Lessons from literature for local government

Professor Catherine Staite LLB, MBA, FRSA

No man is an island entire of itself: every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main;

If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were,

As well as any manner of thy friends or of thine own were.

Any man’s death diminishes me because I am involved in mankind,

And therefore, never send to know for whom the bell tolls;

It tolls for thee.

John Donne

When every week seems to bring news of yet another major failure of governance in a local authority, some members and officers in other councils will be fearful that the same fate will befall their own council before too long, while others will be confident that all will be well for them.

When we look at the notable governance failures that have occurred in recent years, we see a very complex picture. Causes of failure are many and varied, ranging from the absence of the most basic controls to ambitious but risky money-making schemes. Some patterns are visible in all the complexity, including, failure to listen to officer advice, engaging in commercial activities without the requisite skills and knowledge, weak financial controls and opaque decision-making processes.

Councils need both strong rules, about finance and behaviour and strong public service values. Constant vigilance and honest collective self-reflection are vital to ensure that decision makers are independent, transparent, accountable, behave with integrity, have a sense of shared purpose and focus on outcomes. Ask yourself – are our informal and formal governance arrangements fit-for-purpose? If not, where might the weaknesses lie? Look at your structures. Are your Constitution, Codes of Conduct and Standing Orders up-to-date? Is your organizational structure robust? Are your s151 officer and Monitoring Officer on the senior management team and do they report directly to the Chief Executive? Then look at your systems. Are decision making processes clear? Can projects be started without the right sign-off? Can officers exceed their authority without consequences? Last, but by no means least, take a long hard look at organizational behaviour. How do leading politicians and officers respond to being challenged? Is bad behaviour rife but undiscussable?

It’s important to avoid complacency. Most of the members and officers leading and managing councils that have failed to uphold the best standards of good governance either thought what they were doing was fine, or that they could get away with it. Sometimes those who are part of an organization are the last to notice how the patterns of weak governance and bad behaviour, which have become so familiar that they cease to be noticed, will eventually lead to their downfall. Even when officers can see that their council is not going to able to balance its books or manage its risks, it can be difficult to speak up if members do not want to listen and it can be career limiting when a bullying culture prevails. Although statutory officers have statutory powers and duties, they are will not be protected from retaliation if they are perceived to be raining on the parade of colleagues and members who, because of ambition or political expediency, have lost sight of what good governance looks like. The statutory protections that attach to senior roles are not proof against bullying or actions amounting to constructive dismissal. The power imbalance between members and officers remains significant because while members may lose positions of power, or even their seats, officers risk losing their livelihoods and even their careers.

Those members and officers who consider themselves safe from failure may take some guilty pleasure from the failure of another council, especially if its run by another party. Councils have been encouraged to compete with each other for funding and kudos, so perhaps it’s natural to feel that the standing of better run councils goes up when the reputations of failing councils go right down. That’s a big mistake, for two very strong reasons; failure of one local authority reduces public confidence in local government as whole and it gives central government convincing reasons for not delegating resources and power to a local level. For all that we refer to ‘sovereign’ councils, no council is ‘an island, entire of itself’ and the failure of one diminishes all. When we open the LGC or MJ, to see for ‘whom the bell tolls’ we should hear the message that ‘it tolls for thee’.

Picture credit: Maggie Meng https://www.flickr.com/photos/snowfish2014/

Catherine is a researcher, consultant and coach who specialises in strengthening leadership, improving governance and supporting senior politicians and managers.  She is an independent consultant with Darlingburn, a small consultancy practice and is working with Grant Thornton on local government audit, specializing in governance. She was the Director of the Institute of Local Government Studies (INLOGOV) at the University of Birmingham from 2011 to 2017.

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