Doreen Forrester-Brown sets out the skills required for the monitoring officer role and explains why it is a good career choice for lawyers.
The monitoring officer has the specific duty to ensure that the council, its officers and its elected members maintain the highest standard of conduct in all they do.
The legal basis for the post is found in section 5 of the Local Government & Housing Act 1989, as amended by schedule 5, paragraph 24 of the Local Government Act 2000.
The monitoring officer has three main roles:
- to report on matters he or she believes are, or are likely to be, illegal or amount to maladministration;
- to be responsible for matters relating to the conduct of councillors and officers; and
- to be responsible for the operation of the council’s constitution.
The legal explanation of the monitoring officer’s role is relatively clear. However, it is much more difficult to explain what undertaking the role is really like and to identify the skills a lawyer needs to become a monitoring officer.
With the recent trend across local government to downgrade the monitoring officer from the top table and new regulations proposed by Communities Secretary Eric Pickles to remove the designated independent person from the process of dismissing statutory officers, I am sure that some lawyers within council legal departments will be asking themselves why they should put their head above the parapet and seek to become a monitoring officer in what is an uncertain and changing climate.
The demise of the standards regime under the Localism Act 2011 has only served to make our job even more difficult. Add to the mix reduced resources, increased demands for legal support, complex partnering and shared services arrangements – all combining to put more pressure on the role.
I became the monitoring officer at Southwark in July 2012, following the move of my predecessor, Deborah Collins, to become the Strategic Director of Environment and Leisure.
My promotion to the role was part of an initiative across the council to reduce the number of chief officers and deliver £1m worth of savings from the senior management structure over a two-year period. Prior to being appointed, I had been the deputy monitoring officer and head of legal services for four years at Southwark.
With the move to reduce senior management costs, it is becoming increasingly common for the monitoring officer role to be combined with that of head of legal services. Unfortunately, the roles do require very different skill sets.
What are the skills required to be a monitoring officer?
Build a good team of people around you
Remember, it is impossible for you to know everything that is going on and you must be able to rely on your team to be your eyes and ears within the organisation.
Make sure you communicate clearly to your team that you need their support to carry out your role effectively and ensure that they are given the appropriate training. You must always be approachable, staff must feel able to tell you the good news stories and inform you quickly when things go wrong.
Appoint a good deputy
You are required to do this under the legislation, but it is also extremely important that you have a deputy to support you in your monitoring officer function. You can then delegate to a competent deputy, leaving you more time to focus your energies on the important strategic legal issues and dealing with the politicians. This is good succession planning as well.
Transitioning into the role is important; give yourself time to do this. The discharge of the monitoring officer function is a very personal role and it is important that you make the role your own.
At the outset, it is important to establish that you will have your way of discharging the function and that you are likely to be very different from the previous monitoring officer. Take a bit of time to assess and understand the type of monitoring officer your council wants. Organisations change and what is wanted from you as the monitoring officer will also change.
It is important to build relationships with chief officers, members and politicians. In my first few weeks in the job, I spent time visiting chief officers to introduce myself in the new role and to seek their support. I also met with the three group whips and the Leader.
Maintaining these relationships is key. I therefore recommend having regular quarterly meetings with the whips, the Leader and the chief executive. Sometimes these meetings are to talk business, but at other times it is just to be able to touch base, talk about issues that are currently going on within the council and develop the relationships.
An essential skill of the monitoring officer, which I think probably comes naturally to us as lawyers, is the ability to be seen to be fair and impartial at all times and to ensure that the appropriate processes are followed. It is important that you are able to maintain and uphold the position of fairness and transparency even when, at times, this can make you unpopular with chief officers and sometimes politicians.
Know when to wear your monitoring officer hat and be clear why you are wearing it. However, don’t wear it all the time as this will only serve to make you unpopular.
Be prepared to work with others to encourage them to build their own relationships as well. At times, you will feel as though you are less of a lawyer and more of a mediator or skilled counsellor.
Don’t underplay this role, however, because as the monitoring officer, your role is to ensure that the council and its members maintain the highest standard of conduct. Your intervention on an informal basis can have a significant impact on the cultures and behaviours of the organisation.
Trust and confidence
You must be trustworthy and able to keep matters confidential. You will be surprised what people are prepared to share with you in confidence.
You must have the skill to be incredibly politically aware and to understand the particular politics of your organisation. The ability to think politically is a key skill.
Awareness of your dual role
As a council’s monitoring officer, you are also probably a very senior manager within the organisation. Remember to see yourself as a senior manager and the contribution that you can make in the dual role of a senior manager and monitoring officer. This can make a difference to your council, both in terms of governance and law, but also in terms of contributing to the strategic delivery of its corporate objectives.
This is the part of the role that I find most challenging and exciting because I can often become involved in projects that are not strictly law related, but where my knowledge and experience as a senior manager is highly valued.
Why become a monitoring officer?
I think lawyers within local government should still strive to become a monitoring officer. I accept that the role can be difficult, challenging and lonely. In an ever-changing climate it can also, some would argue, be seen as a career-limiting choice. I have often heard the joke that the monitoring officer has a very short shelf life.
Being a lawyer in local government is complex and demanding. However, on the positive side, the job is interesting, challenging and rewarding.
As lawyers, one of the fundamental reasons we came into law and the public sector was to ensure fairness and transparency, and that organisations which undertake public functions are subject to the highest possible standards of conduct.
As the monitoring officer you have a crucial role in ensuring that these standards are upheld. In addition, the position provides great variety and scope for your future career development. As we have seen in Southwark, our previous monitoring officer is now running a major frontline service.
The downgrading of the monitoring officer role is unfortunate, but we should not walk away in despair. Those of us who have been in local government for a while know that it will only be a matter of time before the monitoring officer is back on the top table.
So remain positive. The skills of a monitoring officer, together with your skills as a senior manager, will present new opportunities to diversify your career beyond the law and explore new areas.
Doreen Forrester-Brown is Director of Legal Services and Monitoring Officer at the London Borough of Southwark