Political restriction: DsPH welcome but want some support

We’ve seen a fair amount of debate over the past eighteen months about political restriction of Directors of Public Health and senior teams.  There was a twitter conversation on this between a number of Directors of Public Health in the last fortnight.

I’ve kept a reasonably close eye on this, and as someone who has been employed by Local Government in politically restricted posts for more than six years, I’ve often been asked to speak about what it means, what it does and the implications of it for you as a person.

My view, for what it’s worth, is that political restriction is a really important and very welcome tool, because it helps you maintain the impartiality you need to retain the confidence of elected members and also not be seen to be pushing any party political agenda.  But I was helped in my first politically restricted post by having senior officers who helped me understand this as part and parcel of the culture of working in local government. But so much for my views. I’ve also been helped in my last and current role by having wise and supportive officer and member colleagues.  

But what do others think, and what strategies have DsPH developed to help them?

Perceptions in the public health world two years to eighteen months ago

What I am about to say can hardly be regarded as a systematic sample – it’s more a convenience sample of views I have had from correspondents and people at events. Between 2010 and 2011 I did a lot of speaking, workshops and discussions on what it means being a DPH employed by a local authority. People I spoke to, or who spoke to me (and I include in this over 100 registrars, trainees, consultants and DsPH) were understandably very mixed in their views. Some were fearful of what this provision which exists in local government but not the NHS meant for them. Others felt this was a deprivation of their ability to speak out and be an independent voice for public health. Some were working out what the boundaries were and wondering who would help them. So the profession in some ways was getting its head round part of what it means to be in the new home called Local Government.

What do DsPH think in 2013?

In the last week or so I rang round or emailed ten DsPH, which I know is hardly more than anecdotal , choosing some new to local government and a few who’d been joint appointments for some time. I asked them for their take. It seems to me from discussions and debate that perceptions in the public health world are changing fairly rapidly; at least the ones I spoke to.  Most DsPH saw benefits in political restriction. A couple were slightly wary.  There are several people in the public health world who have chosen not to join local government or PHE because of political restriction and the fact they are all politically active. This has been a wrench for them, and we have to remember the advent of this was not of their making. So this process has not been without pain for some colleagues.

But while there are still some who have undountedly counted this as a factor in staying within the NHS or moving into posts other than PHE/LAs,  the majority of people I have been in contact with now suggest that political restriction has a range of benefits.

The benefits are articulated as:

  • Helps you remain impartial and give impartial advice
  • Understanding this gives you a key to understanding thewhole architecture of officer-member culture in local government
  • Makes you available to all members though obviously you have to served the elected portfolio holder well and professionally
  • Affords you protection when some members may wish you to set aside impartiality
  • Protects the confidence of members and the public that your advice and decisions are based on best available evidence, and you can bolster this by relying explicitly on evidence when you speak
  • Keeps the distinction between officer and member
  • Gives you air cover when things get party political

There are others too, doutbless, but these are the benefits which have been most often articulated to me. A key point articulated by a few is that, if you really like local government, you’ll be fine. Personally, I find this heartening.

Preparation for the role and culture : some challenges and some tips for development

The one thing everyone agreed on was that until you’ve worked in local government, you can’t fully appreciate the culture and ways of working, including on issues like this; and however good some of the preparation for transition was, most felt the preparation for this aspect could have been better.

Many DsPH are finding that not just they but their deputies, consultants in public health in some cases and others are considered to be politically restricted. Equally they have found their authorities largely very supportive in helping them

The most obvious challenge is that the guidance is not the most stunning read you’ll ever come across, but mostly that this whole area sits in the “soft” skills and competencies which, however good the NHS was, are very different from local government.  Having a good mentor, building good relationships with your authority’s lawyers and learning from your Chief Executive were felt to be key strategies here.

Another issue is when a particular party asks you to address their party group. The culture around this varies by local authority – some forbid it, others encourage it, others are fine provided all parties get the same treatment. One or two DsPH found that even neighbouring authorities did things differently. The best advice here was to take advice from your CEO. If in doubt, ask.

But the biggest challenge is speaking publicly with confidence and voice,and what you can and can’t say. Eventually, you get a feel for this, but several DsPH in the early days were clearing lines of what to say on an issue like fluoridation or sexual health through Portfolio holders and through chief execs.

A few common strategies DsPH seem to be using:

These are a number of strategies DsPH are using:

  • Start from the ethos of public service: the public expect me to be impartial, serve the people they elected and do a good job. Political restriction helps, seen in this light because you are an officer, not an elected politician
  • Learn from the Chief Executive about reading the style and the signs of your local authority
  • Member induction training and seminars on public health challenges are important and valuable to officers (direction from members) and members (understanding what issues they need to factor into their decision making)
  • Find a good local government mentor who is/has been a Chief Exec or Chief Officer in an authority with a similar style to yours
  • Build good relationships with portfolio holders and negotiate the boundaries they expect
  • Observe other chief officers and their relationships and styles, and learn
  • Know your evidence, know your field, and speak from that in giving your best advice.
  • Reading and checking out the LGA and LGiU  (if your authority is a member) and NLGN websites and publications
  • Organise a learning set on local authority culture within the senior public health team and invite the CEO and other key officers along
  • One or two have thought about or joined SOLACE, which as a Chief Officer a DPH is eligible to join (as are their direct reports) or even ALACE, a specifically local government senior officers’ trade union, while others are not sure what the benefits of these organisations are. And to clarify, you can belong legally to more than one trade union, so you could have Managers in Partnership (MiP) or BMA  or RCN etc membership alongside ALACE or others.  For more information try here.

Although they have stopped writing it, and I really wouldn’t rely on their advice or views about political restriction, the We Love Local Government blog has been helpful to some.

There is no hard and fast set of rules about making political restriction work for you other than the law on political restriction. But there are those clear tips and tools above.

Some learning needs still to meet?

It’s easy to get focused on how we make the Health and Wellbeing Boards work, but we need to remember that many of us as DsPH don’t have the experience of working within the local government context that Directors of Adult Social Services or Directors of Childrens’ Services do. That’s no criticism. But it does mean that we may have some development need arising from this, especially when the ADPH view of an issue may diverge from what ADASS or ADCS perceive to be the issues.

There is also a feeling that the BMA and Managers in Partnership, the two bigger trade unions for DsPH, have perhaps been less visible in support of DsPH on some of these issues than they could have been

While many of us are busy getting our heads round Schemes of delegations, our place in the Council’s constitution and a whole range of other issues, some learning needs emerge which have not yet been met for many DsPH focus around the soft and cultural/situational skills needed. Perhaps ADPH, LGA or other bodies could help us work on these:

  1. The cultural and soft competencies of being a local authority Chief Officer
  2. Like learning a language, we need to understand the idioms of how local government works
  3. Building strong relationships with elected members

From the transactional to the transformational?

While many of us are trying to negotiate contracts and commission, and get people settled in to delivering, understanding political restriction and impartiality is a first step in helping us move from the transactional to the transformational agenda for local government public health.  The steps (easier said than done but we have to do them) seem to me from speaking to DsPH, CEOs and other Chief Officers to be:

  • Understand the constitution and scheme of delegations and delegated authority
  • Understand the council’s approach to transformation and the local government financial agenda
  • Understand how this translates to your commissioning responsibilities as a DPH
  • Understand what public health skills can contribute to the transformation agenda (evidence, effectiveness, investment etc)
  • Develop an agenda to get the public team through this cycle

Two articulated desires for learning

There is a fair amount of interest among DsPH I have been in contact with on a learning set on the soft and cultural competencies.  Moreover, the need for development or a learning set on moving from the transactional to the transformational has also been expressed. A mix of organisational development, local government nouse and public health expertise represented in the members and the facilitators of such a learning set could take us a long way. Anyone up for it?

Postcript: How did political restriction come about and what does it mean?

A. Political Restriction in Local Government

The Local Government and Housing Act 1989 introduced the concept of “politically restricted posts” in Local Government.” These reforms were made in response to the Widdecombe report which had identified issues of concern involving local authority officers and the apparent lack of political impartiality, which lead to separate loyalties and prejudicial service[1].”  Essentially, the law regulates some political activities of local authority employees. This includes restrictions on becoming an elected councillor[2]. Directors of Public Health as statutory chief officers are included in such provisions[3]. Those reporting directly to them and those who have posts dealing closely and frequently with elected members will almost certainly be included.

 The definition turns on either the seniority or nature of the post. It used to turn upon salary scale partly but this has changed[4]. These posts are a mixture between what they are (senior position within the authority) and what they do (advising members/speaking with the media). The definition of such a post includes: 

  1. Head of Paid Service, Chief Officers and Monitoring Officer
  2.  Deputy Chief Officers (reporting as respects all or most duties directly to a Chief Officer but excluding secretarial or clerical posts)
  3. Political assistants
  4. giving advice on a regular basis to the authority, its committees, jointcommittees or Cabinet members or
  5. speaking on behalf of the authority on a regular basis to journalists and broadcasters. The standards committee of the employing authority can consider applications for exemption from political restriction for the posts in these circumstances.

 Politically restricted postholders may not stand as a candidate for the House of Commons, the European Parliament, the Scottish Parliament, the National Assembly for Wales or a local authority, or act as an agent or sub-agent for a candidate for any of those bodies. They may not canvass on behalf of a political party or a candidate for election to any of those bodies. They may not be an officer of a political party or any branch of it (or a member of any committee or sub-committee of such) if their duties would be likely to require participation in the general management of the party/branch or to act on its behalf in dealings with persons other than members of the party.

 Politically restricted postholders may not (except where this is necessary as part of their official duties):

  1. speak publicly with the apparent intention of affecting public support for a political party; or
  2. publish any written or artistic work which appears to be intended to affect public support for a political party (or cause anyone else to do so). (Assistants to political groups have slightly different restrictions)

The salient point here is to ensure that one sees these rules as preserving the independence of the Officer role, rather than an imposition on one’s own right to speak. In practice the restrictions are minimal, and the rules can actively protect officers who might otherwise feel pressured in some circumstances into overtly political behaviour. The key issue here, as with pre-election restrictions, is to understand and work effectively within the culture and legislation.

B. Political Impartiality and Public Health England

Added to this was the announcement in several pieces of developing public health policy that staff in Public Health England would be required, in line with the Civil Service Code , to be politically impartial.  You can read an interesting and helpful take on this here. http://www.civilservant.org.uk/c21.pdf 

But civil service impartiality, at the end of the day, and political restrictions in local government, are not the same. There are nuanced differences and in many senses Chief Officers in local government have much wider discretion to shape and inform policy as officers and working with members, and make commissioning decisions on that policy, than most civil servants other than the very senior ones do.

With that goes greater responsibiity on us as officers to serve our members well. And different local authorities have different styles of working which doesn’t work in the same sense as the civil service-ministerial relationship. For some local authorities the subtle, softer side of members needing to have confidence in your impartiality will be the most important.  And each local authority varies in how, when and where members and officers are engaged in the policy process. These style issues are important. Public Health England and DsPH will need to understand that the reality of being a DPH varies sometimes dramatically in cultural and style terms from one local authority to another.


[1] Local Government Employers (2012) Political restrictions on local government employees. http://www.lge.gov.uk/lge/core/page.do?pageId=119739 .

[2] You cannot be elected to a council you are employed by. The law disqualifies anyone holding any paid employment with the Council itself from becoming or remaining an elected member of it. These direct links with a person’s own authority create an automatic disqualification whatever the level or nature of the post held. (Employment appointments by a joint committee involving the Council can also be caught – seek advice). Teachers at all schools maintained by the Council are treated as employees of the Council for purposes of this disqualification, even if they are not strictly employed by the Council.

[3] The author holds a politically restricted post. The challenge is to a) see these as liberating and work within the rules. It does not prevent him from writing or publishing or speaking, and there are rules and frameworks within which to operate.A user-friendly guide to the provisions can be found here http://www.parliament.uk/briefingpapers/commons/lib/research/briefings/snpc-03883.pdf

[4] The Local Democracy, Economic Development and Construction Act 2009 S.30 amended the Local Government and Housing Act 1989. It removed the duty to maintain a list of posts earning above the previously determined salary to become politically restricted. Local Authorities need to consider whether those posts previously politically restricted because of salary or grade should be genuinely restricted. Some authorities may continue this but others will consider the nature of the role employees actually perform.In any case DsPH are likely to be caught by the regulations.