Memorandum by the County Councils Network
The County Councils Network (CCN) is the largest
Special Interest Group within the Local Government Association
(LGA), representing all 35 English County Councils in membership.
The County Councils Network exists to promote the voice of counties
within the LGA and the values and interests of the English Counties.
These authorities cover 84 per cent of the geographical area of
England and provide services for 46 per cent of its population.
Many of the county councils in England saw the
opportunities offered by political modernisation in advance of
the enactment of the Local Government Act 2000. Research by the
CCN undertaken in June 2000 identified 21 counties already having
engaged in pilots of new political structuresahead of legislation.
This paper draws upon the experience of these pilots to identify
the learning points and highlight some examples of good practice
in implementing these arrangements. Since it is based upon the
experience of those counties which piloted ahead of legislation
it will not necessarily represent the views or experiences of
all county councils. Nonetheless, it is considered that the Select
Committee will find the comments in this paper valuable in taking
forward its enquiry.
Whilst political modernisation requires a separation
of executive and scrutiny functions, there is a need to ensure
that members and officers retain the sense of working for one
organisation. Ultimately the public will only be interested in
assessing the performance of "the Council".
Establishing clear ground rules for the operation
of executive and scrutiny functions provides a mechanism for ensuring
that the separation of function does not become divisive. These
ground rules need to be interpreted and implemented sensibly if
the decision making system is to achieve benefits for local people.
Executives need to be able to implement council
policy and make proposals to full Council as the sovereign body.
Committees performing scrutiny functions, however styled, need
to be "critical friends", seeking to challenge through
evidence-based analysis and identifying ways for the council to
improve its performance.
The level of resources and commitment (of people,
money and most of all time) required to achieve the necessary
cultural and organisational changes should not be underestimated.
Experience of piloting has shown that putting new structures in
place is less than half of the change. Efforts have also had to
be made to ensure that the new structure does not become the new
home for old ways of working.
The new structures need to reflect local characteristics.
Piloting has provided the opportunity to experiment with options.
On occasions lessons have been learnt by the mistakes which are
Our experience has shown that effective community
leadership depends on good communication. On occasion it has been
difficult to engage the local media to promote the council's role
in this. The media can play a very valuable role in raising public
awareness and promoting a debate within the community. As we move
away from traditional committee meetings we need to ensure that
we find new ways of working with the media to enable them to fulfil
their role in serving the public interest.
The political modernisation process is at one
level concerned with reforming the way in which local government
performs its business functions. However, if these changes are
to have real merit, they need to impact upon the lives of the
communities which these authorities serve. Critically, political
modernisation needs to improve the level of accessibility of the
public to local councils.
It is recognised that the modernisation of local
government is wider than political modernisation. Other key policies
which have been taken forward by this Government include Best
Value and the review of local government finance. In relation
to the latter, it seems public service agreements (PSAs) will
provide county authorities with an opportunity to link funding
more directly to performance. Provided these are implemented in
the manner which we currently envisage, they will provide a mechanism
for making performance more accountable to the community and should
therefore strengthen the ability for councils to fulfil their
community leadership role. Best Value provides a vehicle for promoting
continuous improvement in service delivery. Community planning
provides a mechanism for linking planned aspirations with the
delivery of specified outcomes to the community.
Executive members need to feel empowered to
take on the mantle of their responsibilities and portfolios. There
is a significant transition from the former role of committee
chair to executive portfolio holder.
Openness is a key to success. Experience has
shown that ensuring that there are public papers, sending agendas
to all members, providing a standing invitation to shadow cabinet
members to attend and contribute, inviting local members to participate
on local issues, providing a public call-over process, public
question time, and an agenda focussed on key issues of concern
to the community have been found to be valuable tools to enable
members to decide which agenda items require detailed debate.
In East Sussex, for example, petitioners are invited to speak
at Cabinet meetings.
The development of cross service portfolios
has been found to be useful and effective although this has been
shown to be an evolving process. The cross service portfolio approach
is advocated as a preferable approach to service specific forums.
One of the perceived benefits of the portfolio approach is to
shift from the "professional knows best" culture to
one in which the emphasis is upon the value which the service
provides to improving the quality of life for citizens. A potential
limitation of the portfolio approach is that it can lead to significant
variations in the size of responsibilities, particularly when
measured in terms of budget. This may mean that some portfolio
holders have a very large brief to master.
The use of cross service portfolios would also
seem to be consistent with the importance of developing "joined-up"
responses to key issues in society. Some of our pilots report
that where the cross service portfolio approach has been implemented
this is necessitating a rethinking of scrutiny and officer structures.
However, some consider that the solution lies in developing more
flexible matrix approaches in which working arrangements and information
exchanges are strengthened. There is a feeling that structural
responses are too slow to respond to the pace of change which
The executive is considered to have provided
a significant improvement in joint working and increased awareness
of issues both within cabinet and chief officers. It is noted
that there has been a significant reduction in "special pleading
" as decisions have to be made in the wider context. This
is considered to have improved the quality of decision taking
to ensure the overall public interest.
However, it is noted that the demand upon the
time of executive members has increased. There is a concern that
the workload upon Executive members is significant and that this
may create problems in encouraging those who have employment or
carer responsibilities to perform these roles. We are concerned
that the Government's objective of ensuring council's are representative
of their communities (which we share) may potentially be frustrated
by the level of work involved, particularly for those elected
members who are part of the Executive. Experience from some of
our pilots suggests that even new schemes of allowance do not
sufficiently compensate members for the level of time spent on
There is a range of approaches to the work of
scrutiny, notably in the scope of its activity and the manner
in which it is conducted.
Authorities should be encouraged to take a positive
and broad approach to the definition of scrutiny and its attendant
A "hard line approach" to scrutiny
sees it as the assessment of past decisions taken by the executive.
This would ignore the opportunity to use scrutiny to test the
robustness of policies which are being developed.
The success of scrutiny is likely to depend
on there being clear ground rules about its role and operation.
Experience would suggest that a more open and constructive style
of scrutiny is a more effective means of serving the public interest.
The role of scrutiny and its focus needs to
be carefully considered to ensure that it is:
realistic and informed;
gives adequate emphasis to the range
of council functions and interests;
incorporates a mechanism for ensuring
any wider lessons are learnt from an individual scrutiny review;
is owned by participating members
for example East Sussex has regular presentations of review
findings to cabinet and full Council by Members. In Bedfordshire
Select Committees report to County Council, but also send their
reports to the Executive;
ties in with Best Value. For example
in Bedfordshire and East Sussex all BV reviews will be undertaken
by the cross cutting scrutiny committees over the five year period.
In Norfolk, non-executive members serve on the project board of
all Best Value Service Reviews.
Scrutiny needs to be practical and effective.
It is important to find the right balance between effective and
speedy decision making, without making scrutiny sterile and non
executive members feeling unproductive.
The nature and operation of the scrutiny process
might vary according to the nature of the study being undertaken.
For example, experience in Bedfordshire suggests that different
approaches have been necessary when scrutinising services, from
scrutinising decisions or assessing performance.
Experience has shown that efforts need to be
made to ensure that the scrutiny committees do not model their
role on the traditional service committees.
In some counties the use of scrutiny lead officers,
project managers and a project management approach has been very
successful. The use of a rigorous job application approach for
recruitment has ensured appropriate support for scrutiny.
Our pilots show that scrutiny has had the additional
developing close member/officer working;
building in objectivity, as the lead
officer for a review is not drawn from the department under review;
improving cross departmental awareness
and joint working;
providing opportunities for staff
While securing effective accountability and
openness, council overload needs to be avoided. Experience has
shown that there may be a conflict between the Executive, which
will be content with fewer council meetings, and the non-executive
members who will be faced with significant work to be undertaken
at full council which previously was condensed by the committee
It has been found important to be vigilant in
ensuring items that should go to full council for decision are
subject to this wider debate and are not taken by the executive.
Experience is showing that the role of full
council can be transformed. In many cases, full council had previously
been a "rubber stamping" exercise. The pilots are showing
that full council can genuinely become the authority's sovereign
body. However, the time management of meetings needs to be effective.
In order to achieve this it is important to ensure that the processes
are transparent. Some practical measures to promote this include
introduction of; the two stage readings, questions to cabinet
members, policy debates.
Non-executive members seek time at Council Meetings
to debate "the issues of the moment". Some counties
have developed the practice of holding a debate on a key topic
at council meetings. For example, at its meeting in December 1999,
Bedfordshire County Council focused its debate on transport related
issues including the framework for the Local Transport Plan and
home to school transport. East Sussex County Council debated the
approach to be taken to its Local Agenda 21 strategy before beginning
work on strategy itself.
Measures need to be taken to ensure that full
council continues to be accessible to the public and wherever
possible that public access is increased.
Due to the geographical extend of counties and
the importance of close working between the tiers of local government
in shire areas, many counties have long experience of area committees.
It is for this reason that they were pleased to see these recognised
in later versions of the Local Government Bill. Many counties
believe that area committees can considerably enhance democratic
accountability and provide an important vehicle for joint working
between agencies on a locality basis. In many, area committees
involve not just the three tiers of local government, but other
partners such as the police and health. Area committees also provide
a mechanism for "taking the council to the community"
and provide a vehicle for public involvement over and above that
which can be played by public participation at formal council
meetings. Area committees are seen by counties as being one important
route to enhancing community leadership.
It is considered that this experience demonstrates
the importance of enabling a flexible approach to area committees.
Area committees have been developed on different geographical
criteria, to follow the district council boundaries (as in Norfolk)
or by defining "natural" communities (as in Wiltshire
and Bedfordshire). These committees need to provide a means to
increase the level of public participation in the work of the
council and therefore their work needs to have a demonstrable
impact upon the council's decision making processes. Beyond this,
individual area committees and councils should have flexibility
to determine how this can be made to work most effectively within
their own locality. Our experience also suggests no single model
can be imposed upon any individual community and for this reason
a bottom-up approach is preferred.
Our research shows that area committees have
made progress at different rates. However, in many cases they
are finding innovative ways of reaching into the community. In
Shropshire, for example, a recent meeting enabled panel members
to "walk" the town centre with people with mobility
and sensory impairments. This gave a new insight into one of the
challenges of making town centres accessible and also brought
the council directly into the community. In Norfolk seven area
committees have been established covering the whole county. The
evidence so far shows that there is a good level of public and
media interest in these area committees. It is notable that the
Norfolk area committees are welcoming a larger number of members
of the public than any other meeting run under the pilot political
Our pilots have shown that there are some choices
and some challenges in establishing area committees:
The balance between executive and
scrutiny functions performed by area committees.
Should area committees be developed
top-down or bottom-up.
Whether area committees have delegated
The degree to which area committees
should be independent of the principle authorities (the county
and district councils).
The resources provided to service
The geographical boundaries which
define area committees.
To ensure that area committees truly
representative of their communities.
Area committees may become empowered
and wish to challenge the actions of principle authorities (the
county and district councils).
The potential for area committees
to identify different policy approaches in different areas.
The need to build and develop capacity
in the local community to sustain and take forward the work of
To ensure that the work of the area
committees feeds back into the council's work, both executive
The role of members
Work needs to be undertaken at an early stage
to strengthen the member representational role and the role of
full Council in ways that members find productive. It's tempting
to focus on the significant changes involved in new executive
and scrutiny arrangements. It can be difficult to link activity
to any direct impact on services. Impact may be difficult to demonstrate
and/or involve a significant time lag. We note above, that our
pilots indicate that the workload under the new structures produces
an increased workload for Executive members, we believe that action
needs to be taken to ensure that this does not become a deterrent
to those who might be encouraged to become councillors.
The Government, local government and political
parties have a critical role to play in encouraging potential
candidates. There is scope for significant innovation in this
area eg work with private sector and through education and the
promoting of citizenship.
Our pilots are showing that members are asking
for additional support, particularly for research. In part this
is considered to be a reflection of new ways needing to be found
for conveying information previously contained in committee reports.
In part it is also a reflection of the needs of members changing
due to the separation of executive and scrutiny roles. The pilots
provide evidence that some non executive members can feel less
informed due to the differences in reporting style. A number of
counties have sought to meet this need by making information available
on electronic bulletin boards or published newsletters.
The CCN has welcomed the work initiated by the
Local Government Association to identify best practice in developing
the role of non executive members. Our analysis of their findings,
and drawing upon the experience of our pilots suggests a number
of distinctive roles for these members:
the interests of their constituents.
Advocacyrepresenting the Council
at a local (eg on joint committees), regional or national level.
Arbitrationeg appeals, awards
Regulationeg development control,
The role of officers
Since officers support the whole council, we
need to get the balance of support to executive and scrutiny correct.
From our pilot experience, we recognise that
there are two broad approaches to addressing the choice. A "hard
split" is an arrangement where there are dedicated officers
serving the scrutiny function who have no other policy or managerial
role. A "soft split" is where the officers serving the
scrutiny function retain a policy or managerial role in respect
of the topic under scrutiny. In some cases authorities have experimented
with half way houses, such as temporary secondments or the use
of project officers.
Our experience is based upon larger councils.
However, it suggests that very small authorities may not have
the capacity to be able to separate its officer body to support
the executive and scrutiny functions. Despite this, however, and
whichever approach is taken, we consider that officer roles under
the new structures need to be based upon; clarity of roles and
respect for the different roles, trust, mutual confidence about
expertise, and a willingness to challenge/debate to identify optimum
For example, Bedfordshire County Council (one
of the smallest English county councils) has adopted the hard
split. They identify the strengths and weaknesses of this approach
As scrutiny is a new officer function,
staff may be unwilling to put themselves forward for something
which is unknown.
A potential feeling of isolation"you're
up against the might of the bureaucracy".
What are the consequences of being
"too effective", how will a critical scrutiny report
Danger of being used by opposition
parties or dissidents within the Administration.
Scrutiny is likely only to be lightly
staffed, each member of the team is therefore highly visible.
Balancing act of securing support
and information from within the organisation for scrutiny studies.
Getting time and information from
service officers who have service delivery responsibilities as
The approach gives focus and confidence
and potentially parity of esteem for scrutiny.
The independence of scrutiny is underlined.
Can approach issues from a "community
champion" and in a holistic waythis can challenge
Designated officers can ensure scrutiny
is operated in the public domain.
Can provide a focus and outlet for
constructive dissent by both members and officers.
For Executive members may provide
an alternative and unbiased source of advice or opinion.
Can provide a new career path for
middle level staff, particularly for those seeking opportunities
for closer working with members.
It is important to review the appropriate level
of delegations to officers. The modernisation process needs to
produce workable schemes which enable key decisions to be made
in public without regulations which slow down decision making
by taking back into the public domain things which have been delegated
to officers. This is a particularly key issue for county councils,
which have traditionally had high levels of delegated authority
It is necessary to ensure that the dangers of
reduced member/officer contact as a result of committees no longer
meeting is tackled in other ways. The pilots have shown the importance
of ensuring new, replacement communication channels are developed
between members and officers, within departments and within political
parties. The scrutiny process can play a key role but is not the
complete answer. Other mechanisms include; member briefings, member
bulletins, and email.
There is a need to provide support and development
for executive members. The new role is a significant departure
from the committee chair role. Executive members may require support
and training particularly in the mechanisms for leading the development
of strategies and plans.
Time needs to be made available for training
of members (and officers) in the new roles before the system is
The executive, particularly in the context of
single member decisions, ought to be fully trained in their responsibilities,
"The judge over your shoulder". Our pilots have emphasised
the particular importance of there being a clear understanding
about access to decision records lodged with the monitoring officer,
not least to ensure effective communication and scrutiny.
Scrutiny members will need specific training
on questioning and listening techniques and in policy development
and review skills.
There will be a need for other specialist training
eg in personnel and other appeals, for those involved with these
With the passing of the committee system, which
enabled many members to specialise and gain a detailed knowledge
of particular services, there may well be a need to provide general
service training and familiarity. For example, Dorset County Council
has introduced a shadowing scheme which enables members to shadow
officers, thereby gaining a direct and first-hand experience of
the work of the council's functions.
Our pilots also reveal that the new arrangements
require a shared understanding and appreciation of decision making
powers and responsibilities within the new structures, this requires
training and development for officers as well as for members.