Select Committee on Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Memoranda

Memorandum by Ian Crockall (LAG 09)


  The key messages in this submission are:

    —  The changes in structure have not received a universally warm welcome but authorities have sought to make them work.

    —  Openness and transparency will be maintained although the need for private discussion of ideas needs to be recognised.

    —  Greater clarity in both direction for authorities and performance management of services has taken place.

    —  The role of Councillors has changed significantly and support mechanisms for developing the new role must be established.

    —  The changing role for officers will require different skills and different organisation.

    —  The electorate have yet to be enthused by the change in structures.

    —  Scrutiny and overview are vital roles; appropriate and effective challenge lies at the heart of acceptable policies and understandable decisions.

    —  The guidance is too complex and detailed but the extensive consultation in preparing the guidance and a willingness to listen to alternative views has led to improvement.

    —  Without changes of approach within councils to culture, processes and people (both staff and users) structural change will achieve little.

    —  The Mayoral model has not caught on in County administration although consultation shows that disadvantaged groups favour a "champion" for their area.

    —  The modernisation of structures presents a dilemma; greater central direction of resources and increased national regulation do not sit easily with empowering local authorities with greater community planning powers and the ability to write their own Best Value agenda to address local needs. Is the dilemma fed or solved by modernising structures?



  These words from Star Trek seem appropriate to reflect the nature of the journey which Buckinghamshire has taken following the passage of the Local Government Act 2000. It has been an exciting, challenging and worrying time for all concerned; but it is at these times that the opportunity for constructive change can be achieved.

  The County Council started to review its structures in September 1998 after the publication of "Local Leadership: Local Choice". I led a number of seminars for Members, some of which were undertaken jointly with the district councils, and throughout 1999 encouraged Members to make changes at an early stage. However, it was not possible for the Council to move early on the process. The Government's proposals did not find favour with the Council for a variety of reasons namely:

    1.  The Council had made enormous changes following Local Government Reorganisation in 1996 when a third of its resources and responsibilities were passed to the new Milton Keynes Unitary Authority. The old structures were wiped away and the focus was on a powerful Strategy Panel and effective Policy Performance and Finance Panels ie the ship was felt to be fit for the purpose.

    2.  Members have operated in committees for the past 108 years and the "not broke don't fix it" syndrome was strong. Government set out the solution without the crew being involved in the diagnosis.

    3.  The theme throughout the Green Paper was that through being non-political, local government would re-invigorate itself. This did not strike a chord in the rural shires where a high measure of consensus and agreement delivered practical results on the ground without unnecessary political conflict.

  Although some preliminary work was done after the Queen's speech, the Council, in the period April to June 2000, resolved to move on a pilot basis to the new structure. Following consultation with the community the key elements were these, namely:

    1.  A Cabinet of eight Members with new portfolios which did not represent departmental interests but rather policy themes or directions (see Appendix 1).[2]

    2.  Each Cabinet Member would have an informal and supportive policy advisory group (not a committee) of five Members drawn from all Parties to meet on a regular but informal basis.

    3.  Five scrutiny committees would be created two chaired by Opposition Members particularly concentrating on the impact for users, partners etc (see Appendix 2).[3]

  The aim was to develop a local solution which was designed for Buckinghamshire and which had a high level of Member support and commitment. It was agreed that a pilot scheme should operate from the Council meeting commencing in November 2000 until the County Council elections in May 2001. Changes to officer structures were minimised to limit risk and so that Member structures could bed down. Nevertheless, the overall cost of the proposed changes could be in the order of £800,000 in any one year.

  That is the background to where the Council is at the moment and this report now deals with each of the specific issues on which the Committee has sought views:

  1.  Preliminary views on whether the changes in political management structures are likely to contribute to greater efficiency, transparency and accountability in local government.

  The Council has seen the structure change programme as one part of a broader exercise of which Best Value, ie the process of delivering services to reflect community needs, is the most important part. Members recognised that the focus upon the Leader and Cabinet Members did create greater accountability. Some challenging budget scenarios in 1997 raised the profile of senior Members so that they received frequent press publicity and were increasingly well known in the County. Senior Members have always had a frustration that the committee process takes a long time to resolve issues and could see that a fortnightly Cabinet with papers presented by Cabinet Members would speed up the process.

  The Council have always adopted very open policies of access and communication. It recognised at an early stage that trying to deal with issues in private is counterproductive; information inevitably leaks to the press and public. It was agreed that the Cabinet and scrutiny committees would be open. However, the process of challenge and debate within Cabinet requires individuals to say things which they are not always comfortable about saying in public. The cut and thrust of debate, postulating alternative scenarios and refining thinking is sometimes more effective in private. Seminars and open fora have been a feature of the Council's work and this has led to better decision making. Group meetings will continue in private however every effort has been made to maintain the openness of the process.

  One of the great challenges facing local government is the fact that the introduction of a number of public bodies eg Learning and Skills Councils which have taken away accountability from local authorities. For example, the targeting of resources at schools and the operation of Ofsted has meant that where the County Council is criticised for what happens in schools, in practice it has little control or influence of what happens. Where an individual Cabinet Member is seen to be responsible and can make a difference, accountability increases.

  There are specific areas where the Council has made improvements. In 1997 the Council introduced its first serious approach at being a policy led organisation, ie a publicised statement of its agenda against which the Council would be judged. In 2000 I recommended an external consultancy study to obtain and deliver a fresh approach to challenge organisational thinking. Therefore, the Council engaged the Improvement and Development Agency to analyse how the new modernised structure should develop what the Council had already implemented. The IDeA found three key elements which needed improvement, namely:

    i.  The Council had made great strides in developing its direction and vision for the future. However, it remained complex and unclear.

    ii.  The Council did a great many things extremely well but did not always do the right things because it did not adapt its services to its public's needs.

    iii.  Whilst adopting a business planning approach, the Council was still unclear about the demonstrable outcomes it wanted to achieve.

  These features are being addressed specifically in the new agenda with the Cabinet having recently set out more clearly its policy objectives, with the business planning process leading to the Local Performance Plan being at the heart of service delivery.

  2.  The impact of the new arrangements on: a) The role of Councillors; b) The role of local authority officers; c) The local electorate.

  The impact on Members, officers and to a lesser extent the electorate has been substantial.

    a.  Councillors

  There is a perception that opportunities for Members have been reduced; the chairmen of committees have all gone, as have the service committees themselves. Senior Members have been asked to concentrate on their policy aims. The committees' agendas of the past were largely what officers presented against which Members made decisions. Members are now required to have a clarity of thinking about what they want to achieve. A great deal more training and developed skills are required such as:

    —  the use of information technology (all Members have access at home to the Council's computer systems).

    —  understanding how to utilise challenge as a means of improving decision making.

    —  supporting Opposition Members in the chairmanship of select committees.

  The Council has also voted by a nem com resolution to have a single Party executive. Members have signed the charter for Member development and senior Members now have their own offices and secretarial support. Backbench Members feel that a lot of power has been concentrated in the Cabinet; however, the scrutiny process, is likely to be a significant counterbalance to the Cabinet Members. The Leader occupies a position of considerable influence and authority, with the power to make appointments to his Cabinet.

    b.  Officers

  It was clear at an early stage that the changes in Member roles were bound to impact on officers. The Management Model of a Chief Executive and four Strategic Directors was likely to change if the Cabinet Members had responsibility to drive the policy agenda more effectively and to take key decisions. The Council's appointment of the Improvement and Development Agency to provide consultancy advice was critical in analysing officer roles.

  There was a strong feeling that whilst the head of paid service should have significant influence, the role was more one of a Cabinet secretary and the person responsible for ensuring Cabinet decisions were executed. The Cabinet was seen to be the executive. The title was accordingly changed from Chief Executive to Chief Officer of the Council. The Strategic Director roles were replaced by six General Managers responsible for making sure that Council policy was translated into the service plans and business plans. Their job is to deliver the political priorities. The heads of service retain their professional responsibility to advise Cabinet Members direct (the summary of recommendations and rationale together with the new structures are set out in Appendix 4).[4] Decisions which would have been taken by a committee are now taken by individual Portfolio Holders on the basis of advice presented to them.

  This has required a change in the approach for officers. They are learning to become more facilitators and brokers of policy and of implementation. An increasing emphasis has been placed on performance management to show how individual heads of service have delivered the policy agenda.

  c.  Electorate

  The degree of interest shown by the electorate in the modernised arrangements has been limited. The three options were not ones which are understood by the majority of people. In June 2000 the Council interviewed and appointed consultants to carry out a consultancy exercise on its behalf to test the views on the three options. A summary and resume of that consultancy work is set out as Appendix 3.[5] There was a clear preference for a leader with cabinet. That option was seen to improve the quality of decision making. However, there were groups which favoured an elected Mayor and cabinet particularly those from a non-white ethnic background, the unemployed or the self employed. There is clearly a need on the Council's part to reassure those who preferred the Mayoral model by demonstrating how the Council's preferred model will meet the aspirations for those who want to have their needs delivered and expressed in a more effective fashion. 10,000 consultation documents have been distributed and detailed face to face interviews have taken place with a representative 1,000 residents.

  3.  Local authorities' experience of setting up overview and scrutiny committees and the role of area committees or other devolved arrangements.

  The County Council had scrutinised its services before the Best Value programme was articulated. In 1997 it commenced a programme of Root and Branch Reviews of all its services over a four year time frame. This programme ranged from such issues as countryside services to information technology and from learning disability services to internal audit functions. Challenging existing provision and comparing Bucks' services with appropriate comparators lay out the heart of this approach. Many services were market tested.

  The reviews are conducted by a senior officer of the Council being appointed the lead (not from the department or service in question) with a small team of officers supporting the programme. The report came in two parts namely a policy options report which set out the areas which could be pursued and then a second part with the options fleshed out for consideration. The programme led to savings of £2 million per year but more particularly a refocusing of services, for example, a more client centred focus, in relation to disability services. Some services were discontinued completely. The programme was overseen by the Strategic Management Group of senior officers and by the Strategy Panel which reported directly to the Policy and Resources Committee.

  Accordingly, when the Council came to establish its scrutiny arrangements it had a track record principally at officer level of scrutiny activity. Therefore Members recognise that the process of overview and scrutiny is an essential part of any organisation. It is not always easy to engender a culture of appropriate challenge.

  The scrutiny (select) committees were given a brief to pursue. In particular, the Council adopted the table (in Appendix 5)[6] to demonstrate how scrutiny and policy development would be undertaken. If policy issues where properly debated and considered through the scrutiny process with appropriate challenge, then non-executive Members would have greater involvement in policy development and accordingly a higher degree of acceptability of the decision.

  There is concern about the way in which scrutiny committees will operate. The Council has emphasised the importance of regular meetings of the scrutiny committees and the involvement of all the Members of the Council in the scrutiny process. All these proposals are now set out in the decision making protocol which gives significant powers to scrutiny chairmen and individual Members to call in and to consider particular issues. The Cabinet Leader and the scrutiny chairmen have come together to agree a programme of work. The use of information technology has been developed in order to keep scrutiny chairmen and their committees (and indeed all Members) aware of what the executive and the portfolio Members are doing.

  The IDeA have been included in the training and support of scrutiny Members. The Opposition Parties (Liberal Democrat and Labour) see the considerable value which can be exerted through the open scrutiny process and the ability to call for reports on particular issues including the power to examine Cabinet Members in open session about their policies and decisions. The ability to avoid institutional conflict whilst encouraging productive challenge requires maturity of approach.

  The Council established a series of local committees in April 2000 involving district councils and parish councils, in relation to environmental matters. A driving force for this initiative was the ability to lever out resources from parish and town councils in order to develop schemes which were of particular importance to the local community. Those committees have now operated for slightly under twelve months and the initial report indicates that there has been an increasing level of support. The trial will be considered further in two to three months time but these committees are seen as supporting local Members in the delivery of a local agenda.

  4.  Difficulties authorities have experienced in implementing the provisions of the Local Government Act 2000 (Part 2) and views on the adequacy of the guidance and how it might be improved.

  In general terms, the guidance has been handled in a helpful way. The fact that local authority officers have assisted DETR in the preparation of the guidance has been very material. It has enabled us to present papers and documents and also to be kept well informed of the seminar, discussions etc. The DETR team have come to professional meetings to talk about the work.

  The documents themselves have been through several stages. They first began to emerge in December 1999 and have been developed in the light of discussions with local authorities. That has been helpful. It has meant that changes have been brought about which are sensible ones. The major change was the abandonment of the two stage consultation process initially envisaged.

  In addition, the DETR newsletter, for example the one issued on 28 March 2000, has been helpful and the DETR website gives access quickly to the documents and the timetable.

  However, the guidance has suffered from too much detail. Authorities have not wanted to be caught out by the guidance and therefore have suggested more than they really needed to. In similar ways the DETR have been conscious of how gaps could be exploited. The documentation has to address issues that need to be dealt with in other ways ie transparency is an attitude of mind.

  The County Council recognises that the changes required by the modernisation will be as much through the way in which Members and officers operate and interrelate as through structural change. Therefore, the protocol for example officer/Member relationship has been very important because they are the driving force of the three features which the Council has recognised need developing, namely:

    —  Culture—ie the way we do things round here—with speed but with professionalism.

    —  Process—ie business plans which are developed by and for staff and customers.

    —  People—ie recognising that the skills and commitment of people are critical to success.

  These features emerge in the specific tasks, namely:

    a.  Setting out more clearly our direction and aims.

    b.  Being more business like in our approach.

    c.  Doing the right things as well as doing things right.

  This can only come from an approach which recognises that the customers' needs will be listened to and services changed and developed to reflect them.

  5.  The extent to which local authorities are opting for the directly elected Mayor model and the advantages and disadvantages of such a model.

  During the course of 1999 the concept of a Mayor for Buckinghamshire was floated and gained support from one of the leading Members of the Council. He was a younger Member, ie under 30, and he saw the benefits which came from the focus on a Mayor. He saw the attraction of a career in being a Mayor with a mandate, the benefits of a four year term, the fact that the post would be properly paid and that the post would be accountable for what happened in the County. The Member in question wanted to pursue a political career.

  However, that did not find favour with the majority of Members. Within a shire county such as Buckinghamshire, the consultation process tended to demonstrate that the focus on one person was viewed suspiciously as being too powerful and dictatorial. Most of the public were more concerned about local action and the competence of the team of Members and officers charged with the delivery of services. Many of the small towns in Buckinghamshire do have Mayors and the possibilities of district councils opting for the Mayoral option could cause problems. Finally, no proper name could ever be found for such a figurehead in a County.

  However, the responsibility of local politicians and local authorities to engage and involve the electorate remains a key unanswered question. The County Council spends £350 million a year on services. The Council accepts it has a duty to engage its electorate. In some areas the interest is quite high with turnouts of 40 per cent at elections but in other areas, particularly the more deprived and challenged areas, the turnout is 10 per cent. Some would argue that the degree of interest reflects the level of satisfaction with what is done at the moment. There is an element of truth in that. We have not yet found the Holy Grail of how to engage the interest of the majority of the community at large, and especially hard to reach groups, in the manner in which they are governed locally. The structural change has certainly not been the catalyst for such engagement.


  In general, the Government have addressed the right battleground in terms of the modernising agenda. On a personal level, I prefer to call it an improvement agenda. It has always seemed to me that there are two elements to this work, namely:

    1.  Good planning and focus on outcomes. This seems to me about clear strategic policies being driven by community needs and priorities.

    2.  The capacity to deliver that agenda through achieving solutions mutually accepted by partners and users as a result of listening to their needs.

  The modernising agenda, both structural and Best Value, poses a dilemma. There is no doubt about the commitment to the Secretary of State and the Minister to strengthening and improving local government. That is clear in the personal commitment which they have given both in resourcing decisions and supporting local government as a delivering mechanism.

  However, there is equally a frustration by Ministers at:

    a.  The mixed standards, and in some cases very poor standards, of service.

    b.  The slowness to respond.

    c.  The resistance to change.

  This has led to an ever increasing network of plans and performance indicators backed up by a strong regulatory regime (Ofsted, SSSI, Best Value Inspectorate). The principles which underlie these arrangements are entirely commendable. However, the real issue is to turn a complex set of statutory plans (at the last count 64) into realisable improvement on the ground; individually the plans are sensible, the problem is how they fail to interrelate. The plans themselves do not mean that the service gets any better, they are merely words on paper until someone takes action on them.

  Getting the services better lies at the heart of the modernising agenda and could be the real strength in current developments. If the community planning process were really to take off with local communities leading the charge for better services tailored to local needs with resources to match, then councils would certainly change - truly consumer driven outfits. So the real dilemma is this, namely:

    a.  Until the community understands the new agenda and adopts Best Value and community planning to make its voice heard about services, then change will be limited and internally driven.

    b.  Because concerns are not articulated locally, the Government or regulatory intervention appears overly prescriptive militating against local action and diversity.

  One thing is certain, changing structures is one small part of improving public services. However, whilst the Local Government Act has created the framework for change, the Government could helpfully create the style and culture which gives local authorities the confidence to exploit the opportunities of the legislation especially in the new powers of well being and enhanced governance. Local politics is about issues which directly affect local people and where local councils and communities can influence the outcome. Values and beliefs can be tested at the coal face of public opinion by people accountable for the decision facing those whom they affect.

  Therefore to conclude, the prescriptive planning regime, the direction of resources, the inspection regime and the modernising structure, indicate that the Government believe that councils have lost touch with their communities. On the other hand, the drive towards community planning to reflect the needs of the area and the flexibility for councils to develop their Best Value performance arrangements does not sit easily with the degree of prescription. The Committee may find it helpful to consider whether the Local Government Act 2000 either feeds or solves the dilemma.

Ian Crookall

January 2001

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