In this article, Dr Greg Stride from LGIU’s Local Democracy Research Centre explores how councils work to ensure they are trustworthy and trusted. Upcoming research will explore how the crucial role of the Monitoring Officer can help guarantee that English councils do everything the public can expect of them and, in turn, build trust.
What is trust?
In an excellent recent blog for us, Dr Hannah Bunting from the University of Exeter explained a working definition of trust used by political scientists, including a useful equation for understanding trust relationships:
“A trusts B to do X. The ‘A’ in this simple equation is usually a citizen, the ‘B’ is a government or politician, and ‘to do X’ is the preferred outcome of a task that B should do (or is at least perceived to be responsible for)”.
At the same time, at the LDRC we have been working in partnership with Lawyers in Local Government and Browne Jacobson on a new research project about the role of the monitoring officer in English local government.
This article is part of our LGIU@40 work looking at the future of local government – examining key questions about trust, democratic engagement and sustainable finance. Explore our collection on trust.
What is a Monitoring Officer?
In English councils, a monitoring officer is the statutory officer responsible for the legal governance of a local authority in much the same way that a Section 151 officer is responsible for a council’s finances. They have a legal duty to ensure councils fulfil their statutory obligations and apply their codes of conduct. This includes investigating and reporting on anything the authority does that could be illegal.
The more we thought about it, the more the question of trust in local government can be tied to the role of the monitoring officer. For example, if we ask ‘How can citizens or the central government trust local governments to fulfil their legal duties?’ The answer is they can trust councils because the monitoring officer is there to ensure that councils do everything they are required to do by law. That is if the system is working perfectly.
In practice, as we will reveal in our research due to be published in November, the system is not working perfectly. The underfunding of local governments across England has exposed local councils to more risk (most famously in the case of increased commercial activity) at the same time as undermining the capacity of the monitoring officer to tackle these new risks. Monitoring officers report taking on more and more unrelated responsibilities, feeling that they can be resented or blocked from higher level decision-making, and sometimes that their status as a core statutory officer was being undermined. None of this is useful for improving or retaining public or central government trust in the capacity of local authorities to fulfil their statutory duties and manage risk.
Equally, if instead we ask the question: ‘How can the public be sure that their councillors are following and promoting the principles of public life?’ the principles of selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty and leadership that we should expect all public officer holders to respect and embody. Again, the monitoring officer plays a vital role by being the officer responsible for ensuring that councillors abide by their council’s code of conduct. But again, the monitoring officers we spoke to in our research reported feeling that the current sanctions regime (which was loosened and weakened in the Localism Act 2011) does not empower councils to tackle poor behaviours with significant enough force. Often, even serious conduct failings can only be addressed through informal means or a weak censure motion. This does not help citizens to trust that councillors are working according to the principles we should expect from officeholders, particularly in circumstances where there is widespread perception that conduct in politics is at a low ebb.
Our report into the work of the monitoring officer will illuminate the importance of the role of ensuring quality governance as one of the top three council officers (the ‘top table’ or ‘golden triangle’) together with the head of paid service and the section 151 officer, who are ultimately responsible for council services that all local people rely on.
The lessons in this report are not only relevant to England. Every system of local government will have accountability mechanisms for ensuring legal compliance and standards of governance, whether that is in the form of a responsible officer, a standards board, or any other way in which citizens can be assured that they can trust the system to follow relevant laws and work according to their needs. This research will draw attention to the crucial place of governance standards and the risks that can arise if they are undermined.
Find out more about the research coming out of LGIU’s Local Democracy Research Centre