The alchemy of governance – understanding the golden triangle

Posted on 28/03/2024 by Pandora Ellis.

By Camilla de Bernhardt Lane and Ed Hammond 

Each local authority has a triumvirate of senior officers occupying statutory roles who together form the backbone of the Council. Alongside them, the local authority scrutiny function serves as a crucial mechanism for ensuring transparency and accountability. In this blog post, we delve into the roles of these key players and the importance of effective scrutiny in fostering good governance.

The Monitoring Officer: Guardian of Legality and Ethics 

At the heart of every local authority sits the Monitoring Officer, often described as the ‘legal conscience ‘of the organization. Tasked to ensure that all decisions and actions undertaken by the authority comply with the law, the Monitoring Officer plays a crucial role in upholding legal and ethical standards. The combination of the role with the Head of Legal Services has become very common. 

Their responsibilities extend beyond mere legal advice; they provide leadership and formal advice on procedural fairness, ensuring that due process is followed in all matters, from council meetings to decision-making processes. Alongside other statutory officers, their role serves as a crucial safeguard against malpractice and impropriety. 

Specifically, the MO is charged with the following: 

  • Responsibility for the local authority’s constitution 
  • Responding to complaints from the local government ombudsman 
  • Updating the other statutory officers on any changes in legal or ethical standards 
  • Informally advise on and investigate allegations of misconduct 
  • Prepare training programmes on ethical standards and code of conduct 
  • Advise on cases of political restriction exemptions 
  • Being the principal adviser to he standards committee 

 (What is a monitoring officer and what do they do? Here are the answers – LGiU

Councillors are likely to have regular and close working relationships with their Monitoring Officer which will include seeking their advice and guidance on constitutional matters.  

The Chief Finance Officer (S151 Officer): Curator of Financial Stability 

Charged with overseeing the financial affairs of the local authority, the CFO’s responsibilities encompass the mechanics of proper financial controls including budget management, financial planning, and risk assessment.  In the era of financial challenge for the public sector the S151 Officer role has become more visible to Councilors.  

In an era of austerity and fiscal constraints, the CFO plays a pivotal role in the quest to deliver sustainable public services while maintaining fiscal prudence. Their ability to navigate complex financial challenges and optimize resource allocation is vital for safeguarding the financial stability of the authority and delivering best value. This individual will ultimately be the go-to person for Councillors wishing to ensure financial probity. However, this is best done through the structure of scrutiny and governance mechanisms, for example existing scrutiny committees.   

The Chief Executive (Head of paid service): Steward of Strategic Vision 

Sitting at the apex of the organisational hierarchy, the Chief Executive is the linchpin that binds together the operational and strategic dimensions of the local authority. With leadership acumen and strategic foresight, it is their role, to work with other chief officers, and with members, to put in place the operational arrangements to deliver the administration’s priorities. These priorities are of course set by the political leadership of the authority.  

Their role in upholding strategic direction and organisational leadership is instrumental in steering the authority towards its goals and aspirations as well as setting the culture of the authority. They will also have a key role in supporting, valuing and recognising the value and contribution of elected councillors.  


The occupants of these core roles must work closely together to ensure that the authority operates effectively day-to-day – in particular, ensuring that work happens in a way that sits within the overall governance framework. The golden triangle should model behaviours consistent with good governance, but they cannot (nor should they) look over the shoulder of every officer taking every operational decision. 

Expecting that the golden triangle will “hold” governance asks a lot of these three people – and risks others abrogating their own responsibilities. The golden triangle should be setting the tone, expectations, and the conditions in which the authority can succeed.  However, the officers should only be actively involved in the most important, business-critical decisions. In an effective local authority, more junior officers understand their role in the governance framework and are empowered to operate effectively and autonomously within that framework. “Governance”, as a concept, sits in the background – it is a concept knitted into the fabric of how day to day work is undertaken.  

In ineffective authorities, “governance” paradoxically, can be much more visible. The golden triangle, in these councils, find themselves delving into all sorts of operational details, very regularly – they don’t have much time for anything else. In these circumstances, the Monitoring Officer especially finds themselves drowning under a weight of work, playing catch-up as they deal with problems that have emerged both because people have proceeded with some administrative action or another without due regard to good governance, and/or because the people involved haven’t thought to seek legal advice before doing so.  

Because the personal and professional working relationship between the officers who form the golden triangle is so important, when this relationship is shaky it can have a disproportionately significant effect on the running of the authority. All it can take for this to happen is for a long-standing statutory officer to leave, upsetting personal dynamics and accepted ways of working. 

These are reasons why we have to focus on the golden triangle’s role in strategic leadership in this space – and why we shouldn’t expect them to be the ultimate guardians of probity and good governance. It’s a lot to put on the shoulders of just three people.   

The magic that these key roles bring stands or falls on the relationships between each of them and the lines of communication and working between them individually and collectively. Modelling leadership, developing trust and good working with locally accountable politicians is really where we see the mettle of these individuals.