Tuesday, 9 September 2014

71. Mini Mayors

Mini mayors are local councillors with added status and recognition.  More than simply the community’s representative on the Council they are the focus for community governance.  Many councillors already act informally as mini mayors – the idea here is that this role could be formalised and given legal weight.

Mini mayor wins award for services to community governance

I was at a Welsh Government seminar this week on Reforming Local Government.  One of the questions was around the role local councillors and how it might develop. A couple of issues came out of this:

  • Many back bench councillors are disillusioned and feel they cannot make a difference.  Young councillors in particular have come into local government full of expectation but find that they are excluded from council wide decision making.
  • Sub local governance, in other words the patchwork of community and town councils, community regeneration partnerships, voluntary groups, school governing bodies etc etc, is, democratically speaking, a mess.  There is nothing that formally links everything.
  • Councillors are in a great position to tie all this together. They are already on many of these bodies, as school governors, on management committees of community centres and involved with voluntary groups.  Many councillors already wear two hats – they serve on local authorities and on their community and town councils.

As well as their traditional councillor role this means they would automatically:

  • Have a seat on the community or town council (no need to be elected)
  • Be a governor on all the schools in their patch
  • Sit on the management committee or board of any community initiatives in their areas

This would ensure that the local councillor not only had influence in all of these bodies but was able to join things up locally.  The presence of an elected councillor on all of these bodies would also ensure added democratic legitimacy for them.  At the same time the mini mayor would be a stronger position to represent the views of the community to the Council and there would also be more scope for mini mayors to facilitate public engagement in their areas through area forums or similar initiatives.

When people vote for their councillor now, they are electing someone to represent them on the Council and various committees.  Would it make a difference to turnout if people knew that the councillor they were electing would also be automatically be involved in a number of other community bodies?  Would it improve the accountability of those bodies if the mini mayor for the area gave them all a public and accessible face?

Couple of issues.  The first is, to make this work, there would probably need to be only single councillor wards.  Second, and most important there would need to be enough councillors to ensure that mini mayors are not spread too thin.  One the plus side, supporting a network of mini mayors could be an important counter balance to the increasing remoteness of our increasingly large local councils.

UPDATE:  A reality check from Councillor Simon Cooke and plenty more food for thought in this post.  In it Simon says:
Much though I see merit in the mini-mayor idea, it is a reminder that the 2000 Local Government Act emasculated local councillors and created the situation where many ended up flapping around wondering what their role and purpose might be.... What we need to do is give those councillors the support, access and capacity to actually do that vital job of kicking down the doors of bureaucrats to ensure that the people's voice echoes round those offices as loudly as possible.


Wednesday, 30 July 2014

70. Cabinet and Backbench Councillor Support: Uncrossing the Streams

National and devolved governments have separate support arrangements for their executive and non executive politicians.  In local government, however, the support streams for cabinet members and backbech councillors, including scrutiny, are crossed.  Officers work for the whole council and provide the same advice regardless of which councillors they are advising.  But why can't local government have the same separation between executive and non executive support arrangements?

Best to avoid a total protonic reversal

Mirroring the National Assembly for Wales Commission, local councils could have each have a Council Commission charged with delivering support to back bench councillors, to scrutiny and to council and committee meetings.

The Councillor Commission Expert Panel Wales thought that this type of separation was a good idea, both for the independence of the scrutiny function and for the protection of resources for backbenchers.  Their recommendation was that:
Consideration should be given to introducing a legal separation of the executive and non-executive functions of the council, with separate funding streams, that would protect the central provision of members’ services. 
You can find the full argument in their report here.

This didn't happen of course.  Opponents pointed to the added complexity, bureaucracy and cost that such a system might bring.  Important arguments that are perhaps even more pertinent now.

We have, however, had steps towards a separation of powers in Wales.  The Local Government Measure (2011) introduced Democratic Services Committees and the Head of Democratic Services Officer role specifically to ensure that support for backbench councillors was properly protected.  

Arguments For

Is it now time to go one step further and debate a full legal separation between executive and non-executive functions?    Here are 6 reasons why this could be a good idea:

  1. The independence of scrutiny from the executive would be more visible if scrutiny had independent support
  2. The Council Commission would be mirrored by a strengthened Cabinet Office providing direct administrative and policy support to the executive 
  3. Backbench councillors would be able to directly decide the best use of their own support resources
  4. A separated scrutiny function would have more credibility with other public service providers who would be less likely to see it as an arm of the local authority
  5. A separated scrutiny function would be a necessary prerequisite for local public administration committees (see the Centre for Public Scrutiny proposal here)
  6. The introduction of council commissions and cabinet offices would bring professional alignment for local government support officers with those working national government and the devolved administrations  

Of course, as the Ghostbusters will tell you, there is one really, really significant risk of crossing the streams - total protonic reversal - best to be avoided I reckon.


Friday, 4 July 2014

69. Councillor Untraining

Have just been swapping a few tweets with @GlenOcsko and @jj_mclaughlin about councillor training and development.

I’m wondering whether some of the principles of the unconference movement might be applied here (I’m not claiming to be any kind of expert, after all, I’ve only been to two).

If there are two things I've learnt about councillor training and development tho' (Ok, I’m no expert here either but I’ve seen my fair share) it’s that:

A) Councillors generally don’t like to be talked at lecture style
B) Councillors learn best from other councillors or at least from those who have been a councillor

Agenda setting at #localgovcamp 2014

Councillor Untraining 

A councillor untraining session might look like this:

Time and Space:  I don’t expect that this will be as long or as big as an unconference (although why not!).  It could be two hours with three thirty minute sessions split between two streams in two different rooms.  So yes, some time and some space. That's all you need.    

Participants:   A mix of people – mainly councillors of course but others who can contribute ideas.  Support officers, councillors from other councils – anyone who can bring something.  Main thing is that it is entirely voluntary – people are there because they want to be.  Be creative.

Pitching topics:  As in an unconference the first stage is for session ideas to be pitched so an agenda can be developed.  This needs someone to facilitate.    

Sessions:  People join (and leave) sessions as they like. Whoever pitched should lead but beyond this it’s an entirely open format (although questions seem to work pretty well).

Social media:  Always good for sharing between streams and getting people involved from outside. Also a good way to share....

Outcomes:  There is no formal requirement.  Hopefully people will want to share reflections or learning points but that is entirely up to them.  I don’t think you need to fill out a form to prove you have learnt something.

So, councillor training and development people and unconference people - are you ready to cross your streams?

Update:  Good point by @sarahlay is that @futuregov ran something along these lines called Councillor Camp.  Here's a nice set of reflections on that from Barry Kirby.

Photo: @surajkika

Friday, 27 June 2014

68. The 15 characteristics of effective scrutiny

What exactly does effective scrutiny look like?  How would you know it when you saw it?  This is not such a simple question to answer.  However, fear not.  The good folk of the Wales Scrutiny Officers Network and the Centre for Public Scrutiny in Wales have produced 15 characteristics that answer these questions very neatly.

Scrutiny in progress

The characteristics - listed below - were refined as part of the process of producing the Wales Audit Office report 'Good Scrutiny? Good Question!' and were published as an appendix to that report.  If you want to do some evaluation of your scrutiny arrangements then these are just what you need.

By the way, the references to better outcomes, decisions and engagement in brackets reflect the three purposes of scrutiny - you could break it down into three separate sections if you want.

Characteristics for effective local government overview and scrutiny


1. Overview and scrutiny has a clearly defined and valued role in the council's improvement and governance arrangements. [Better Outcomes]

2. Overview and scrutiny has the dedicated officer support it needs from officers who are able to undertake independent research effectively, and provides councillors with high-quality analysis, advice and training. [Better Outcomes]

3. Overview and scrutiny councillors have the training and development opportunities they need to undertake their role effectively. [Better Decisions]

4. The process receives effective support from the council’s corporate management team who ensures that information provided to overview and scrutiny is of high quality and is provided in a timely and consistent manner. [Better Decisions]

5. Overview and scrutiny is recognised by the executive and corporate management team as an important council mechanism for community engagement, and facilitates greater citizen involvement in governance. [Better Engagement]


6. Overview and scrutiny inquiries are non-political, methodologically sound and incorporate a wide range of evidence and perspectives. [Better Outcomes]

7. Overview and scrutiny is councillor-led, takes into account the views of the public, partners and regulators, and balances the prioritisation of community concerns against issues of strategic risk and importance. [Better Decisions]

8. Overview and scrutiny meetings and activities are well-planned, chaired effectively and make best use of the resources available to it. [Better Decisions]

9. Overview and scrutiny is characterised by effective communication to raise awareness of, and encourage participation in democratic accountability. [Better Engagement]

10. Overview and scrutiny operates non-politically and deals effectively with sensitive political issues, tension and conflict. [Better Engagement]

11. Overview and scrutiny builds trust and good relationships with a wide variety of internal and external stakeholders. [Better Engagement]


12. Overview and scrutiny regularly engages in evidence based challenge of decision makers and service providers. [Better Outcomes]

13. Overview and scrutiny provides viable and well evidenced solutions to recognised problems. [Better Outcomes]

14. Decision makers give public account for themselves at overview and scrutiny committees for their portfolio responsibilities. [Better Decisions]

15. Overview and scrutiny enables the 'voice' of local people and communities across the area to be heard as part of decision and policy-making processes. [Better Engagement]

Photo:  https://flic.kr/p/o81ZdU