Select Committee on Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Memoranda


Memorandum by the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives (LAG 42)

INTRODUCTION

  This evidence to the Inquiry is submitted by the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives (SOLACE) which represents nearly a thousand members who are serving and past-service Chief Executives of Local Authorities from throughout the United Kingdom, together with Senior Manager colleagues. The Society exists to promote the role and development of Local Government, and the part which Chief Executives and Senior Managers can play in that.

  This evidence is based on the experience of our members through work which either foreshadowed the implementation of Part II of the Act, or which is being done as part of the implementation process. It draws on the very detailed work which SOLACE undertook on the Act and its associated Guidance and Regulations at Draft and at Bill stage, much of which was undertaken in conjunction with our sister Societies CIPFA, SOCPO, and ACS&S. It also draws on materials already developed by the Society as we have re-thought existing issues and problems within the new context, including Officer/Member relations, which we have published under the title of "Members and Managers under Modernisation". The Society will be submitting an additional and separate memorandum which captures more directly some of the individual experiences of SOLACE members around the country. This evidence condenses and summarises, and expresses general reflections and conclusions, in so far as they are possible at this stage.

Summary

  In summary, our views on the matters raised by the Committee's inquiry are:

    (a)  On balance, changes in political management structures will contribute to greater efficiency, transparency, and accountability in Local Government, although there are many caveats to enter and many uncertainties which lie ahead. There are some risks to efficiency, especially, from certain aspects of the new arrangements.

    (b)  The impact of the new arrangements on Councillors and Officers should be to strengthen the role and effectiveness of both, in a Member/Officer partnership to deliver better governance, better services, and better community and organisational leadership. The most effective local authorities currently are those which combine effective political and community leadership with effective managerial and organisational leadership, and this is also the right recipe for success under the new system. However, that message is not universally understood, and in some quarters Member/Officer relationships are seen as a "zero sum game", and the move to political executives is being seen as an opportunity to "get back control". Backbench Councillors are feeling especially uncertain in the new environment. This may be transitional, but it may be structural. It is very significant that international comparison would suggest that a move to political executives might be consistent with a significant reduction in the number of Councillors.

    (c)  Overview and scrutiny arrangements have not as yet been as successful as political executives, thus far. But some good practice is emerging, and this has been facilitated by the policy development role which is now included within Scrutiny Committees. We believe it would be unhelpful if a separate cadre of Officers developed to support scrutiny as against Council and Executive, but we do believe that the overview and scrutiny function needs to be substantially and effectively supported.

    (d)  The Guidance on implementing Part II is regarded as over-prescriptive, and in some respects unhelpful. The attention to implementation given by the DETR through their Modernisation Team and the development of Model Constitutions is welcome, and bodes well. The Guidance should be reviewed through a Working Group of Civil Servants, LGA, and SOLACE and relevant Sister Societies in 2002 to pick up early problems and adjust as necessary.

    (e)  The directly elected Mayor model is much less popular in Local Government than it is with the Government and, perhaps, than it is with the public—to the extent that the public clearly understand the implications. International experience suggests that there are risks with the elected Mayor model. Those risks are lower in the elected Mayor/Council Manager model, which would combine much more focused and electorally based community leadership with a strong professional and ethical base for operations and service delivery.

Preliminary Views on the effect of political management structures

  It is still difficult to have a definite general view on the effect of the changes. Many caveats must be entered:

    —  Experience around the country has been very mixed.

    —  It is early days.

    —  Much depends on an Authority's starting point in terms of current arrangements, cultures, and so on, as well as the issues which arise from the differential size and functions of UK Local Authorities.

    —  The arrangements contain significant areas of risk, and it is not clear how these are going to be managed and minimised, especially in the areas of probity and of politician/manager relationship.

    —  It is unclear how some of the flaws built into the system as part of the rather turbulent development of the legal and policy framework will work through (for example, in relation to issues like key decisions and recording decisions).

    —  An enormous amount still depends upon implementation, the attitudes brought to the process, and the relationship of Part II to the wider agenda. This is not a matter (and few are these days) where the framework of law and policy in itself is sufficient to enable one to read off probable success or failure. The emphasis given to implementation within the DETR (and, in particular, initiatives and capacity such as are reflected in the Modernisation Team) an indication of Government's awareness of this issue, as is the work on the preparation of Model Constitutions.

  Subject to all of that, our view is that the changes in political management structures will on balance contribute to greater efficiency, transparency and accountability in Local Government. Most significantly, this is because the process has required Council to rethink roles and responsibilities in a thorough going and detailed way, and in a new and positive context, albeit with a limited range of choice. Effectively for the first time ever, Local Authorities are required to develop an explicit Constitution, and to do that in a firm context in which their own role as community leaders is being emphasised, and supported by new powers and responsibilities—so there is a reinforcement from other parts of the Modernisation Agenda. The focus on executive responsibilities shapes and enhances the sense of accountability which politicians have for decision making—at least for those who are making the decisions. The requirements to give reasons for decisions will mean a strengthening of rationality and transparency (subject to some of the complications around the access to information requirements). The sharpening up of arrangements and the emphasis on tighter decision making (including decision making by individual Councillors) should on balance aid efficiency, again when set in the context of a Government expectation of a sharpening of business-like approaches more generally. But this needs to be allied to some of the clear messages in the Guidance about the importance of local politicians leaving operational management to the professionals whom they employ to deliver their policies and services on the ground.

  The area of "efficiency" is however the one most at risk in all this, partly because the importance attached to developing substantial roles for all Councillors, and the sheer number of Councillors for whom such substantial roles have to be developed, is leading in some places to the inventing of machinery and activity in order to give people things to do. The tensions built into the Local Government Constitution deliberately through the division of responsibilities between the Council, the Executive, and the Overview/Scrutiny function also have the capability to impede efficiency.

  It is unclear whether the new political management structures need the same number of Councillors as the old system or, at a minimum, would be consistent with a significant reduction in the number of Councillors. International comparisons point strongly in that direction.

Impact on Councillors and Officers

  We concentrate here on the first two areas of interest of the Inquiry. The role of Officers is our particular focus, but we are concerned for the role of local Councillors also, in their own right, and not just in relation to a narrow concern of our own. In part this is because we see strong and effective political leadership allied to strong and effective managerial leadership as both a necessary condition for success for Local Government in the modern era, and a necessary condition for success of the new political management arrangements. We do not see political and managerial leadership in Local Government as a zero sum game, where some notional fixed amount of power/capacity/leadership is distributed between them such that if the capacity of one goes up, the other must fall. Modern Local Government facing the challenges and demands of community leadership, of technological transformation, of market turbulence, and of rapid change in the policy environment, needs not only effective leadership both politically and managerially—further, there is a need for that capacity to grow significantly on both sides of the equation. Whilst there are many strengths and positive qualities amongst Local Government managers, we think that they have to raise their game. They need more capacity in breadth as well as depth, so that they can effectively translate the policies and preferences of local politicians into effective services and programmes on the ground. Local politicians face needs and challenges which are as great, especially given the roles which the Government has sketched in for them within the new system. They almost certainly have at least as far to go as do Local Government managers in fully equipping themselves for what is already upon us, let alone what lies ahead.

  There is no doubt that in some quarters our view of Member/Manager relations as a potential "win-win" situation is not shared. In some places, local politicians have seen the modernisation agenda, and the move to political executives, as an opportunity to "get back control". These may also be most likely to be the places where bullying of managers by politicians takes place, as reflected in the recent survey by Fox and Leach, or where politicians would prefer to do without a strong and effective Chief Executive in order that they can somehow fill the role themselves, despite the clear and strong guidance which the Government has given on this matter.

  It is not yet certain how deep or widespread these problems are, nor whether they are problems of the transition or are likely to create endemic difficulties. Much will depend on the way implementation unfolds over the next year or two. Part of this will be the changes which local authorities make to their managerial arrangements as a consequence of the development of new political executives. Some re-working has or is taking place in a number of authorities which have piloted the new arrangements, and that is likely to happen elsewhere as implementation becomes more widespread.

  There is an urgent need for clear and well respected roles for both Councillors and Officers. There is a danger of corruption inherent in the new system that can only be remedied by a well understood Chief Officer model, supported by a strong framework of ethics. Where Officers and Councillors are in confusion as to their differing roles, poor management and potentially corrupt Local Government is more likely to flourish. The Member and Officer Codes of Practice can help here, but only if they convey this strong message, and if they are associated with an effective dissemination strategy and quality training opportunities.

  There is a risk of a potential brain drain effect associated with, if not arising from these changes. Some very talented individuals have left as a direct result of the changes, others have chosen to leave because they do not wish to work the new system, and more will do so over the next 18 months. Consideration of the role of Officers was given very late in the legislative process, and in certain respects the message has still not got home. For example, the new Model Constitution developed under DETR sponsorship refers to political executives taking "day to day decisions" in ways which we regard as contrary to the policy, strategic, and community leadership roles which are intended in a new system for Councillors. The Model Constitution does not articulate clarity of roles as between Members and Officers sufficiently.

  SOLACE strongly supports the development of powerful new roles for local Councillors, and sees the partnership between such politicians and effective senior managers as vital, as indeed are the wider partnership links in which Councils' community leadership is increasingly embedded.

Overview and Scrutiny

  Most Authorities which have piloted the new arrangements have found it relatively easy to adapt to political executive arrangements per se, but have struggled with the Overview and Scrutiny function and (even more so) the wider representative role. However, some good practice is developing in relation to overview and scrutiny. Overview and scrutiny needs to be effectively supported, and it needs dedicated Officer time and skill. However, we believe it would be a mistake to develop a separate "scrutiny" cadre of Officers, because it may reinforce some of the potential divisions which the new system builds into a Council's corporate personality.

  There are clearly issues of capacity and competence in making the new Overview and Scrutiny arrangements work, and it is especially important that there should be a relatively stable and non-hostile political culture to enable them to develop effectively. We know from CCT experience that lines of cleavage can develop within a Council's Political and Officer machinery, and can be confrontational and damaging. There are risks of fragmentation associated with the separation of responsibilities between Council, Executive, and Scrutiny, and it is not inconceivable that these potential lines of cleavage may be reinforced at some point by the strengthened roles which have been developed for the Statutory Officers. It is very important to avoid entrenchment, and a separate group of Officers identified only with "scrutiny" would not be helpful. Secondments, among other methods, can be employed to help maintain a sense of service to the whole Council.

Implementing Part II

  Clearly, any "implementation" of Part II has as yet been preliminary and provisional only. There is general concern that the Guidance is too prescriptive and over-detailed, especially with regards to matters such as "key decisions" and in certain other respects. This is not a simple matter of more detail or less detail, because in some respects the early versions of the Guidance needed to be strengthened. In particular, early versions of the Guidance failed properly to explain the role of Officers in the new system, and their relationship with elected Members, and this carried risks which the further detail which was then included should help to moderate.

  It is important to recognise that the Guidance was produced under far from ideal circumstances, and went through significant change amidst the turbulence of difficult legislative stages. The Guidance that has emerged contains some flaws and it is not yet clear how they will work through the system. In our view it would be appropriate for a joint Working Group of DETR Civil Servants, the LGA, and SOLACE and the sister Local Government Professional Societies to review the experience of implementation over the next year or so and then to propose revisions to the Guidance. In doing this, the experience which will arise from the rather different approach taken in Wales may be of assistance in pointing out better (or worse) ways of doing things.

  More broadly, because of the way in which the Local Government Act 2000, and Part II in particular, has been grafted on to the existing legislative framework of the 1972 and 1989 Acts, it is not clear how the boundaries between them will work out. Moreover, there is a case for consolidating all three Acts into a comprehensive legal framework for Local Government, and the Law Commission should be asked to consider the desirability of doing that.

The Mayoral Model

  The directly elected Mayor model is much less popular in Local Government than it is with the Government and, perhaps, than it is with the public—to the extent that the public clearly understand the implications. International experience suggests that there are risks with the elected Mayor model in relation to probity. Those risks are lower in the elected Mayor/Council Manager model, which combines much more focused and electorally based community leadership than is available in the present system with a very strong professional and ethical base for actual operations and service delivery.

  Experience from the USA, which has both "strong" elected Mayor models and Mayor/Council Manager models, indicates that the latter has grown in popularity and has done so in direct response to the problems which can arise without a well established Officer base built around a Council Manager post. The attached memorandum from the International City Managers Association highlights some of the issues.

  This also underscore the importance of an effective Chief Executive role within Cabinet systems. Although a Cabinet/Council Manager model is not available as such, Ministers made it clear that appropriate delegations and working relations between a Leader/Cabinet and a Chief Executive could effectively amount to the same thing. In our view this is close to the combination of strong and effective political/community leadership and strong and effective managerial/organisational leadership which has served local government well where it has been found, and which should be the preferred approach under the new system.


 
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