A Reflection on the position of Monitoring Officer

Local authority face complex challenges; modernising services in a difficult financial environment is hard.

Christmas is a time for reflection about the year that has nearly concluded and looking forward to the next soon to begin. For local authority monitoring officers it will be  time to all too briefly pause before the New Year brings budget setting and a whole host of other challenges.

In recent months we have done a considerable amount of work with monitoring officers across the country. We attended the LLG Governance Conference in Bath in October and talked about the MO Handbook which we are producing with LLG.  We also hosted our own Monitoring Officer Conference in November in London in association with Hoey Ainscough and we then hosted the first meeting of the reinvigorated London Monitoring Officer Special Activity Area Group.

We also sponsored the people award of the LLG Awards. The awards ceremony in Birmingham in November was a fitting tribute to the individuals and teams who produce consistently outstanding work for the benefit of their local authorities and residents.

It was pleasing to be able to talk so many Monitoring Officers, deputies and those engaged in governance walk and to discuss the issues which are really important to them at the moment. From these discussions and the work which we do for the local authority clients a number of themes emerge.

Local authority face complex challenges; modernising services in a difficult financial environment is hard.  Local authorities are rising to the challenge through greater use of commercial vehicles to deliver income, more integrated service delivery and innovative service models.  However, this creates an even more complex governance environment for councils and their monitoring officers to manage. 

The political environment also remains challenging in some areas. The use of social media has been positive in so many ways but it can lead to a heated dialogue involving councils and sometime councillors which can be destructive.  Dealing with this can take up a disproportionate amount of a Monitoring Officers’ time.  Also officers seem to be drawn into far more political discussions by members than used to be the case.  Monitoring Officers maintain the position of neutral trusted adviser to the Council but that is not always easy.  The lack of an effective standards regime governing member conduct in England makes it difficult to deal with the worst cases.  The Committee for Standards in Public Life is to look again at this but it seems unlikely that there will be any significant change to the regime in this Parliament.  The recent consultation on extending the grounds for disqualification of councillors is to be welcomed but its range is very narrow.

Brexit hangs over everything. It is having little direct impact on local authorities at the moment but it is so preoccupying central government time and focus that it is squeezing any resources which might otherwise be used to deal with local government issues such as devolution.

GDPR is another issue looming large on the horizon. Generally local authorities are well placed to achieve compliance but as with so many things complacency and limited resources are likely to be the issue for some authorities.  Local authorities come only second to health in the number of complaints currently made to the ICO for lack of compliance with data protection law.  Monitoring Officers will want assurances that their authorities will be ready to achieve compliance with GDPR fin May next year.

But ending on a bright note there seems to be recognition of the vital role that Monitoring Officers and legal services teams fulfil in local government and that in these uncertain and challenging times that function needs to be at least maintained and preferably strengthened.

I remain hugely impressed by the dedication, commitment and quality of in-house legal teams doing difficult jobs and delivering consistently excellent results. The New Year will, no doubt bring fresh challenges, but as ever likely authority legal teams will rise to them.

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