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]


Monday, 23 June 2014

67. 11 digital tips for new councillors

These tips come from our @LDBytes session at #localgovcamp June 2014 co facilitated by @gr8governance who also helped with the editing - cheers Carl.  It's part of our Rewiring Local Democracy work.

Good points being made
It was a brilliant day and we were fortunate to have a great mix of excellent contributors; councillors and officers; in the room and via twitter.  This list is a just a starting point – please feel free to add and correct.

Our question for the session was ‘What advice would you give to new councillors who want to use digital?’  This was not particularly about councillors who had never used twitter before (although it works for them as well) but for those who perhaps already know social media but want to find out how to use it in their new role.

The consensus was that digital does make better councillors but you have to know why you are using it; that it’s not just about broadcasting messages – you need to engage and respond.  We also thought that digital should be part of every councillor induction but, just in case it isn't where you are; here are some tips to get you started.

1.     Find out your local rules.  We certainly got the feeling that social media for councillors is on the rise but not yet everywhere.  Some councils still ban twitter from meetings for example whereas others encourage all their councillors to go digital (Lambeth sounds like a great example).  If you don’t like what is going on with you then you should...

2. Change your local rules.  Ask the people who run your council why things can’t be different, hang on a minute, you run the council don’t you?  Not sure what you are asking for?  Here is a handy checklist to get you started.

3. Check out what support is available.  Again, there can be big differences between councils, and between different councillor roles (Cabinet and scrutiny for example) but see what is available.  Make sure that officers are producing the kind of content that you will want to share through social media.

4. Listen before you speak.  Social media is a listening tool first and foremost.  Also it is important to get to know the terrain before you contribute.  We also heard some very good advice about pausing before you respond – you are publishing in public after all.

5. Don’t annoy people by campaigning.  Even at election time.   People want to hear about what you are doing to improve the area but will get turned off by constant recycling of ‘party lines' on social media.

6. Be careful when tweeting from meetings.  Not everyone thinks this is a good idea or likes to see councillors tweeting when they “should be listening”.  You should play this by ear (see point 1).   One thought we had was that an official twitter feed from meetings provided by officers would reduce the need for councillors to tweet (see point 2).  The officer stream is good for providing the commentary (which is by its nature factual) while the councillor value is in providing personal insight and views. In an ideal world we would like to see free wifi provided in council chambers and everyone encouraged to use social media (see point 2, again)

7. Use twitter.  As an organising tool – you can link to campaigns using hashtags and even start campaigns.  As an accountability tool – let people know what you are doing and maybe even, how you are voting.  As a way to link to useful people in your area.  Often councillors are given lists of other councillors to follow but what about the local CVS, partners, private providers, the hyperlocal websites, the movers and shakers etc etc.  We think every councillor should be provided with a ‘who to follow list’.

8. Find the councillors who are already using digital and speak to them.  Councillors learn best when they are hearing it from other councillors so find out who does it well in your area or the next area or wherever.  We think Council’s should involve social media savvy councillors in delivering their induction training.  It has worked in Kirklees – check out cllrsocmed to see what we are talking about.

9. Make sure you know what to do during an emergency.  We heard examples of how councillors both helped and hindered by using social media during emergencies such as floods.  Make sure you have the right advice before giving it to others.
Update:  Ben Proctor said he would write something on this.  And he has.  And it's a must read.  Read it here.

10. Don’t forget the non- digital folk.  You need to use the right channels to reach the right people but actually you, as a councillor, are brilliantly placed to do this.  We heard about how church halls can be used alongside facebook pages to reach out wider.  You are in the perfect position to connect everyone together.

11. Promote digital democracy.  As a digital councillor you should be a champion for the ways in which digital can get people involved.  We talked about online registration as one very good example – but we all need to be on a mission to get people involved and voting.  Always.

Photo: @surajkika