‘Firm and concerted action’ needed to improve [local] governance

The pandemic has presented a unique challenge for governance in local authorities. Geoff Wild examines how leadership, employees, politics and finances should come together in good governance.

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Governance is about the way in which we work together to make good decisions. Good governance is necessary for us to know that we are providing the services and support that people need and expect. Good governance is also necessary to ensure that the insights and perspectives of a range of people are used to inform decision-making, and to ensure that decisions are made transparently, consistently and on the basis of evidence, by people with the legitimacy to make those decisions—whether they are councillors or officers.

For these reasons, good governance is central to local democracy and to the business of local authorities. But with the postponement of the 2020 election and the impact on decision-making of the pandemic, it is even more crucial to take firm and concerted action to improve governance.

Dynamic

The fluid nature of the pandemic and the response that it demands means a more dynamic approach than usual is required.

For councils to be effective in providing the services and support that local people expect in these challenging times, good governance is essential. Without strong and effective decision-making in place, a council’s actions will be muddled and fragmented. It will not reflect the vision that councillors have for the future of the area, and raises the likelihood that the authority will be poor at managing the external and internal risks which it is likely to experience—the pandemic being a key example.

There are typically four core issues that serve to weaken a council’s overall governance position:

Leadership: The failure to assert a clear set of priorities and objectives for the council make political accountability difficult to discern.

Workforce: Uncertainty about roles and responsibilities of members and officers.

Politics: Significant political tension coupled with a lack of political nous from some senior officers; a failure on the part of some senior members to come to terms with changing political winds and the comparative inexperience of new councillors who become increasingly frustrated because they are unable to navigate a council’s systems.

Finances: Uncertainty around a council’s medium-term budget position and real member oversight of the budget development process, with members of all groups being involved in tough conversations about prioritisation, focus and organisational direction. This is exacerbated by the financial impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

So, good governance requires that:

  • Individual responsibility is clear. Councillors and officers must understand where their respective duties and accountabilities lie. Importantly, ownership of action on risk is a key part of this.
  • Collective responsibility is clear. Within a functioning governance system there has to be a collective responsibility for good governance, held by everybody.

The constitution (including the scheme of delegation) may set out the legal foundation within which such roles and responsibilities should be exercised, but behaviours do not always reflect this.

Structures

No one person is responsible for overall stewardship of the governance system. A tendency to focus on the structures and systems of governance, rather than its core objectives, can lead to a lack of interest from members of the leadership.

Councils with good governance have clear objectives and a sense of how governance connects to their objectives. Governance isn’t seen as a distraction to delivery. Because of this, governance is thought about and reflected upon in the planning of major activity, meaning that time is not wasted unproductively in post-hoc discussions and disagreements when things don’t go as expected.

Good governance is framed by the making of decisions based on evidence, and on the use of information to drive accountability and responsibility. Well-governed authorities understand how important the flow of accurate information is to their effective functioning. The principle of equality of access to information underpins the way that such councils approach this matter.

It is therefore important that all councillors (administration, opposition, scrutiny) have between them open access to information and a range of ways to informally and formally influence decision-making in a variety of meetings and forums. The governance framework should provide the context within which these can be facilitated and sustained.

But alongside this comes the expectation that information will be used productively and in the service of constructive debate on the authority and its business. Protocols need to incorporate behavioural expectations around the confidentiality of certain information, its access and use. The important thing is that they collectively form a consistent and transparent framework, which does not privilege any one group—a necessary component of governance in any council.

Councils can use the Annual Governance Statement (AGS) as a way to manage and champion good governance and improvement. The aim should for the AGS to provide a road map for governance improvement. This should be accompanied by clear lines of accountability and mechanisms for member oversight and ownership of key objectives, projects and decisions.

The purpose of the AGS is to provide public assurance on the extent to which the authority’s governance systems and processes conform with local expectations, and with wider sector norms—as well as taking account of emerging risks and pressures which could lead to a need for change. It is only possible for the AGS to provide this assurance if it is informed by a meaningful review. In many councils this need has not been acknowledged, and the AGS has reflected more the need to produce and sign off a decontextualised document rather than presenting the culmination of a reflective review on the council’s governance position.

Behaviour

So, what does good governance in local government look like? Some think of it as only being about structures, systems, and processes. But equally important are the behavioural elements of good governance: The way that personal relationships and trust influence accountability and transparency, and the way that individuals operate within, and interpret, the governance framework. It also involves understanding how political and organisational risk intersect, and how an awareness of risk should be used to define and refine the organisation’s priorities.

Geoff Wild is a local government legal and governance specialist, and currently interim monitoring officer at the Isle of Wight Council.

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