Memorandum by Ian Crockall (LAG 09)
THE KEY MESSAGES
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
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?
"IT'S A STRUCTURE JIM, BUT NOT AS WE
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. 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
3. Five scrutiny committees would be created
two chaired by Opposition Members particularly concentrating on
the impact for users, partners etc (see Appendix 2).
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
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 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,
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
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.
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.
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
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
Decisions which would have been taken by a committee are now taken
by individual Portfolio Holders on the basis of advice presented
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.
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.
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
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)
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 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
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
Cultureie the way we do things
round herewith speed but with professionalism.
Processie business plans which
are developed by and for staff and customers.
Peopleie recognising that
the skills and commitment of people are critical to success.
These features emerge in the specific tasks,
a. Setting out more clearly our direction
b. Being more business like in our approach.
c. Doing the right things as well as doing
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
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
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
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