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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.

Striking a balance!

29th April 2021

Councillors are expected to provide strategic leadership and management.

Sounds very grand, but what do we mean by this? One good example might be setting strategy and making major decisions that concern the Council as a whole. Another would be scrutinising the Council’s performance and the service it is providing.

Councillors have a right to ask for good quality information to allow them to undertake their strategic and scrutiny roles effectively.

What Councillors must not do, however, is stray away from these strategic matters and into operational management.

Operational management is the day to day planning, organising and execution of Council activities. This kind of operational management is the role of the Council’s employees (known as officers).

The Councillors’ Code of Conduct makes it clear that the roles of councillors and officers are different and should be kept separate. In addition to being a breach of the Code, inappropriately straying into operational matters can damage a Councillor’s relationship with officers and have a detrimental effect on how officers perform their duties.

However, and here’s the problem… distinguishing between these strategic and operational matters is not always clear cut! Indeed, in some cases it may even be necessary for Councillors to get involved in certain operational matters.

For example, a Councillor may be obliged to make decisions on some individual planning, licensing and other regulatory matters. They may also be obliged to make decisions on individual applications if they sit on other committees such as appeals and appointment committees.

Before a Councillor accepts such a role, they should be absolutely clear as to what that role will involve and that they fully understand how to identify any conflicts of interest. Generally speaking, if a Councillor chooses to be an advocate for or against a particular cause they will forfeit their right to be a decision-maker regarding that cause.

This is a tricky area – and getting it right requires Councillors to pay careful attention, not only to their own actions but also to how others may perceive their actions.

Thankfully, we have some guidance to hand which we hope will assist! In addition to our Guidance on the Councillors’ Code of Conduct, we have also produced a separate advice note for Councillors on distinguishing between their strategic role and any operational work.