Select Committee on Public Administration Minutes of Evidence



Examination of witnesses (Questions 444 - 459)

WEDNESDAY 29 MARCH 2000

SIR MICHAEL LYONS, COUNCILLOR ANDY HOWELL, DR SUE GOSS and PROFESSOR GERRY STOKER

Mr White

  444.  First of all, I apologise for the absence of Tony Wright who is landing at Heathrow this morning. He hopes to get here, but in his absence I am chairing this evidence session. Can I welcome our witnesses today to the penultimate witness session? We have some of the foremost academics, consultants and practitioners in this subject of innovation before us today. Before I start, are there any comments that you would like to add to the submissions that you make?
  (Sir Michael Lyons) I think we are happy to take questions straight away.

  445.  Perhaps I can start with a couple of general questions and then throw it open to my colleagues. One of the things that comes to light out of Sue Goss's and Birmingham City Council's report is the distinction between participation that is for consumer interests and participation that is for citizenship reasons. Is that a real distinction or should it be a real distinction?
  (Sir Michael Lyons) I think it is a critical distinction. We have consistently argued, not only in this evidence but actually in our on-going dialogue with Government, for the recognition that local government is not just a service providing agency, it is part of the governmental framework and it has certain responsibilities relating to its community as citizens, and I think that that underpins this distinction. The things do come together, but by separating them you can, I think, more clearly see the different approaches that you need to take. I would particularly emphasise the importance of holding open conduits of engagement with your community, which might, from day-to-day, not be used by very many people, but when there is a live issue then those conduits become very important in terms of quick response and the facility for a dialogue which will change policy.
  (Dr Goss) I support that. In my submission you will remember that I said there are three different sorts of roles that the public play. One is as consumers of some services, one is as voter, taxpayers, and I use Mark Moore's term of "authoriser governors". In some respects the public are the people who are authorising the decisions that elected representatives are making. The third role that it seems to me that the public sometimes play is what are called co-producers, in other words, the public are quite often involved in delivering the social results that need to be delivered. If you think about parent/school contracts, if the parent does not organise to get homework done, then the school cannot deliver its part of the bargain and, therefore, they are co-producing that education because of their own involvement. Depending on which role the public are playing, or being invited to play, the process of participation is an entirely different process. If you are treating people as consumers you are basically just asking for baseline opinion about what people might want, you take that information away and you make decisions about what products to supply. If you are treating people as authoriser governors, as citizens, you are saying, "How should we, your Government, balance the different outcomes that might be achieved? How would we get the balance right between achievement in schools and civility on the streets on an issue of social exclusion? How should we balance spending between social care and education?" You are asking them to support government decisions and authorise decisions about the choices that you might make. If you are treating people as co-producers, who have a role to play in the delivery of the social outcomes, then the consultation is, "What should we all do about this? What are you going to do? What are we going to do? What is the contract between us about how we put our efforts together to make this work?" These three processes are entirely different and have different outcomes. If one only treats people as consumers, then the only sort of feed back that you get from the public is, "We want everything and we want it now", which is impossible to deliver. You have invited that by limiting their role to an inappropriate one, because people are never simply consumers, they are always, also, authorisers and potentially co-producers.
  (Councillor Howell) It is important that people recognise the nature of what our business is in local government. Yes, we can learn a lot from consumer groups and our services, but it is almost like the difference between e-governments and e-commerce in a sense. I was at a seminar in Europe last week allowing transfer on service delivery where there was a very different perception from the private sector, in the shape of people like BT who had one clear focus, and ourselves who were seeing the investment in IT, for example, transforming our services to citizens by virtue of investing in back office staff. There was a very definite change of emphasis and I think it was because they have not quite understood the wide scope of our business. Yes, we need to be sharper on the consumer focus, although we have made improvements a lot over recent years. As the parties start to get more and more involved in working as a partnership I think we have to be clear about that. Our citizens' role, particularly in relation to social exclusion and strategies for inclusion, is vital, I think, and that is what gets squeezed if you do not recognise that.
  (Professor Stoker) It seems to me that the distinction is an important one and it is important, apparently, because it makes a difference to how the public reacts to opportunity for participation. I think that there is a lot of evidence to show that people are deeply sceptical when asked by public authorities to participate, they do not necessarily believe that they are going to be listened to. The advantage of the distinction—not necessarily using the language of, "I'm talking to you as a customer now" or "I am talking to you as a citizen", although that is perhaps a better language—is that it clarifies the nature of the exchange that you want to have with them, and if you are talking to them as a consumer it implies a certain style of conversation, but it is more honest as well with people in terms of where we are in that conversation. If you are talking to them as a citizen you are saying, "We are uncertain about where we are going. There is a genuine set of choices here and we want your opinions on those choices, but they may be very difficult choices which may involve you and I sacrificing some of the things that we own here." The advantage of the distinction is that maybe it enables us to be more honest with the public when we approach them, and that does appear to be one of the key lessons from the research. That need for honesty is absolutely vital.

  446.  One of the reasons that people are cynical may be because the results of public participation do not get fed back into the decision making process. How have you gone about addressing that issue?
  (Councillor Howell) We are making progress here, but we are coming from a long way back, I think. We have just, for example, concluded the Best Value pilot on housing maintenance and we have taken back questionnaire results to the tenants who were questioned and also details about what has changed as a result of that. While that might not be very revolutionary in some areas, it has been pretty revolutionary for us. That leads you onto a more significant point about preparation for consultation. You hear a lot of people talking about consultation overload now and I think the public are, quite rightly, cynical about a lot of that. We have begun to be much clearer over the last year that we need to have the capacity to re-profile services almost as a prerequisite to engaging consultation. In our budget process this year we asked our departments to find two and a half per cent efficiency savings, which will be held against development. That meant that when we went and consulted young people and our business community we were able to show them that in a very quick timescale we had re-profiled some services to match one of their expressed desires. The traditional way of doing it would have been that we would have had lots of consultations, questioned our budget and then we would wait another year to re-profile our services. That just is not on, I think, with the heightened awareness that people have of the customer and the assertive citizen.

Mr Oaten

  447.  It is good practice, clearly, if you have had some consultation, you have listened to it and you have acted on it, to then go back and tell folk the good news that you have done it. How often does it happen that there has been consultation and you have listened but you have rejected it and you then go back and explain why you have rejected it? This whole question of building up trust and confidence requires not only the good news, but also explaining why you have rejected some ideas that have come back from consultation. Have you any examples of where you have done that?
  (Sir Michael Lyons) Firstly I would say that it is more than good practice. I think our evidence suggests that if you do not give feedback on the extent to which you have taken account of that consultation, it is as if you have not done it. It does not matter if you have adjusted your plans if you do not provide feedback, as far as everyone is concerned, it was a worthless exercise. Yes, we can point to a further illustration, apart from Councillor Howell's one in housing, of how we have adjusted the budget over recent years, where we have put a lot of energy into consultation and have tried a lot of different experiments to get a feel of views about the pattern of expenditures across the authority. A very strong voice is coming back, as you might have expected from evidence elsewhere in the country, about the importance of cleanliness of the streets and the quality of street lighting, and in successive years we have increased, in a difficult budget, resources in both of those areas and then entered into, through our Local Involvement Local Action arrangements, a much more distributed set of decisions about where that money is spent.

  448.  That is still good news. Has there been a case where you have consulted and listened and thought, "Well, we hear the arguments, but we are rejecting them. Now we are going to tell the community why we are actually going against what they want." It seems to be very important that that part of the deal is kept as well. Have you done that?
  (Councillor Howell) That is fundamentally important. There are very few occasions on a specific consultation, I think, where we would go back and say that there is no way that we can re-profile it. I am always amazed by how often people will have an appreciation of how you have gone through an exercise and weighed up the pros and cons and the fact that you have not been able to, or you have not felt, at the end of the day, that you are able to shift on something. That does not necessarily mean that they have a negative result. It is the nature of the dialogue. Michael mentioned honesty, and that seems to be the key in that. Things like the people's power to exercise what we are doing at the moment shows you the importance of that honesty. At the end of the day, people are understanding more of the complexity of what you are dealing with and understanding that actually you are giving valid points, in a sense. So I think you are fundamentally right.
  (Dr Goss) The point you raise, I think, is crucial, but it is Andy's point about the nature of the dialogue. It seems to me that it is unlikely that you would ever make a serious consultation exercise and come back and say, "We have listened to everything, but we are not doing anything." The chances are that a good dialogue would say, "We cannot do this, because . . .. So how about we do this instead? Would that work?", and then you are inviting the next stage in dialogue. It seems to me that you are always trying to say, "We cannot do this, but we have heard why you want it done and here is our next move." It is that process of inviting response, rather than closing it. We are moving away from the one-off consultation where you hear it and then you go off and act, and onto the process of consultation which is a dialogue in which there is a move and then a counter move, and then a move, and then a counter move, and then eventually tenants or residents say, "Well, we never expected to get everything, but this was the thing that we really wanted", and, "That is not enough, but we could do so and so", and you start to be able to make things work. I think the issue that the Chairman raised about results is crucial. It seems to me, from outside, that consultation that leads to no result is pointless and is a waste of money. One would not want your Committee or anyone else to encourage everyone to spend much more money on consultation unless they are also ready, in their organisations, to respond. That does not mean responding stupidly, it means responding appropriately based on what one has heard and designing consultation to which you can respond, knowing that you have got some room to manoeuvre before you start to consult. It also means readying organisations to be able to respond much more quickly than they often can at the moment, and putting that preparation and time in before the consultation so that the organisation knows that it has space to change. A lot of the ways that things are done now are cobbled together for all sorts of complicated reasons which cannot be unpicked very easily, or there are political reasons why they cannot, or there are governmental reasons why they cannot. The point of giving organisations room to manoeuvre and room to respond to consultation is not nailing everything down so that they have no scope to do things that are locally specific in local circumstances, which makes sense locally, because everything has been designed by processes which are uniform and which does not allow response time.
  (Councillor Howell) There is another important point to add to that which is consultation for politicians can obviously sometimes be a comfort blanket. It is a way of parting the decision, is it not? You shift it a bit further along the line or you hope that eventually they will come to the same view as you. I suspect that it is not just local politicians who have that. I do think, looking at working with my colleagues and some properties of workshops for the LGA, that members in general need to have a much sharper view of what it is that potentially they are doing when they start off on a consultation process. It is never a soft option.

Mr McFall

  449.  You mention here about communication and I think that is an area where communication is important. You also mention about e-mails with people and there is little understanding of the members' and officers' structures and how decisions are made. So, at a particular level, how do you deal with that individual communication? Do you have a time and date when officers have to respond to individuals on that? Secondly, on the issue of housing, there are issues associated with different tenants groups and others, how do you go about your business of consulting them and trying to satisfy them? What initiatives have been taken by the Council in doing that?
  (Sir Michael Lyons) My first answer is, yes we do have standards about the speed with which we expect letters from the public to be dealt with. They are closely monitored, and that is made public each year, department by department.

  450.  Do you have so many days or timescales when it must be dealt with?
  (Sir Michael Lyons) Yes, a substantive reply has to be sent within 14 days. We do not always meet that, but that is our target and over time we are improving on the amount of correspondence that we reply to within the deadline.

  451.  What was the percentage of success last year?
  (Sir Michael Lyons) I can give it to you in writing, I do not have it at my fingertips today. In terms of the question about people not understanding the problems, I think this is a very important issue. One of the problems of local authorities having an effective dialogue with citizens and customers is that they are too preoccupied with their structures and mechanics and present that as a sort of sieve through which people have to try to understand what's going on. I think the best work that we have done puts that to one side and tries to look at the organisation from a customer perspective, they are not, after all, interested in the division of responsibilities or departmental structures. Can I come to the last point? I think some of the most innovative work that we have done has been with local authority tenants. We have a system of tenant liaison boards in which tenants have been engaged not only as consumers but also as decision-makers about the budget which they become responsible for. We can demonstrate quite clearly changes, very important changes, not only in the way that we do business but in the pressures that are placed upon us by tenants. For instance, investment has been made in helping tenants to become effective members of the board and on the basis of that, much more information has been shared about the shape of the housing budget. That in turn revealed a very high proportion of maintenance expenditure going on a series of items of landlord responsibility, which in other settings would have been tenant responsibilities. The interesting thing is that the tenants, collectively, acknowledged that that was not a very sensible way of doing business and actually agreed with the authority that we should revise the tenancy rules to reduce the responsibilities of the landlord so that those monies could be more effectively concentrated on proper landlord responsibilities. That has demonstrated to us that some of the conflicts that we face in terms of how money is spent can actually be negotiated through with tenants and customers.
  (Councillor Howell) I do not want to say much more than that, other than when you look at the big challenges that are facing us, it would be suicide for us not to do that. We are, at the moment, looking at a stock transfer project, because that will potentially lead to a massive investment in property that desperately needs it. That stock transfer does not have to be led by the tenants, but they have to be up there right along with us. It is quite clear that they want it. If we lead that debate as a PR campaign, as I think has happened in one or two areas, then we will lose the ballot or we will end up with piecemeal stock transfer. So it is fundamental, I think, to trust your basic business.

Mr Lepper

  452.  I would like to come back to Councillor Howell and the comfort blanket. I am interested in, as a former councillor, the role of the elected councillor in these various processes of public participation. Sir Michael, you say in your submission in relation to the section on the Democracy Commission, "Councillors have to get used to a non-party political but public forum and adjust to an environment in which more can be achieved by open debate." Can I hear a little bit about—although we might be focusing on one local authority—the way in which members of that authority have responded and taken part in and commented on the initiative that Birmingham, in particular, has been in?
  (Councillor Howell) This is almost just a random stream of conscious thought, but if I can start off by saying that I think we are seeing a real transformation in the nature of the representatives involved at the moment and a lot of that is to do with press value, and a lot of it is to do with members anticipating a change in the Local Government Bill and the potential to have time freed up to engage more in a representative role which is an attractive one to them on the one hand, but an area of great insecurity on the other. One of the reasons for that insecurity is the complexity of the communities in which we are operating. So the time when councillors gained their legitimacy by virtue of coming from the area they represented have long gone, and we have to give them a better variety, a higher quality and a more scientific basis for the information that we are getting. The trick then is to use that local knowledge to make sense of what they are getting from opinion polls, or focus groups, or board committee meetings or whatever. Our own polling is telling us that there are a great number of people in our city who want a say in how things work, but they are not going to be prepared to go to a cold church hall on a February evening. It is a very powerful thing that has come out of our MORI survey that we have done over three or four years. We have started trying to look at what kind of things they think are legitimate. For example, they think referendum is legitimate, and that is something that always worries us, they think focus groups are legitimate and they think opinion polls are legitimate. They are very adamant about being seen to have a say. That is challenging to members, it is a different type of role, and some of them feel a bit at sea with it in the sense that they are, perhaps, not as easily able to have a sharp focus around a particular view because the quality of the consultation that has come in is challenging their own views about the way in which they see services. I think we will get through that, but it is a time of quite turbulent change in relation to how those members see their role.

  453.  I am sure our members all have things to say on the general issues, but I wonder if Councillor Howell feels that there is a challenge to the notion of party political allegiance built in, in the longer term, to some of these developments?
  (Councillor Howell) Yes, there is. One of the things that has come out of our survey and particularly through some focus group work that we have done around our Democracy Commission Agenda, is that it is very clear that party politics is unpopular on the ground. It is not so much politicians that are unpopular, the notion of politicians is understood, but people are very distrustful now of party politics and that is the big challenge for the party political machine, I think. You can see it in other ways, for example if you look at people's views about whether we should have an elected Mayor in Britain. People are interested in the idea because it would seem to lead to quicker decision making and they would then have a direct say and input. I think, also—you can see this thorough the debate that is happening in London—people are beginning to see that role as a balance against a party political establishment. That is the lesson, as I understand it, much more from Europe and the United States where it seems to me that the people that I have met say that the principal role of the elected Mayor is one of consensus building and consensus holding, perhaps, in a way that we do not do. That does not mean to say that I am automatically a fan of the Mayor concept, but the challenge to political parties is something that I do not think political groups have their heads around.

Mr McFall

  454.  Can I ask Professor Stoker a question on this, because I know that he has been very much involved in the issue of a democratic case for participation, and we have the situation now where there are changing constitutional arrangements. For instance, in Scotland we have the MacIntosh Committee looking at the local government issue. In Northern Ireland, where I spent part of my life previously, there is a much more vibrant civic society, largely because of the brilliant progress of the past 20-odd years, but Councillor Howell made the point that people are becoming distrustful of party politics. We saw in Scotland yesterday, on the issue of the referenda where the politicians made a referendum, that we now have the situation where a very rich citizen, namely Mr Brian Suter of Stagecoach, is going to hold his own referendum on the issue of Section 28. How much is changing in politics now? I think that it is an important point for us, particularly taking account of Councillor Howell's dismal remarks.
  (Professor Stoker) I will try to give my one minute answer rather than my three hour lecture on this particular question, you will be glad to hear. I think that the point you have made is an important one and it is an important one for this Committee to consider because in some ways this conversation about public participation needs to be put into the context of a wider understanding of a shift in patterns of politics and a shift in the way that our constitution is working. Broadly, if you want me to capture it, I think it is about trying to find more spaces for the public to be directly involved in the process. We now have a more educated public. We have a public who expects to be able to make more of its own decisions and it is not surprising that that has knock-on implications in terms of the political system. For some parties it means that they are interested in institutions that are more meaningful to them, like the Scottish Parliament, and in other cases I think they are interested in instruments which give them direct access to decision making in the referenda. In other cases I think what it means is that we need to find space for them to take on some of the roles that, perhaps, formerly would have been undertaken by political parties or by formal representatives. At the local level I think the formula has got to be fewer councillors but more representatives. You actually say that the formal representatives become fewer in number and they become more focused in terms of being the integrators for people that try to bring together the different fragments of a town, or a city or a village. That is their job and task, and I think the elected Mayor provides one particular stronghold of doing that. But then you need a whole series of opportunities for people to act as representatives, and people are saying, "Yes, we want to play a part in politics, but we do not want to give up our lives to it. We do not want to become sad people. We have got things to do, but we do want to play a part." That is why I think we have got to change the formula. It is not really surprising that a system that, on the whole, was designed in the 19th century and rolled out in the 20th century is subject to a degree of challenge and change. I think what is really interesting about your question is that it does enable us to raise this conversation about participation and put it into the context of a wider debate about the way our politics has changed.

Mr White

  455.  If you are not going to have the accountability through elections, how are you going to provide that accountability for the people who are doing the representative role?
  (Professor Stoker) I talked about shifting the balance, not removing elections.
  (Dr Goss) I think in general terms Gerry is right and the implications for consultation are quite important and two-fold in the very narrow terms that we have been talking about before. One is the way that information about public views or public choices is used and becomes different as the role of councillors changes. Up until now councillors and managers have tended to use public views as opinions to be used as decision support, you gather together the local opinion and go off and make a decision as an elected representative or as a manager, and that is seen as legitimate because of your position. I think that is changing so that elected politicians, and to an extent managers—particularly in other sectors like police and health where there is not the same direct political accountability at local level—are now using information about people's opinions and ideas as the basis for a dialogue and as the basis for discussion, and they are beginning to continue to engage with other stakeholders in the communities in the making of that decision rather than going off and doing it on their own. That means that their roles are shifting towards facilitator, broker and enabler roles where a councillor might well be in a community helping different sections of that community to sort things out between themselves, rather than taking a decision on their behalf. We have seen examples where the old people and the young people on an estate are at loggerheads, and actually the solution involves helping the young people and the old people to talk to each other, and the councillor is a pivotal player in getting that to work. The second point is that if the sorts of representatives that we have widens beyond elected politicians and towards people elected on to SRB boards or people who are on RDAs, or people who are on all sorts of other agencies, their legitimacy is as important as the legitimacy of elected councillors. How they get their knowledge about what is the right thing to do becomes the same question as how councillors get their knowledge. It is not going to be sufficient for those representatives either to just say, "I represent the people I come from", they also have to have access to a diversity of views and perspectives and to be able to bring that together and come to some balanced conclusions. Their legitimacy becomes just as interesting as the legitimacy of councillors.

  456.  We have had a situation in Milton Keynes where the tenants' representative suggested to the council that they ought to have a 17 per cent rent rise in order to do repairs. When it was put to a referendum of tenants they rejected that and went for the three per cent option. How do the representatives on these new bodies have their accountability back to where they come from?
  (Dr Goss) What I was arguing in my presentation and what I have argued elsewhere is that this question about the legitimacy and accountability of ordinary citizens playing government roles has been under-discussed and it needs to be the focus of public debate. We need a way in civil society of holding each other to account if some of us are going to be getting involved in a whole range of activities. This needs to be looked at in a debate, but it needs to be seen as not simple. In other words, what I think now is that there are many different sources of legitimacy; elected office, knowledge about a situation about oneself and about one's community, another is that a lot of people who live round you have chosen you to represent them, or through a trade union. There are lots of different sorts of legitimacies, professionals have the legitimacy that goes with their professional training, they know things that the rest of us do not know, but those legitimacies do not trump each other, there is not one legitimacy that is better than all the others and that can always just say, "Well, I'm the professional", or, "I'm elected", or,"I'm the tenants' rep, I know best." Those legitimacies actually have to be negotiated through and when good solutions emerge, they emerge because people recognise that what they know is only partial and other people know things that are useful, and between those different legitimacies a solution emerges.

Mr Lepper

  457.  Legally there is legitimacy that resides with the elected council that none of those other individuals and representatives have?
  (Dr Goss) Except central government has another legitimacy.
  (Professor Stoker) And the European Union in relation to social work.

  458.  The focus is on local government.
  (Councillor Howell) The Government posed us a challenge, which I think is right, which is to say what is the real added value that the local democratic process puts into the system. It is not always that clear when you start to focus in that way. For example, if you were looking at healthy participation rates—and John raised the notion about participation in civic life—that would be a good performance indicator for cities or towns, or people engaging in civil activity, as a complement to electoral turn-out. A lot of the things that we are doing at the moment in our electoral system may boost turn-out by three or five points, but I do not think that they are going to transform turn-outs. We may well be doing them because they are right in terms of widening civic debates and civic participation. There are two big things in what Sue was saying, one is allowing local people the space to play in the genuine activity that changes their lives and giving them access to the same kind of information that we have, because that is power, but, of course, that does not mean to say that it makes it easier for the elected politicians to absolve themselves of difficult decisions. I will give you one example of that from my own experience, which I think highlights it very well. I chaired the Birmingham Education Committee and we had a school in part of the city that comes from a community which is virtually 100 per cent Muslim, and there was a massive campaign over three or four years to convert a secondary school to a single sex school for girls. As an Education Committee we were not very keen on the idea, but we would turn up to meetings with 200 to 400 people there and local MPs jumping up and down supporting their communities and then saying to you privately, "We are not sure about this, but we have to be seen to be supporting it", which is very frustrating. After about four years of this on-going debate we decided we had no option but to formally consult proposals to convert the nature of this school. When the DfEE official consultation kicked in and parents of pupils at that school were consulted, and, indeed, when the pupils themselves decided to have their own ballot—and they were from the same community that had come to the public meetings—they resoundly rejected the proposal. One of the big issues there was that there were not very many women at the big public meetings, and that is a stark example. It is fundamentally the case that it is absolutely right to involve people in consultation, but that does not mean to say that that will be the answer that is shared by everybody. Finally, the other thing that I would say is that the best elements of consultation and capacity building, to use an over-used term at the moment, I have been around are planning career exercises or design career exercises where people are actually having a fundamental impact in the design of the service or facility on their patch. That is one of the great pluses that is coming out of the new bill for communities and how the more innovative work is being done.
  (Sir Michael Lyons) Can I pick up two strands from those contributions? The first one is, I do not think that this debate naturally leads to confusion of responsibilities, I think it leads to a clarity of who is responsible and who is to be held accountable. One of the things that it does is to bring into the open more clearly where you have real conflicts. If I cite, for example, an experience in Birmingham. Far too frequently transportation issues are seen as searching for the right technical solution, rather than generating a public debate about which community's interests are going to predominate. Going back, we undertook some very good work in South Birmingham with the local community about the impact that a possible dual carriageway would have on the shopping and residential quality of life there. As a result of it we decided to narrow the road, but what we did not do was engage the whole city in that debate. That road was one of our arterial roads and sitting at the end of the arterial road was a business community trying to get its people into work. So there is an issue about revealing those conflicts and saying there is no technical solution here. We, as a community, need to find a solution. The Council is charged with the legal responsibility for making the decisions and it is not going to flinch from that, but it wants to understand clearly what others say. My second point, just to pick up the issue from Mr Lepper about parties, is that I do not think this necessarily represents the death knell for parties, but what it certainly does is raise an issue about the way that parties operate, particularly in local government. Frankly, one of the problems, historically, is that parties have mixed up party business and council business and so the very issue of how decisions are made is too often seen as not a decision by the council but a decision by the party political group. I think that has been to the detriment of the members of those groups very often. The sort of experimentation in which we have engaged recently including scrutiny of work and policy in particular, has resulted in members saying to me that it is the best quality experience that they have had since they have been on the council. It has freed them from the requirement to defend the status quo, to hide the conflicts and so enter into the job which they came in to do, which was to question and promote the interests of their communities.
  (Councillor Howell) Most councillors, it seems to me, become elected with the desire to represent the views of their communities from within the council, and within about four weeks they end up representing the frustrations of the bureaucracy back to the community. We should not under-estimate just how frustrated councillors feel.

Mr Turner

  459.  A couple of interesting questions have come out of that and I want to just come back to the point you were making about the school. I think the education arguments about single-sex or two-sex schools are fine. What if it had been that you had a group of people who wanted to introduce a grammar school into Birmingham with selection? You, as a party political animal as well as a councillor, would presumably have been quite opposed to that. It goes back to the point that Sue was making earlier about ensuring that the way that you consult is within a parameter which you can deliver. How would you have consulted on an issue like that, where you would never want to deliver that? How would you square that circle; or is it not a circle that cannot be squared?
  (Councillor Howell) It comes back to Michael's point about people being very clear where the buck lies and what the decision is that is going to be taken. There is no point starting out on a consultation process about anything unless you are prepared to be very clear about where accountability is. One of the things about the current raft of change, which is important to me, is that it sharpens accountability so that it is very clear to people who it is who is making the decisions. We have to understand that quite often if we are wanting to make a decision where there is not a political consensus, or even where we might be in a minority, we understand what we are doing and we are prepared to stand up on that. That is the issue on which you are accountable. It gets more complicated now, I think, in relation to some of the things that Gerry said earlier, in the sense that I think traditionally we initiated much of that debate ourselves, and I think increasingly other people are initiating those debates for us. In a city like Birmingham that has the centre of news media network, often it is the media that does that, and the advent of the elected Mayor will no doubt mean that there will be all kinds of people interested in that. So we do not control the debates in quite the way we do, but the way we sponsor them is fundamental. It is the sharpness of accountability that is the key for me and we have to understand that if we are going to take a decision that is unpopular, then we take a decision that is unpopular.
  (Dr Goss) There is often a difference between PR news management and dialogue within boundaries, which must be clear before you start. The consultation on hospital closures, for example, has been in the context of everybody knowing that everyone is going to hate this, but that can either go well or badly nevertheless. The best consultation seems to take place when the things that are fixed are announced as given before you start and you do not pretend that there are options that there are not financially, or you do not pretend that things can happen that cannot happen. If there are reasons why a change has to take place and it is not negotiable, then the honesty of saying, "This and this are non-negotiable", upfront, "but there is room for manoeuvre", has led to some very interesting dialogue. Communities will say, "But we can't have this hospital out-of-town because there is no bus route", and then you can begin to say, "Should there be a bus route? Where should the bus route go? Where should it come from? How will we get the transport to work", to lessen the distress that people are experiencing about this change, and then the dialogue is about what is and is not negotiable and the boundaries are set. I think where there are political choices at central or local level, then the honesty about those choices has to be up-front and then you can have that.


 
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