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'Poor officer culture' addressed in council panel

Adrian Williams

Adrian Williams

adrianw@baylismedia.co.uk

A Royal Borough panel discussed ‘poor officer culture’ concerns raised by an independent review of the council on Monday (July 27).

Councillors at the Corporate Overview and Scrutiny Panel discussed the damning Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy (CIPFA) review of council governance, undertaken in 2019 and early 2020.

The CIPFA report highlighted ‘a poor officer culture’ in the council. It noted that officers lacked awareness of basic governance procedures and that there was little differentiation between officer and senior member roles and responsibilities.

The assessors observed that members of the council were able to circumvent the Royal Borough’s approved policy framework to include additional schemes without appropriate challenge from officers.

“This indicates a lack of clarity and clear division between member and officer roles,” stated the report.

“It is essential that this clarity exists to enable RBWM to operate effectively.”

It described the presence of dominant council members and a lack of ‘appropriate challenge, or recognition that challenge is a good thing’.

Addressing the scrutiny panel, leader of the council Cllr Andrew Johnson (Con, Hurley and Walthams) said: “The days of overly dominant members are gone, under my leadership.

“I take the view that, if a councillor oversteps the mark, they will be reined in and if they seriously overstep the mark, they will be gone.”

A significant observation in the report was that officers ‘appeared overly sensitive in providing bad news’ to councillors.

Cllr Jon Davey (WWRA, Clewer & Dedworth West) said that officers felt ‘forced to protect themselves’ against councillors.

“Perhaps we can look at how officers can protect themselves so that they don’t feel intimidated when they feel something is going wrong,” he said.

Duncan Sharkey, managing director of the Royal Borough, acknowledged that it was important that officers felt safe to come forward about bad practice.

The borough would be updating its whistle-blowing policy to improve this process, he said.

“In a good organisation, we would hope that we never get any whistle-blowing complaints that were true – only ones based on misunderstandings,” he said.

“But we wouldn’t expect that we never get any whistle-blowing complaints [at all].”

Cllr Lynne Jones, (OWRA, Old Windsor), a member of the scrutiny panel, highlighted that it was not only a question of dominant councillors but the more general relationship between officers and councillors, and how the two related to each other.

Cllr Christopher Targowski (Con, Riverside), chair of the panel, agreed.

He said: “These relationships are something we might want to have a look at as a panel – how we interact with officers and members of staff who deliver our services – what they want, what makes them tick, not just our councillors.”

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