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Death by Spreadsheet - Local Government Brain Drain

Outsource iStock 000007727531XSmall 146x219Nicholas Dobson examines the risks to local authorities pursuing costs savings by dispensing with senior legal talent.

In the 1950s and early 60s the Royal Society apparently coined the term ‘brain drain’ to describe the migration of scientific and technological talent to the USA and Canada. However, the term is now used more generally to refer to the loss of those highly trained or qualified e.g. to more beneficial geographic, economic or professional milieux.

But in local government, brains are ebbing down the drain because of financial downsizing. For the unfortunate fact is that those with the most knowledge, experience and insight into their local authorities are often the most expensive. And those are the ones that glow in bright ink for the lethal cutting pen.

Price of Everything

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But although Oscar Wilde (through a character in his 1892 play, Lady Windermere’s Fan) sardonically defined a cynic as someone "who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing", many local authorities feel they’ve no option but to shed what they consider as expensive ‘back room’ people to save important (and electorally significant) front line services. However, if considered narrowly, this overlooks the vital role played by local government lawyers at all levels in oiling and fuelling the front line service machine.

In addition, the most senior lawyers (and therefore those most vulnerable to the financial guillotine) are core components in the constitutional local government engine. For senior lawyers functioning effectively often do so with quiet efficiency and limited visibility. And it’s only when they’re excised from the establishment spreadsheet that senior members and officers start to notice the abyss where a vital source of knowledge, wisdom, experience and insight used to be. As Canadian singer/songwriter Joni Mitchell once sang: "Don't it always seem to go/ That you don't know what you've got/ Till it's gone".

More than legal technicians

One of the problems is that whilst top local government legal players were once seen as an integral part of the local authority constitutional framework, council lawyers at all levels are often now seen as mere commodity suppliers of legal widgets. So, the thinking apparently goes, to save money get rid of the more expensive models and the cheaper ones will still get you from A to B – even if it is a bumpier ride.

That of course is fine if the journey is straightforward, for instance a mainstream legal transaction or issue. But decidedly not fine if it happens to trespass beyond the legal into territory needing a sophisticated understanding of the interplay between relevant corporate, political, policy, organisational, staffing, audit, commercial and various other issues. That is where senior instinct and experience kicks in to guide the authority safely through rough terrain, bandit country and war zones.

Inside the head of the senior legal player

Clearly, though, local authorities have their work deeply cut out when having to square resolutely round circles in relentlessly repeated financial cuts. So it’s entirely understandable that they’ll seek to cut what might seem the luxury end of the legal officer corps

But before they take the red pen scalpel to another senior lawyer, financial surgeons may wish to reflect on what their local body politic is losing.

For in the heads of most senior local authority legal eagles lies an abundant store of corporate and strategic capacity including:

  • Sophisticated knowledge, instinct and experience of local government law and governance plus the law and practice affecting key authority stakeholders;
  • Trusted corporate legal advisor and honest broker for the benefit of the authority, its senior members, officers and stakeholders;
  • Assurance that all decisions are made properly and lawfully and that key administrative processes are efficient and effective;
  • Vital organisational memory and history;
  • A handle on the full authority jigsaw picture and its often complex evolution;
  • Sensitive political awareness, antennae and management ability;
  • Articulate ambassador for the authority;
  • A leading player in important commercial negotiations;
  • Someone who where necessary will speak truth unto power and hold the line for sound corporate governance in the public interest;
  • Heavy duty firepower to protect the authority’s interests, for example, when groundlessly, unfairly or improperly challenged;
  • Assurance that the authority is complying with its wide range of legal obligations and wired up dashboard warning lights to light up when it falls short;
  • Keeper of the corporate conscience;
  • Facilitator of sound but creative solutions so the authority can continue to make necessary things happen for its communities in tough financial times;
  • Entrepreneurial governance champion.

So beneath the apparently costly line on the spreadsheet lies a spectrum of benefits which can easily be missed in the understandable eagerness to find book-balancing cuts.

However, some pause for thought might be wise before causing future Death by Spreadsheet. For as the poet might have said:

Once the brain is down the drain

It won’t be there when you need it again.

And though some savings may obtain,

Public loss can become private gain.

Dr Nicholas Dobson is a Consultant with Freeth Cartwright LLP specialising in local and public law. He is also Communications Officer for Lawyers in Local Government.

© Nicholas Dobson


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