Select Committee on Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Memoranda


Memorandum by the County Councils Network (LAG 07)

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.

INTRODUCTION

  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 structures—ahead 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.

GENERAL

  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 made.

  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.

THE ROLE AND OPERATION OF THE EXECUTIVE

  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 is necessary.

  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 council business.

THE ROLE AND OPERATION OF SCRUTINY

  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 activities.

  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;

    —  focuses on key issues;

    —  provides accountability;

    —  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 benefits of:

    —  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 development.

THE ROLE AND OPERATION OF FULL COUNCIL

  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 process.

  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.

AREA COMMITTEES

  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 structure.

Our pilots have shown that there are some choices and some challenges in establishing area committees:

  The choices:

    —  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 budgets.

    —  The degree to which area committees should be independent of the principle authorities (the county and district councils).

    —  The resources provided to service area committees.

    —  The geographical boundaries which define area committees.

  The challenges:

    —  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 area committees.

    —  To ensure that the work of the area committees feeds back into the council's work, both executive and scrutiny.

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:

    —  Representation—representing the interests of their constituents.

    —  Advocacy—representing the Council at a local (eg on joint committees), regional or national level.

    —  Arbitration—eg appeals, awards and adoptions.

    —  Regulation—eg development control, licensing.

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 solutions.

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 follows:

  Disadvantages

    —  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 be received.

    —  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 their priority.

  Advantages

    —  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 way—this can challenge silo culture.

    —  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 to officers.

  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.

MEMBER TRAINING AND DEVELOPMENT

  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 implemented.

  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 functions.

  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.


 
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