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The debate at Millmead a week ago on the future of the Guildford Philharmonic Orchestra was revealing. Not only did we find out about the poor way that the issue had been dealt with – delayed decisions, leaked reports, rumour mongering, misinformation – whilst staff members sweated on the future of their jobs, we also saw the curtain being lifted a fraction to reveal, perhaps, why there is some disquiet over the management culture that exists in the Council Offices.
A crucial moment was the interruption by Chief Executive David Hill of Cllr Caroline Reeves. He did it, he said, because he was concerned that she was commenting on ‘staffing matters’. All she actually said was that that that the ‘Sword of Damocles’ hung over the jobs of the two council officers who administer the orchestra whilst the council continues to prevaricate. This is something that is patently true and obvious, not confidential.
But it was not what was said that was so crucial as the fact that an unelected officer, albeit the most senior one at Millmead, interrupted an elected councillor in a public meeting. Many present thought it rude but that is not the main issue. No one has voted for Mr Hill, he is not even a Guildford Council Tax Payer. He might be the most senior Council Officer but he is still a servant of the councillors.
The chairman of the Scrutiny Committee, Cllr Tony Phillips, was the one whose duty it was to keep order and he seemed to have no problem with what Cllr Reeves was saying. After all, it was not as if she was revealing a council officer’s sickness or attendance record or a list of employee bank account details. She was pointing out that two officers, people we all as Council Tax payers indirectly employ, are being badly affected by the way the issue has been managed.
Can you imagine the equivalent behaviour at a national level, a member of a Parliamentary Select Committee being interrupted by a civil servant? I don’t think so.
There is no doubt that the decision on the future of the GPO is a difficult one. There is no doubt that administering the GBC is a challenge. But secrecy and obfuscation only make things more difficult in the end and risk the organisation’s reputation which is deservedly good in many areas.
There are, of course, times when some confidentiality is required, for instance where commercial negotiations are underway or where internal security investigations are being carried out. But confidentiality should not be used as an excuse to cover up things that may be simply embarrassing or reveal poor management. When it is used in this fashion the cover up often becomes more important than the original occurrence because it reveals a mind set and a lack of respect for the public oversight of our local democracy.
Guildford Borough Council states repeatedly that one if its core values is ‘openness and transparency’. Some of the behaviour lately, including the council’s refusal to come clean about the circumstances leading to Strategic Director Jim Miles’ suspension, indicates that not everyone at Millmead really understands what this means.