Now more than ever, councils are pressed on all sides by financial, demographic and social issues – not to mention the challenge of reducing inequality, made even more urgent by the impact of the pandemic.
How do we understand and act on these challenges? Being able to take good decisions confidently is central to our response. This requires good governance – but where our resilience as a sector has been impacted in recent years, how can we be confident that we have the resilience to weather the coming months and years?
The Centre for Governance and Scrutiny (CfGS), and the think-tank Localis, have been working together over the past year and a half to develop a framework to help councils to tackle these questions. I think it provides a large part of the solution to one of the questions which nags senior leaders – how do I know where and when risks to governance are emerging, and how can I tackle them proportionately before they develop into more serious concerns?
One of the biggest challenges in taking local action in this area is that senior officers and members can sometimes lack the insight to analyse and reflect on governance in this way. This defensiveness can, itself, be a marker of governance weakness. It means that when these kinds of national tools are produced, the councils which most need to use them end up being the ones least likely to take them up.
In some councils, a sense of exceptionalism emerges – an approach which dismisses this kind of reflection as navel-gazing and which leads to an authority whose sense of itself and its strengths and weaknesses ends up diverging more and more from the reality.
For this reason, the framework is not designed to be ‘implemented’ by councils corporately, requiring some form of ‘signup’ by an authority’s senior leadership. It’s something that can be used by anyone in an authority – member or officer.
The framework focuses not on compliance with the law and good practice on processes and formal systems, but on behaviours and culture. It is about understanding where roles, relationships and responsibilities sit – in some respect it echoes the ‘accountability systems statements’ which I introduced as head of the Civil Service. More than anything, it provides a common language that councillors, officers and others with a stake in good governance can use to converse about where risks lie, and a way for non-governance professionals to recognise the collective responsibility that we all have to support the way that councils work, the way they engage with their partners and the way they engage with the wider community.
At its core is a set of characteristics which councillors and officers can use to explore their own personal experiences as part of a local governance system – highlighting this need for individual responsibility. This can be used to unearth risks and challenges, and can empower anyone in the council to take action to address them.
The framework also provides the tools that a council’s principal statutory officers – that is, the head of paid service, the Section 151 officer and the monitoring officer – can use to draw out particularly complex or cross-cutting governance challenges, and to take action to solve them. In doing so, it can provide intelligence and insight that informs the review that must precede the drafting of the Annual Governance Statement – anchoring this process into the council’s formal governance systems.
The proof of this kind of tool’s utility will lie in your response to it, and its eventual adoption. Based on the sector response to it and what will hopefully be in use in a few months at a number of authorities, CfGS proposes to make refinements in the autumn. This is very much part of an ongoing conversation rather than the imposition of a checklist or set of standards to which all are expected to adhere. I look forward, as CfGS’s chair, to seeing where this conversation will lead.
Lord Bob Kerslake is chair of the Centre for Governance and Scrutiny, president of the Local Government Association and a former head of the Civil Service