Good governance in fire and rescue: the ‘professional partnership’ between elected members and senior officers

Posted on 11/05/2022 by Andy Fry.

As a former Chief Fire Officer, I was delighted when an invitation arrived from the LGA for me to deliver a series of workshops on good governance at its recent annual Fire Conference in Gateshead.

The theme for the conference was: Delivering transformation in the fire and rescue sector.  Now, as the Chief Executive of the Centre for Governance and Scrutiny, you’d expect me to say this, but I really do believe that good governance is essential to successfully delivering any organisational change, let alone transformational change.  It’s also a hot topic in fire and rescue at present, as the sector eagerly awaits (and has been for ages!) a White Paper on reform that’s certain to include proposals for changes to fire authority governance structures. 

Of course, structures and other constitutional arrangements are an important aspect of the good governance ‘jigsaw’, but there are three other ‘pieces’ that also require consideration:

·        Members and officers understanding their respective governance roles

·        A commitment to developing the skill sets necessary to exercise their different, but complementary, roles effectively

·        A focus on ensuring that their political and professional practice is consistent with the Nolan Principles at all times

And finally, as well as making sure all four pieces of the jigsaw described above feature, it’s crucial that they are pieced-together and operated in a ‘professional partnership’ between fire authority members and their senior officer colleagues.  The workshops at the LGA conference centred on this relationship and provided delegates with an opportunity to explore the ingredients required to build and maintain a professional partnership that supports good governance in the interests of achieving great outcomes for communities.

The starting point for the discussion was my assertion that the partnership should be characterised by openness, honesty, mutual respect, and high levels of trust.  But that it is a partnership, not a friendship, and must also, therefore, include room for constructive challenge in both directions.  The delegates expressed strong support for this characterisation, and we then moved on to examine how such partnerships can work in practice.

In the free-flowing debate that followed, member and officer delegates shared valuable examples of how they work well together.  They also posed questions about some of the ‘real world’ challenges involved in establishing and holding a professional partnership together – particularly during turbulent and tough times.

In such a short piece, it’s difficult to do justice to the rich material that emerged from the workshop discussions.  That said, a strong consensus emerged around two particular issues. The first was the importance of members and officers collaborating when developing strategic policy.  Not simply coming together at formal decision-making meetings but proactively creating opportunities to bring political aspirations together with professional expertise in informal environments and co-creating agendas for change and improvement. 

The second focused on the performance oversight role of members in holding officers to account.  This can be a particularly tricky aspect of governance but, when done well, drives performance improvement.  The secret, it seems, is members and officers recognising real value in the process and engaging constructively in it.

So, in summary, whilst fire authority members and officers have distinctly different roles, there is much to be gained from examining where overlaps exist and operating as professional partners in those shared spaces.  Doing so improves governance and, as an extension of that, delivers better fire and rescue services to the public.