Monitoring Officer Handbook Interview
The Lawyers in Local Government (LLG) Monitoring Officers’ Handbook, launched in March 2018, is an unique venture delivering targeted advice.
The Lawyers in Local Government (LLG) Monitoring Officers’ Handbook, launched in March 2018, is an unique venture delivering targeted advice to current and aspiring local authority Monitoring Officers (MOs) and Deputies. The result of a collaborative endeavour bringing together expertise from Sefton Council and leading public sector firm Weightmans, the title is being published via Thomson Reuters Proview, a professional-grade eBook platform for Windows or Mac desktop, laptop, Android, and iPad.
The book’s authors are Simon Goacher Partner, Weightmans and Jill Coule (Head of Regulation and Compliance, Sefton Metropolitan Borough Council). Desmond Brady, Director of Public Sector at Thomson Reuters, caught up with Simon and Jill to discuss the Handbook and its genesis.
What are your own experiences with the Monitoring Officer role?
JC: I first became a Deputy MO at the London Borough of Harrow in 2005, following the time that new arrangements for standards had been introduced, which I had helped set up there. I left in 2008 to become an MO at Hertsmere Borough Council, and then moved to Sefton Council in 2010, where I continue to fill the MO role.
SG: I was a Monitoring Officer for about seven years, initially at Wirral then at Cheshire West and Chester Council from 2009 to 2013. Approximately three quarters of my current practice is spent working with many MOs on a range of issues, ranging from informal advice provided as part of our framework offerings, to formal advice on matters such as governance, standards investigations, and judicial review.
How did the idea for the Handbook come about?
JC: About 10 years ago, when I was relatively new to the role, I relied quite a lot on existing material on the subject. As time has gone by I have found that the material out there hadn’t been updated. I wanted to do something about this but knew I couldn’t do it on my own. I contacted Simon with the idea, and Weightmans responded enthusiastically, with both Simon (previously of Cheshire West & Cheshire) and Graeme Creer (previously of Liverpool City Council) involved.
SG: We do a lot of work in this area and readily appreciated the gap in the available guidance. Other MOs we spoke to agreed there was a gap to be filled. We also saw some great synergies with our existing work in supporting and advising those performing MO roles. If this could be a resource that MOs would find helpful, we wanted to be involved and work with Jill to make it happen.
How did your respective experiences and knowledge shape the book?
JC: Weightmans’ breadth of experience from advising many councils over the years was invaluable. After we had agreed on a structure for the book, Graeme and Simon contributed notes and input from various training sessions, lectures and presentations that they had done, and turned those into text for the book. My own contribution, as a current MO, was to go through and revise the text from a practical point of view, and help deliver concrete examples to make the principles clear to the reader, whatever their level of experience.
SG: Graeme is very strong on the black letter law in this area. In a broader sense, it takes quite a lot of work to produce a tome of this length. Not only were we able to bring a host of input from our experience advising MOs, training, and writing on the role, we were also able to contribute the resources of a firm to spend the time producing the text. It was certainly more than a one-person job and we were more than happy to contribute the effort required to see it to a successful conclusion.
How do you expect readers will use the Handbook?
SG: People may start with a quick flick through, but I hope it will be the kind of thing they will keep on the corner of their desk (virtually in this case of course). It’s a reference text for when they have a particular issue. What we tried to do was make it as practical as possible, adding templates, scenarios, draft terms of reference, report protocols, and other tools that will help them navigate everyday situations.
JC: I expect there will be two main ways that people will use the book, depending on their experience.
Very seasoned and experienced MOs may use it in moments of crisis. The MO role can be a lonely one, and much can depend on your judgement. As good as your Deputy is, it is you who ultimately bears the accountability.
Less experienced or aspiring MOs, or indeed non-lawyer MOs, will use the work as a tool for reference, education and support. They may have it at their elbow quite a lot if they are new to the role. We have aimed to give readers advice on some of the more contentious points of the role; provide information on where MOs can get further support; and to stimulate their thinking. When you are new to the role you may not consider all the possible angles. We hope that this book may give more depth to an MO’s advice, or the position they propose to adopt.
What are the key issues on the horizon for Monitoring Officers today?
JC: There is a new and emerging context for the role of MO now – for example in city regions,. New types of context may require a different emphasis within the role; this has yet to be determined.
Within the more familiar local government area itself, standards and behaviours will continue to present new challenges in the internet area. Council Members’ conduct and the area of social media can be a difficult field to navigate – the potential for issues to arise extends outside the working day now. By the same token, MOs can expect more media savvy behaviour from people outside the organisation, including for example members of the public who have a complaint about Members’ behaviour. Lack of swift action or an apology can see complaints quickly aired via various media.
Another challenge mirrors a wider trend for senior managers in Councils: MOs are getting more and more demands on their time. They may manage other areas of responsibility in the Council as well as Legal; the net result is that their MO time is more and more diluted, which can make it harder to do the job.
SG: In the area of Member behaviour, it will be interesting to see the outcome of the Committee on Standards in Public Life’s consultation on local government ethical standards.
In my view the MO role is increasingly challenging now thanks to the complexity of the modern council’s operating environment. For example councils are increasingly operating though companies, whether through outsourcing to the private sector through procurement, or via joint ventures. Where does the MO’s responsibility sit when there is a range of delivery mechanisms?
I would agree that the way political issues are treated in modern media and social media means MOs must be prepared to be put on spot the more quickly and more often.
What advice (apart from “read the book”!) would you give to colleagues embarking on the Monitoring Officer role?
JC: it is critical to develop good relationships across the both the political and Officer spectrum. Sometimes you will need to deliver difficult or unpalatable messages – it’s easier to do that if you have a relationship to build on and can anticipate how someone might react and respond. Never underestimate the need to invest in those relationships on an ongoing basis, not just at a point of transaction or a crisis.
You do need to develop your political antennae also. Even if one party dominates the chamber, there may be “opposition” factions within that party. Political astuteness is key.
At the end of the day this is almost more important than understanding the law. You can get help understanding the law; you can’t always get help with managing relationships.
Finally, don’t underestimate the importance of networks not just within the authority but also beyond it. MOs outside your authority can be a good source of advice and support.
SG: Some of the lessons we hear at our MO conferences include the need to try and find out as much as you can about the organisation and how it operates. Start proactive discussions with the Head of Paid Service and the Section 151 Officer about what governance should look like in the organisation, and how you will work together. It is important to appreciate you are part of the structure, not solely responsible for governance. Agree how it will work with the other key individuals.
Your starting point will of course depend on whether you have come in new both to the role and the organisation, or are simply taking up the MO role within the same organisation. You need to understand the culture, and which people you need to rely on, be it the legal team or the democratic services team. Working out the politics in a new council can be mysterious but pays dividends in terms of your ability to manage future situations.
Furthermore, when you are out networking with others, it is good practice to make it a two-way process - share your thoughts about how good governance works and how you want it to work within the authority. As an MO you will need to be prepared to communicate often; have confidence in your convictions; and make decisions in a consistent manner and explain them to others.
What skills does a Monitoring Officer need?
JC: The ability to forge and maintain relationships is key. Another skill you need is the ability to behave with confidence even when you don’t feel it! There are dozens of Members in an authority, and you have to have the confidence of the majority, if not all of them. This can require displaying confidence in difficult circumstances.
A way to achieve this is to make sure you are prepared for anything. Think about the characters involved, think about your meeting agendas and anticipate reactions. Sometimes you have to be reactive, but you can take the pressure off yourself in many situations by doing your homework in advance.
SG: It is important to have a strong awareness of what’s going on in the organisation, and of course a good knowledge of how local government works. Some may aspire to the MO role as a career path, others may find it falls to them through other progression or changes in the organisation. In both cases understanding the environment is key.
Finally, it is crucial that you display a high level of integrity and a clear idea of the right values for operating as an MO in a local authority. It is important that you have the courage to make the decisions that sometimes need to be made in order for the MO role to be an effective component of governance in the modern council.
The Monitoring Officers’ Handbook is available free of charge to LLG members. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for your registration key and access instructions.