Select Committee on Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Memoranda

Memorandum by the Improvement and Development Agency (LAG 17)



  1.1  The Improvement and Development Agency (IDeA) was founded in April 1999, by local government, to work with it and for it and help it do better. It basically offers two types of service.

    —  Those tailored to the needs, issues and problems faced by individual councils in areas such as Best Value, new political structures and political development;

    —  Work that is generic and affects local government as a whole.

  1.2  The work of the IDeA is directed by a widely representative board of directors. It includes councillors from the Conservative, Labour, and Liberal Democrat Parties as well as an Independent representative. The Society of Local Authority Chief Executives (SOLACE) has a place, as does the Trades Union Congress, Audit Commission, representatives from academia and the private sector, regional employers and the Society of Chief Personnel Officers (SOCPO).

  1.3  The IDeA, with its strategic position in the local government world and its strong links with individual authorities, is ideally placed to comment on the progress of local authorities in implementing the requirements of Part 2 of the Local Government Act 2000.


  2.1  Much of the evidence in this submission comes from the work and knowledge of teams within the IDeA, namely Member Development, the Local Government Improvement Programme (LGIP) team and Best Practice.

  2.2  Member Development exists to expand the range of development opportunities available for elected members and has developed a range of new programmes and initiatives. The nature of much of its work is actually performed on site within councils, so it has access to first hand information. It also commissioned a major study by INLOGOV into the scrutiny function in six "case study" authorities and has recently published "Practitioners Guide to Scrutiny" which provides a benchmark as to how the scrutiny function is being implemented. Evidence from these is used in this submission.

  2.3  The LGIP is based on peer review and brings together a team of six or seven people from across local government and the wider public and private sector. At the invitation of an authority, the team spends a week assessing it against a national benchmark. This concentrates on leadership, community engagement, and performance management and is updated regularly to reflect current good practice. The team, led by an IDeA Review Manager, has carried out over 80 LGIP reviews to date.

  2.4  The Best Practice unit is a more recent addition to the IDeA. This unit exists to identify areas of best practice, to help authorities share experiences and to raise their standard overall.

  2.5  To this extent a questionnaire was sent to all 410 English and Welsh local authorities in September 2000. The IDeA believes this is the most recent relevant research carried out on a national basis hence much of this report is based on this survey. Out of the 410 local authorities, 210 (51 per cent) replies were received. Over half of those responding (108) had been experimenting with new models. The timing was all the more crucial because the survey was sent out so soon after the Local Government Act received Royal Assent; the survey represents a snapshot of councils very much in transition.


  3.1  Our response to the Sub-committee's inquiry will be under the bullet points given in Press Notice 69.


  4.1  At the time of the IDeA survey only around 40 authorities (who had responded) had been operating under a new structure for 12 months or longer. Also, only five out of 108 authorities experimenting with new arrangements have evaluated their structures independently or asked for the views of the public. Hence, current evidence is patchy and it is difficult, and early, to say whether efficiency, transparency and accountability of decision-making in local government has improved.

  4.2  Although the majority of authorities have only recently embarked on modernising their decision-making arrangements, it is still possible to comment on some early signs of progress:

Greater efficiency

  4.3  Observation by the LGIP team shows that where authorities have moved early to a cabinet system decisions are made more quickly. Authorities are streamlining the decision-making processes and reducing the number of committees but in some instances the time members spend in committee meetings does not always reduce proportionately. However, some councils are introducing issue specific, time-limited selected committees as seen in Parliament. Many authorities that have been reluctant to move early to a cabinet system have also streamlined and rationalised their structures.

  4.4  There are a number of authorities making progress in improving the transparency of decision-making. Some are introducing decision-databases (eg Leeds City Council and St Helens Metropolitan Borough Council) and report-tracking systems (London Borough of Brent) and making these accessible on the Internet. However, a two-fold problem remains in that the majority of residents remain disinterested in the council's decision-making processes and that too few of them don't know where to go or who to contact to have their say. A number of authorities are also training their executive members in how to deal better with the media and are recruiting officers to communication posts to partly articulate new decision-making processes and to publicise how citizens can get involved.

  4.5  Within councils, there is often confusion with both officers and members as to the routing of reports. The executive does not always steer agenda items, often looking to senior officers to provide a lead. This can sometimes result in reports reaching members, via committees, that are purely for information purposes, which wastes members' valuable decision-making time. Good practice in this area tells us that these items are best dispersed to members via bulletins or electronically, via intranet etc. Dealing with performance issues is an area which causes great confusion—for example, the presentation of performance indicators is too often seen as an issue for scrutiny rather than the executive using them proactively.


(a)  role of councillors

  5.1  According to the IDeA survey, over 75 per cent of authorities with interim structures have developed new roles for their members and over a third (36 per cent) have `job descriptions' for councillors. Authorities were asked specifically in which areas, other than executive and scrutiny, had they developed these new roles. Most respondents had worked on strengthening the community and representative aspects of their members' roles. Specifically these included advocacy, and how members should perform their representative roles on area committees, community forums and when representing on outside boards. This appeared to be mostly as a response to the setting up of area committees and forums.

  5.2  A number of authorities were also developing appropriate skills for members on ethics and standards boards. Others also placed greater emphasis on developing the skills of the chair, such as chair of scrutiny or area committees. Some had also developed the role of the leader of the opposition.

(b)  role of local authority officers

  5.3  Dedicated officer support is generally rare, especially so in district councils. Of those authorities with new arrangements, 10 had separate dedicated support for both executive and scrutiny. A far greater number of authorities (75 per cent) were looking at reviewing the way support is provided within existing resources. 15 authorities referred to lead officers (for either executive or scrutiny) that had other jobs to do.

  5.4  It has already been mentioned that there is often confusion with officers about where reports should be routed and that managers are sometimes uncertain as to which committee or panel should first receive a report. Within some councils members wait for a direction or steer from officers instead of doing this themselves. Relationships between scrutiny members and middle managers are developing as they are increasingly referred to to find out `what really happens' whilst directors have a greater relationship with executive members. Some commentators would argue that this gives some support to the notion that two tier officer structures may result from the implementation of new political structures.

(c)  role of the electorate

  5.5  An increasing number of authorities are introducing public question times—at present well over a quarter of those authorities who are trialling the new structures. However, it is unclear whether the public take up this opportunity for debate and questioning.

  5.6  Greater involvement with the public can be seen at the area level, ie through area committees or forums. It is very clear that the new arrangements have given area-based forums and committees a new lease of life. Nearly 60 per cent of authorities with new arrangements have some degree of area development whereas this is the case for only 30 per cent of those still operating traditional structures.

  5.7  LGIP can refer to specific examples such as Tameside Metropolitan Borough Council which has formal youth representation at its area committees. Another observation is that the scrutiny role at the area level is underdeveloped, ie area bodies are not sufficiently tapping into views of the community to support scrutiny reviews.


Overview and scrutiny

  6.1  On average there are four scrutiny panels/committees per authority with one being the minimum and 12 being the maximum. Most authorities (83 per cent) had scrutiny arrangements with at least one cross-cutting scrutiny committee. Well over a third, 38 per cent, had only cross-cutting remits and 17 per cent had only functional ones. Over 60 per cent had some form of formal mechanisms for calling in decisions of the executive.

  6.2  Authorities were also asked how effectively (or ineffectively) their new system of overview and scrutiny (O&S) was working and reasons why this may be so.

Areas of good progress

  6.3  Greater flexibility. Many councils welcomed the opportunity to establish their own O&S work programmes and in a style that suited them. They welcomed the power of calling in decisions as well as playing a meaningful role in policy development. However, the greater flexibility in work programmes still needs to be managed so that scrutiny is not seen to be `messy', `fitting around', too ad-hoc or duplicative. Many authorities do this by means of an over-arching scrutiny committee/panel that would set the work programmes or the framework for all scrutiny units. Some systems support temporary select committees whose lifespan is related to a particular major issue.

  6.4  Greater accountability of the executive. Many have considered the mere fact that scrutiny is a separate body has enhanced the accountability of the decision-makers and decision-making has been `sharpened-up'. Of course, for this to be sustained the O&S function needs to demonstrate effectiveness. This is the case in a number of authorities where members have shown enthusiasm for and commitment to their new roles, although this is not the case in all places.

  6.5  More in-depth and higher quality scrutiny and policy development. More time can be allocated to specific subjects and issues, ensuring the need to call in decisions is reduced. This can be better achieved under a planned programme of work and with good understanding and co-operation between the executive members and scrutiny chairs. Good officer support is also very important. Some have done this through dedicated support, others have ensured that an identified panel of officers for support exists.

  6.6  Develop skills and expertise of members. Where scrutiny panels consider an issue in depth the members of that panel gain expertise of the subject area and learn skills in scrutinising important issues.

  6.7  Less political point-scoring. For many authorities, members, welcoming a new way of working, have enthusiastically entered into the new arrangements. Decisions have been `depoliticised' and consensual politics is becoming more apparent. Some of this is down to ensuring that all members feel that they have an important role, eg by giving opposition and minority parties at least some of the chair positions of scrutiny committees/panels.

  6.8  Scrutiny and the public. Another observation, not from the survey, is that many councils are overcoming the traditional lack of presence of members of the public at committee meetings, by choosing to hold them outside of the town hall, often rotating round the local authority's area. Others have chosen to give members of the public the right to also ask questions at scrutiny hearings.

Areas requiring greater attention

  6.9  Taking on too much work. Work programmes were often too ambitious, resulting in some work not being completed. Clearly greater management of scrutiny's programme is needed. Whilst most authorities see benefits in giving cross-cutting remits to their overview and scrutiny panels/committees, there were several who felt that members were having difficulty in grasping the concept of scrutiny. Too much emphasis was being put on day-to-day, operational issues and criticising decisions of the executive rather than taking a more strategic, overview approach.

  6.10  Not enough support. There were some authorities that felt the organisation did not want to "own" scrutiny. Scrutiny members considered they did not receive the same level of officer support and access to resources as compared to members of the executive, with existing resources being inadequate.

  6.11  Engaging members (especially members of scrutiny bodies). More training needs to be purchased to enable members who are struggling to understand their new roles.

  Some members feel they don't have enough to do, and have less to do than in their previous roles as part of traditional committees.

  6.12  Inexperience of scrutiny. This relates partly to the above point. Members require greater awareness and training as to what can be achieved by the scrutiny function. At present they often lack confidence to challenge decisions of the executive. Many are still trying to shake off past methods or working, with many scrutiny members still wanting to make decisions rather than recommendations.

  6.13  Greater community involvement. Trying to build awareness with the public. Some respondents felt that their scrutiny arrangements were not engaging with the community enough. Some recognised this was partly to do with raising awareness amongst the public.

  6.14  Effective O&S. A few respondents mentioned that it was sometimes difficult to get effective scrutiny when there was virtually no opposition.

Area devolution

  6.15  Authorities were asked whether they had any area committees as part of their new decision-making processes. 61 (over 58 per cent) said they had such arrangements with a further 13 authorities planning to introduce them.

  6.16  Those with area arrangements were asked to provide an indication of the depth of powers devolved. Over 55 per cent said that the area bodies existed as discussion/consultation forums only with the majority of these informing both the executive and scrutiny. Almost 40 per cent have devolved some decisions down to these area bodies. 22 authorities had area bodies which held budgets.

  6.17  Currently 30 per cent of councils with committee systems have a degree of area involvement, eg area committees or fora. When asked about future devolved arrangements 58 per cent did not know how they intended to devolve power, 20 per cent said they would have no area devolvement, 14 per cent said they would devolve budgets to area bodies, eight per cent said area bodies would have consultative powers only, and four per cent said they would have decision-making powers but no devolved budgets.


  7.1  Most local authorities that have adopted the new structures ahead of legislation had done so in the expectation of experiencing difficulties in implementation. Starting early has allowed them to identify problems in new practices and processes and to start ironing them out in readiness to implement them according to the legislation.

  7.2  Some of the difficulties experienced have already been identified, particularly around the role of scrutiny members. However, there are some general difficulties faced by almost all authorities. These are:


  7.3  The level of communication is often inconsistent. The LGIP have seen a mixed picture when it comes to communication between members and between members and officers. We have already mentioned the problems officers and some members of the executive have in knowing where to route reports.

  7.4  Councils are often struggling to communicate to non-executive members the exact nature of what the new roles entail. Some authorities are doing better at this than others and it appears that purchasing effective training and awareness-raising are the key. Findings from the survey, backed up by LGIP and member development's observations, show that councillors prefer hands-on training and getting first hand experience, for example through visiting other authorities.

Changing culture

  7.5  Although they have changed their structures most councillors in experimenting authorities are still struggling to adapt to their new roles and have not changed the way they do things. For many councillors it is easier and comfortable to keep to former ways of working. Some typical difficulties are:

    (a)  In those authorities that have recently changed their structures, non-executive members are finding it difficult to accept the loss of their decision-making roles.

    (b)  Non-executive members sometimes see their work on committees as being more important than their work within wards.

    (c)  Councillors have often spent many years on a particular committee acquiring specialist skills and knowledge and become somewhat demoralised when they are no longer part of such a set up. Some authorities are overcoming such problems by proactively helping councillors gain new skills and knowledge through initiatives such as work-shadowing, mentoring and coaching.


  7.6  Many authorities, particularly smaller ones, are hindered by the lack of resources in implementing the new arrangements, especially overview and scrutiny and area arrangements. From the survey, it is apparent that it is the larger councils who are more able to provide dedicated or "lead" support.


  8.1  When asked whether authorities were considering holding a referendum for a mayor, only two per cent (four councils) said yes, 71 per cent said not and 27 per cent of authorities did not know. We are aware, however, that in a number of authorities residents are organising their own petitions to force a referendum.


  9.1  The evidence that the IDeA has access to reveals a mixed picture in how authorities are coping and progressing with implementing the new structures, particularly the non-executive aspects. The survey reveals that those authorities that feel they are progressing better than others do so because of several factors:

    (a)  Time—it is early days for many councils. Time and greater experience is needed for new systems to bed-in and for lessons to be learned.

    (b)  Training and awareness—this is crucial. If this is not done adequately it will lead to members feeling confused about their roles, feeling they do not have enough to do and resenting loss of decision-making powers.

    (c)  Resources—Non-executive members are able to carry out better reviews and manage their workloads through identified support through both staff and being effectively informed.

    (d)  Management—Work programmes of scrutiny need to be managed otherwise experience suggest that reviews will not be completed, committees become overworked and the policy objectives of the council are not always met.

    (e)  Relationships—these need to be managed too, especially between cabinet members and scrutiny members and between chairs and opposition lead members of scrutiny.

January 2001

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