The Standards Commission is an independent body whose purpose is to encourage high ethical standards in public life through the promotion and enforcement of Codes of Conduct for councillors and those appointed to the boards of devolved public bodies.
23rd November 2022
The success of public bodies, including local authorities, in delivering effective services relies in no small part on them having effective relationships with the Government, their key stakeholders and the public.
Of equal importance to public bodies’ effectiveness is the existence of strong relationships between board members and employees or, in the case of local government, between councillors and officers. Mutual respect, communication and, above all trust, between these roles is essential as councils and public bodies will only function effectively when all involved cooperate and are able to effectively utilise the skills, experience and knowledge required to perform their respective roles.
Councillors and board members are responsible for providing strategic leadership and for scrutinising the effectiveness of the delivery of services provided by their local authority or public body. The Codes of Conduct for Councillors and Members of Devolved Public Bodies in Scotland do not restrict the important scrutiny role that councillors and members carry out. The Codes make it clear, however, that when undertaking such scrutiny, councillors and board members must not undermine any individual officer or employee or group of officers or employees, or raise concerns about their performance, conduct or capability in public. This ensures that the focus of any public scrutiny is on the work being undertaken and service provided, not on any specific individual and helps maintain good working relationships. If a councillor or board member has concerns about the performance, conduct or capacity of an individual officer or employee they can raise the matter in private with the Chair or Chief Executive.
While councillors and board members must work with officers and employees, there are distinct differences between their roles and remits. The Codes recognise this by noting that councillors and board members should not become inappropriately involved in the operational management of the council or public body’s services. This is unless they are required to do so by virtue of:
• their letter or contract of appointment;
• a statutory provision;
• their job description;
• having been invited to do so by the public body’s Chair or Chief Executive; and / or
• having been directed to do so by their sponsor body, Minister or Cabinet Secretary.
In general, if a duty is delegated to an officer or employee, then it is likely to be operational in nature.
Becoming inappropriately involved in operational management and / or operational decision-making can damage a councillor’s or member’s relationship with officers / employees and have a detrimental effect on how they perform their duties. If a councillor or member becomes too focused on operational matters, they risk losing sight of the ‘bigger picture’ and may have less time to perform their strategic and scrutiny role.
Councillors and board members nevertheless have a right to receive good quality information from officers and employees on which to base their decisions and undertake their scrutiny role. This information should be proportionate, balanced, comprehensive and understandable. Councillors and board members are entitled to ask questions about operational matters at board meetings and to seek assurances from employees that actions have been, or are to be, taken. They should be careful, however, about the level of detail they are seeking. Councillors and board members should always question whether the amount and nature of the information they are seeking is necessary and proportionate.
Councillors and board members should also be aware of the inherent influence that their respective roles carry. The Codes state that they should not take, or seek to take, unfair advantage of their positions in their dealings with officers / employees or bring any undue influence to bear on them to take a certain action. Councillors and board members should not ask or direct officers or employees to do something which they know, or should reasonably know, could compromise officers or employees, or prevent them from undertaking their duties properly and appropriately. Bearing this in mind is especially important when dealing with junior officers and employees, who may not be used to interactions with councillors or board members and may feel pressured to act as directed.
Having an awareness and an understanding of the requirements of the Codes will help ensure all parties work effectively together in the best interests of the organisation and the public in general.