Environment Committee