An Old Joke
There is an old joke about council politics which goes something like this:
Two chief executives are at a conference and they meet up in the the evening for a drink and a chat.
"So, how's it going?" one says to the other.
"Pretty good, really," replies the other. "I've decided the strategy and my councillors are working out the details."
Get it? Maybe not. It's a bit of an inside joke. But I can tell you - hand on heart - I've had senior council officers splitting their sides with laughter with that one.
You see, the joke is about the perennial tension and confusion of roles between the elected politicians of the council (the councillors) and the "permanent politicians" (the senior executive officers who manage and run the council's various departments).
What is supposed to happen is that councillors, the elected representatives of the people, make the strategic decisions that set the direction of council policy, and then the senior officers - the chief executive and his or her team of directors of departments - give effect to these decisions and "work out the details". That's the theory. But where to draw the line between a strategic decision on the one hand and working details on the other? It's a grey area, and some modus vivendi will be achieved - has to be achieved - between any group of senior officers and senior councillors.
At one extreme is the situation where councillors feel they are voting on policies at such a level of generality that they have little control over how a policy decision is implemented. At the other extreme is the situation where councillors get too involved in the nitty gritty of policy implementation, perhaps making judgements that they are not professionally qualified to make.
It is no exaggeration to say that it is possible to have a power battle between senior officers and senior councillors. Councillors worry more about the political impacts on their electorates, while senior officers worry more about the long term viability and stability of the bureacracies they run, and about satisfying the demands of central government.
This section of the site will look more closely at the institution of the council.