The Centre for Governance and Scrutiny has been keeping a watching brief on the way that councils are managing the pressures on governance arising from the pandemic, writes Ed Hammond.
CfGS used to be known as the Centre for Public Scrutiny: we are an organisation that (amongst other things) provides advice, support and guidance to local authorities on matters relating to governance and scrutiny. A significant amount of our work is with councils and other organisations seeking to innovate and transform their governance to meet changing demands. In recent years, we’ve also worked closely with a number of councils which have faced significant challenges on governance – councils like Rotherham, Kensington and Chelsea and Northamptonshire
While the circumstances facing these particular authorities were unique, there are now many pressures common to councils struggling to manage their respond to the pandemic. At the onset of the crisis in March, it was about keeping the show on the road – emergency decision-making and supporting the needs of an authority suddenly finding itself needing to work entirely remotely. During this period, we’ve been supporting councils by working with other national partners, and Government, on remote working arrangements, and providing direct support to local authorities in need relating to the immediate operational challenge of the pandemic conditions.
Now, the challenge is different – working with colleagues to work through solutions to medium term problems. At the same time as the operational challenges of the pandemic continue, we need to think about:
- The extent to which what has happened this year upends our long term plans for the areas we serve – and the legal arrangements which underpin those plans;
- Our future financial position, and what this may mean for how decisions need to be made and how we ensure there is clear accountabiity, transparency and involvement;
- Any implications for governance which may arise from the Devolution White Paper – or any other related Government action.
By and large, councils will have weathered the last few months in a way that complies with legal requirements on governance and decision-making. In the longer term, that won’t be enough. Radically different ways of working are likely to emerge which will upend our assumptions about how we work – within the council, and with each other. We’ve already seen some of those shifts, as local communities scrambled to set out mutual aid groups to take direct action to assist their neighbours – sometimes far more quickly than councils were able to activate and arrange their own support to volunteering. This reflect a growing trend of online activism in many areas – made easier by local Facebook and WhatsApp groups, and apps like Nextdoor – all of which disrupt the traditional models of community and civic amenity groups. Online and digital methods will provoke us to think differently about using co-production and co-design techniques to complement – and in some cases to replace – traditional council decision-making.
What does this mean for council governance – and what does it mean for now?
It means a need to be begin to think about approaches to governance (and to decision-making) which are more nimble and flexible – while still providing legal compliance and assurance. Squaring this circle will be the challenge of the next few years – as our councils transform to meet generational challenges, governance will have to as well.
This task has to start somewhere. And, as we said, we have started by working with councils to start to learn lessons from the first phase of this crisis – to see what has worked well, and what has been found wanting. Understanding these strengths and weaknesses will better place us to put in place the foundations for a more fundamental transformation.
It’s hardly been a rigorous research exercise – the nature of the spring and summer has worked against it. But some general trends we recognise have been:
- Huge variability in how councils put their “normal” governance systems on hiatus. For some, emergency decision-making arrangements were in place only for a few weeks, until the remote working Regulations were introduced. For others, some form of emergency arrangements were in place until September;
- Different practices as to how decisions have been made, and publicised, under emergency arrangements. Steps have been taken to publish decisions but often some time after they have been made;
- A “business needs”-led approach to recommencing elements of the governance framework which went on hiatus in March. A number of councils focused on starting Cabinet meetings, planning and licensing meetings first; often scrutiny meetings and full Council followed some time later.
Not everything has gone as expected, or as would be ideal. This is hardly surprising. There has been a need for quick decision-making with big consequences, and doing novel things at speed can often be challenging. If I were to say “LTNs”, for example, officers in urban authorities might nod with a sense of grim recognition. Some of these experiences might show up existing weaknesses in our governance framework, which the crisis has simply thrown into sharper relief. Others may be entirely novel, unpredictable before this crisis unfolded. Some things may have happened which – while not in themselves serious – augur poorly for future stresses on governance later in the year, in the event of a second national lockdown or extreme local financial pressures forcing exceptionally challenging decisions for the 21/22 budget.
As such, we believe there a strong case for councils to use some time now to reflect on these experiences, and to think about how we can strengthen our arrangements as the next phase of the crisis unfolds. For most this is unlikely to be a formal “debrief” style process – is it too early for that – but the prospect of Monitoring Officers pausing and reflecting on the overall strength of governance, across the piece, as we enter winter can only be a good thing.
Once the impact of the pandemic begins to recede – p a fuller exercise might begin, something that looks at the constitution and governance framework more generally, and which addresses some of the medium and long term issues outlined above.
Officers should not be expected to conduct this kind of review alone. Members have a stake in effective governance too, and a process like this should be member led. Some councillors have felt sidelined by the crisis, finding themselves in a position where critical decisions are being made by the Leader and Chief Executive with them only finding out some time afterwards. Conducting a reflective exercise like this will provide an opportunity for councils to reconnect with their member corps and to learn from their experiences – and to gain insight on community insights and expectations on council decision-making during the crisis.
Ed Hammond is Director of Research and Campaigns at the Centre for Governance and Scrutiny.