Governance and accountability: from dull subject to hot topic

Catherine Staite
Accountability is the lifeblood of good governance.  Good leaders understand that they are responsible for the well-being of others, that they need to explain their actions, really listen to those on whom those actions have an impact and act swiftly to put things right if they go wrong.  They know that the higher the level of vulnerability of the people they serve, the higher the duty of care – to serve the powerless and not to demean or demonize them. Good leaders would say that none of that needs to be said because governance and accountability are written through their everyday working lives like lettering through rock. That may be true of good leaders but it isn’t true of everyone.

There are so many flaws in our fragmented systems of governance that it can be very hard to understand who really is accountable when things go wrong.  There has been much focus recently on the negative impacts of privatising regulatory services but that is just the tip of the iceberg. Just think about the outsourcing of benefits assessment to a demonstrably incompetent company, the divestment of social housing from councils, the purchaser/provider split in health and the structural, professional, financial and organisational chasms between health and social care.  All of those exercises in fragmentation result in the people all these different services serve falling through those cracks without ever understanding who is responsible for their suffering. Homelessness is a classic example of this phenomenon. Failure compounds failure and more energy is expended  on shunting the blame than on solving the problems.

That might lead us to believe that all we need to do to put things right is tidy up a bit and then create a couple more regulatory bodies, et voila, job done.  That has always appealed to me; I do love a tidy structure. But even as I crave order, I know that we’ll never achieve it. The reality is that systems, structures and processes in both the public and private sectors are complex and messy and doubly so where sectors intersect, as in public transport or primary care. If we tidy up in one place, we’ll create knock-on messiness somewhere else.  We’d do better to focus on the people in the system – on developing their skills and strengthening their values so they understand the real importance of good governance and the critical role of accountability.

The key to future good governance and accountability lies in the way in which we recruit, train, develop, manage and lead our 21st century public servants.  That is also true of our democratic representatives. A democratic mandate alone does not confer wisdom or effectiveness.  Yet, most councils have cut their staff and member development budgets to the bone, as development is a luxury and not a vital necessity.

We all the see the necessity of the maintenance and repair of our cars, our computers and our washing machines. The maintenance and good governance of our organisations is even more important.  Mechanical failures can cause many problems but the failure of organisations destroys lives.

Catherine Staite 02

Catherine Staite is Professor of Public Management and Director of Public Service Reform at the University of Birmingham. As Director of Public Service Reform, Professor Catherine Staite leads the University’s work supporting the transformation and reform of public services, with a particular focus on the West Midlands.  As a member of INLOGOV, Catherine leads our on-line and blended programmes, Catherine also helps to support INLOGOV’s collaboration with a wide range of organisations, including the Local Government Association  and the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives as well as universities in the USA, Europe, Australia and China. She was named by the Local Government Chronicle, in 2015 and 2016 as one of the top 100 most influential people in local government.

The local and mayoral elections – and the significance of that 4-2 scoreline

Chris Game

Local elections present the INLOGOV blog with an annual dilemma. They’re the heartbeat of democratic local government, its lifeblood, or something equally vital. So, they must be covered and key results namechecked. But INLOGOV’s not a news service, and, with so many Friday counts nowadays and results instantly available on social media, you have somehow to strike a balance.

The first part of this blog, therefore, will give the headlines, from a strictly local government perspective. That means, first, changes in council control; second, changes in councillor numbers; and third, excluding one minor indulgence, no conjecturing whatever about implications for that other election.

Conservatives, of course, were the big winners, almost everywhere. So, to be perverse, we’ll start with a titbit of consolatory Labour news, from the seven unitary polls. Durham it still controls, and Northumberland – thanks to the Conservative candidate in the potentially decisive ward literally picking the short straw – stays technically hung, though no longer under Labour minority control. After mass gains from particularly Independents, Conservatives are the largest party in Cornwall and back in control in the Isle of Wight.

Of the 27 non-metropolitan counties, even before last Thursday Labour had majority control in only Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire, and shared minority control in Cumbria and Lancashire. Conservatives are now in control of the first and last of these and are easily the largest party in the other two. Cambridgeshire, East Sussex, Gloucestershire, Lincolnshire, Norfolk, Oxfordshire, Suffolk and Warwickshire all swung from minority to majority Conservative control.

As was widely, and even gleefully, reported, UKIP too lost heavily, its single gain in Lancashire being rather more than counterbalanced by at least double-figure losses in Cambridgeshire, Kent, Lincolnshire, Norfolk, Suffolk and West Sussex.

Turning to overall councillor numbers, the Conservatives gained what for a party in national government was an almost mind-boggling 563 seats: 319 in England, 164 in Scotland, far more than doubling their previous representation, and 80 in Wales – the latter, according to more knowledgeable commentators than I, putting the party on course (in that election I’m not mentioning) for its first nationwide Welsh victory since the Earl of Derby managed it in 1859.

Labour’s car crash involved losing net 382 councillors – bringing to 15 years the period since, in terms of councillor numbers, it was the largest party in GB local government – UKIP 145, and the Liberal Democrats what must have been a deeply dispiriting 42.

And so to what, for the immediate future of at least England’s sub-national government, were surely last week’s most important elections, and collectively way up there amongst the most mind-boggling: those of our first(?) six metro mayors. I can hardly imagine the odds you could have got, even a week ago, on four of the six being Conservative. However, it’s there in my table, in blue and pink. And, whatever one’s reservations about elected mayors and the whole limited, top-down, Treasury-driven, fiscally minimal devolution model, I’d suggest that nothing over the past 11 months has given it a greater boost.

MetroMayoralresults-3

The first several months of May’s premiership she spent almost visibly dithering over what to do about the severed agenda of devo deals and elected mayors she’d inherited from the axed George Osborne and shuffled ex-Communities Secretary, Greg Clark. Then – I simplify enormously – two things happened.

First, Andy Street decided he’d stop being MD of the John Lewis Partnership and run as a Conservative for the biggest and politically most attractive metro mayoralty of all, the West Mids – in time to be adopted, and then paraded with May at the party’s October Birmingham conference.

At the same time, something else helped change her view that one big reason why metro mayors were a bad idea was that most, if not all, would be Labour. Several of Clark’s nine envisaged metro-mayoral city regions, during the May-created devo vacuum, started for various reasons to lose interest or patience and drop out – West Yorkshire, Sheffield City Region, the North East – and the political arithmetic began to alter. To the extent that I suggested she could realistically conceive of the first set of mayoral elections producing three Conservative and three Labour mayors. Even for the sake of an eye-catching headline, though, I’d never have contemplated 4-2.

And, as the table shows, three of the four results, after the two counts involved in the Supplementary Vote (SV) electoral system, were extremely close. Street’s majority was exceptionally so – 0.71979% of over half a million votes cast, to be precise. This in itself would weaken any victor’s mandate, particularly when achieved in what, by the standards of anything other than Police and Crime Commissioner ballots, were very low-turnout elections.

The SV system was adopted for mayoral elections almost by accident, and many consider that the more familiar Alternative Vote – that we rejected for parliamentary elections in the 2011 referendum – would be fitter for this particular purpose. Its defenders, though, claim it has worked well in London, is voter-friendly, produces clear winners, and is accepted by all concerned.

My table would suggest otherwise, at least on its first showing. In the West Midlands, in a hugely significant election decided by well under 4,000 votes, over 40,000 votes that might have contributed to the result didn’t do so. They were either not used at all, or were cast for candidates who, highly predictably in this instance, had already been eliminated after the first count.

It’s impossible to avoid the conclusion that large numbers even of the small minority who turned out didn’t fully comprehend the system they were voting in – for which the Electoral Commission must be held chiefly responsible. As also for the huge disparities in candidate expenditure permitted before the ‘regulated’ campaign period, which again in such a closely run race can and will be alleged to have been decisive. In short, the Commission, as well as the mayors themselves, have plenty of work to do in what is only a three-year term to 2020.

Chris Game - pic

Chris Game is a Visiting Lecturer at INLOGOV interested in the politics of local government; local elections, electoral reform and other electoral behaviour; party politics; political leadership and management; member-officer relations; central-local relations; use of consumer and opinion research in local government; the modernisation agenda and the implementation of executive local government.

Councils going bankrupt? Don’t be Scilly!

Chris Game

 

Remember the old London bus joke: you wait for ages, then three come along at once? Well, some local government finance anoraks have been waiting ages for a 114, and now two 24s arrive, almost in mini-convoy.

Not buses, of course – but key sections of Acts of Parliament. Section 114 of the Local Government Finance Act 1988 requires a council’s Chief Finance Officer (CFO) to issue a s114 Notice reporting to all elected members an actual or impending seriously unbalanced budget.

As indicated, they’re infrequent, issued only in what CIPFA terms (p.3) “the gravest of circumstances” – current spending way beyond budget, reserves virtually exhausted, no imminent solution. Their impact too is grave – effectively freezing spending until councillors agree measures to achieve a balanced budget. But … they do keep the crisis in-house.

The alternative – being required to wash your dirty linen in public – is the dreaded Section 24 of the Local Audit and Accountability Act 2014. Here, a council’s external auditors append a written s24 ‘Recommendation’ to their Annual Audit letter, “copied to the Secretary of State”. The recommending and copying may sound chummy, but it’s the bullet-shaped chumminess of a Mafia ‘message job’. S24 Notices are very nasty, and happily very rare – or were.

Recently the Isles of Scilly Council received one, which is interesting in itself, since not everyone’s clear what it actually is: not part of the already enormous Cornwall Council, but a sui generis unitary authority – in a class of its own.

It’s considerably smaller than my own authority, Birmingham City Council (bear with me, it’s not that daft a comparison), with one-480th of its population – though, interestingly, one councillor for every 109 residents, compared to Birmingham’s post-2018 ration of one for every 10,900. And, as a genuine unitary, it has Birmingham’s major functions, including an airport, plus fire services, water supply, sea fisheries and coastal defence.

Unfortunately, Scilly’s unique status doesn’t exempt it from the austerity pressures and grant cuts faced by all English councils. It’s suffering badly, and its external auditors concluded that – with £3 million needed to pay staff and suppliers, no council tax income for the last two months of the financial year, and reserves down to £0.5 million – the law required Section 24, ‘recommending’ in terms (p.37) that the Council get its whole financial act together, extremely pronto.

Its impact, warning notwithstanding, can be surmised from the reaction of the eminent former Labour leader of the previous council to have received a s24 missive, just last November from coincidentally the same auditors, Grant Thornton. “The most concerning audit letter I have seen in all my [36] years on the council” was Cllr Sir Albert Bore’s verdict – the council being Birmingham, and the equivalent budget black hole not £3 million but pushing £38 million.

Just as Aristotle’s single swallow did not a summer make, two s24s don’t themselves make a systemic winter crisis. They’re surely, though, a sign – given that not one such report was issued to any council during the whole four-year 2010 spending review period, and we’ve now had two in two months.

But a sign of what? That’s rhetorical. I’m categorically not a local finance expert, and in this blog’s limited remaining space there are no answers – just three observations.

  1. Why no s114s?

 In the past we’d see them at least occasionally. Now there are rumoured sightings – e.g. in Northamptonshire – yet what have materialised are the two s24s, the proverbial nuclear option. It’s been suggested that the (post-1988 Local Finance Act) statutory duties of Social Services Directors mean a s114-prompted total spending freeze could prevent, say, a vulnerable child being placed in care. But CIPFA Chief Executive Rob Whiteman has rejected this interpretation.

  1. Please, not the B-word

There’s unfortunately no way of avoiding the media headline, but Scilly, Birmingham and probably any financially struggling English councils aren’t about to ‘go bankrupt’ in the sense in which the word is commonly understood. UK councils, unlike US local government or our own national government, are statutorily required to set each year a balanced budget. Running a deficit of the smallest fraction of Detroit’s nearly $400 million in 2013 is simply not possible – indeed, a very s(c)illy idea.

3. But watch for those ‘statutory duties’

So not bankruptcy in the normal legal sense, but almost daily signs and public warnings – Conservative Surrey’s seriously contemplated 15% council tax referendum, tax hikes all round of approaching 5%, hitherto protected adult care budgets now being cut and 13% of responding councils in the MJ/LGIU 2017 State of Local Government Finance Survey –reporting “a danger they would no longer have enough funding to fulfil their statutory duties in the coming year”.

Which would mean facing legal challenge for failing to meet those statutory duties and/or declaring ‘technical insolvency’. Not ‘bankruptcy’, note; but, as the famous duck test puts it: if it looks like, walks like, and quacks like a duck ….

 

Chris Game - pic

Chris Game is a Visiting Lecturer at INLOGOV interested in the politics of local government; local elections, electoral reform and other electoral behaviour; party politics; political leadership and management; member-officer relations; central-local relations; use of consumer and opinion research in local government; the modernisation agenda and the implementation of executive local government.

Ministers say they’re pro-devolution, but don’t they listen even to themselves?

Chris Game

The signs are that we’ll be seeing fewer overseas students in Birmingham in the future. Which is regrettable in so many ways and deserves public airing and protest – but it isn’t, I confess, the real prompt for this blog. The best link I can manage is to suggest that, were students from a pretty high proportion of the 150-odd nations represented on our campus to read some of this week’s media headlines, they’d surely be surprised at how centrally dominated and fiscally weaker even England’s biggest local authorities (like Birmingham City Council) seem than sub-national governments in their own, often reputedly less democratic, countries.

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New ways of working for district councils

Anthony Mason

My primary school history teacher always taught that the shires of England were mapped out by Alfred the Great. For me, that story was confirmed by an illustration in my treasured Ladybird book on the great man (Alfred – not the teacher) that shows four burly Saxons knocking in a waymark post as they lay out the boundary pattern. I still have that book. I later learned that while the reality was much more complicated, it is essentially true that much of our shire county structure would be familiar to a returning Anglo Saxon – even if not much else would be.

And while our present pattern of local government boundaries isn’t quite so longstanding, the institutional structure of local government outside the cities and metropolitan areas in England has been much more stable than the landscape in health administration – which seems to change with every incoming Secretary of State. Of course, we’ve seen some reorganisation in the shire counties in the years since 1974, when the foundations of our present system were put into place, but much of rural England is still governed by two tiers of council – three if you count the parishes.

The relative stability of the system doesn’t prevent people talking about changing it. On the contrary, no gathering of local government officers or members would be complete without talk of the supposed delights or evils of unitary local government – especially in the bar later at night. Our counterparts in Wales and Scotland have gone down the unitary path some time ago; and for some, the crazy English mosaic of cities, unitaries, counties, boroughs and districts is an affront to rational workable local governance.

Eric Pickles isn’t among these. And while the great man is famous (or infamous) for many things, his mythical “pearl-handled revolver” ready for the first person to come into his office and propose the structural reorganisation of local government, must be one of his most repeated aphorisms. For once, he may be on to something. Recent work by the New Local Government Network points out that while there are savings to be had from “unitarising” two tier councils, there are costs involved as well. The report also makes a strong case that some of the claimed savings from reorganisation may already have been realised as district councils increasingly work in collaboration and share services and even management teams in some cases.

INLOGOV is now working with the District Councils’ Network (DCN) to explore further the case for retaining the essence of the two tier structure after the 2015 general election. This doesn’t mean no-change: rather, it recognises that structural reorganisation of itself may offer little stimulus to change. Transformation comes from adopting new and sometimes radically different ways of working and collaborating across the public and voluntary sectors rather than worrying about tiers of councils. We’re relatively early in the project and the DCN team has just issued a “call for evidence” to districts (and indeed others) to showcase new and innovative models of working – especially where there is good evidence of positive outcomes.

So now is the opportunity for those in two tier local government to map out the case for innovation and creativity in the way they work – but still set in the 1974 institutional structures. You have until January 16th 2015 to make a submission.

Perhaps my Ladybird book (price, 2/6d) can have some currency for a little while longer?

Anthony Mason

Anthony Mason is an Associate at INLOGOV and works mostly on local government systems and organisation and on improving public sector partnerships.  His early career was in local government followed by more than 20 years in PwC’s public sector consultancy team

Postcard from Tokyo: local government remorse, Japanese-style

Chris Game

I’ve had the good fortune to spend the past week in Tokyo, as Japan commemorates the 50th anniversary of arguably the most geo-politically transformative Olympic Games, in the city that underwent a scarcely credible urban transformation in order to stage them.

The figures still stagger: 10,000 new 4 to 7-storey office and residential buildings, 100 kms of new super-highways and 40 kms of subway lines, a new airport-to-city monorail, plus the instantly world-famous 210 kph shinkansen bullet train – and all in barely four years.

Then there were the Games themselves: the first live- and colour-telecast Opening Ceremony, hosted (not presided over) by the vanquished but unprosecuted Emperor Hirohito; the exclusion of South Africa; and, courtesy of Seiko, the first electronic automated timing systems giving results down to 1/100th of a second accuracy.

It was my second year away from my Essex home at the University of Manchester, and I recall these things pretty clearly. But I’d virtually forgotten a favourite bit of contemporary trivia: that the signage discouraging Japanese men’s habit of relieving themselves openly in the streets was not, as you might put it, penal, but communal – “Let’s refrain from urinating in public”.

Even if we had ‘oop north’ – as I fear my mother at least half-imagined – indulged in such practices, the Mancunian forces of law and order would surely have adopted a more individualistic and punitive approach.

I remember thinking, even with my nil first-hand knowledge of Japan, that those two short opening words surely represented something more fundamental – the distinction between what we’d label today as the Individual-Agency Culture of most western countries and the Collective-Agency Culture of those like Japan, where communities play a more central role in society.

It’s a distinction that’s perhaps most frequently noted in respect of apologising, of which the Japanese do far more than we do, partly because we largely restrict ours to actions for which we are personally to blame. The Japanese are almost compulsive apologisers – if you doubt it, check out Wikipedia’s list of their governments’ more than 50 WWII apology statements – to the extent that they differentiate, enumerate, taxonomise and behaviouralise the numerous ways in which remorse can and should be expressed.

As an ignorant gaijin (foreigner), I can mostly get by with ever-ready, spoken sumimasens – a kind of Category 1 hybrid sorry/excuse me – to cover everything from bumping into littler people on the overcrowded subway to generally behaving like a western wus. I sometimes add what I hope may resemble a Japanese-type shallow bow.

After that, though, apologising becomes more serious: the distinctions more subtle and the bows ever deeper until they become grovels or prostrations. I received, quite unnecessarily, an apparently Category 3 deep bow, head down, from the optometrist salesperson who was unable to repair the arm of my spectacles.

Basil Fawlty would probably essay an ingratiating Category 5 ‘perpetual ojigi’ – deep bow indefinitely repeated until requested to stop – to any hotel inspector he might incidentally have offended.  And, if you’re actually caught in the act of doing something seriously obscene and/or offensive, then for you it’s a Category 7 dogeza – which isn’t Japanese for doggy-style, but does entail the penitent assuming a disconcertingly similar posture of self-abasement.

And my point is?  Well, while it obviously may be a product of being here in the remorse capital of the world, to me this past week’s UK news headlines seemed to include a disproportionate quota of apology stories.

First, there was Sheffield United footballer and convicted rapist, Ched Evans, being asked to show not just shame, which he had expressed, but also ‘genuine’ contrition and remorse before being allowed to resume his career, even while pursuing an action for a miscarriage of justice.

The pseudonymous ‘Jean Hatchet’ online petition was aptly named. The 150,000+ signatories – nearly nine times United’s average home attendance – called on the club not to reinstate Evans under apparently any circumstances.

They were after lifelong vengeance, rather than apologies, but I did wonder if at least some of them might have settled, had it been available, for a Category 8 doge-fuse – the ultimate apology, with Evans prostrating himself, face down, preferably on the muddiest Bramall Lane pitch available.

Some would happily have seen TV presenter, Judy Finnigan, join him, for failing to grasp that today non-consensual sexual contact, regardless of gender or location, is sexual violence – end of.

OTT, obviously. Still, it did seem surprising that someone with her experience failed to anticipate the widespread offence her remarks would cause, and so maybe a Category 4 ‘long ojigi’ would be appropriate – a deep bow, and no rising until given permission.

I’ve no idea what planet the Russian Tennis Federation President inhabits, but, after describing Venus and Serena as “the Williams Brothers”, if he escaped with a long ojigi, he should consider himself lucky.

Which leaves the unfortunate junior welfare minister, Lord Freud. Being one of those politicians who’ve avoided the messy business of actually contesting elections, he failed to foresee the ruthlessness with which a desperate Labour leader would twist and exploit his unscripted remarks about some employers judging some learning disabled employees as incapable of doing work for which they’d deign to pay the minimum wage.

It sounds like another Judy Finnigan, but the luckless Baron was additionally required to make a Category 2 deep and public bow to David Cameron for drawing attention to the gap in his Government’s otherwise faultless integrated tax and benefits system.

Tokyo, the Olympics, Japanese apologies, Evans, Finnigan, Freud – eclectic but, I concede, not a huge amount of local government. Time, therefore, for my own apologetic explanation of my flimsy pretext. There were two quite prominent Japanese local government apology stories over the summer, both accompanied by video clips. Between them, they were, I felt, sufficiently unusual, insightful, and in one case downright bizarre, to justify sharing with any colleagues who may have missed them.

The first involved two Tokyo city assembly members and the kind of repulsive sexist behaviour which is on regular display in our own House of Commons, but which generates more outcry in the supposedly more male chauvinist culture of Japan.

Speaking in a debate on measures to support child-raising and boost fertility [at current birth and death rates, Japan’s 127 million population is projected to fall to 87 million by 2060], (unmarried) assembly member Ayaka Shiomura was interrupted and visibly upset by cries of “Hurry up and get married” and “Can’t you give birth?”

A Liberal Democratic member, Akihiro Suzuki, eventually confessed to at least the first and at an ensuing press conference bowed deeply and apologized “from the bottom of my heart for inflicting heavy heartache and causing trouble to assembly member fellow lawmaker Ayaka Shiomura, the assembly and the public.”

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By this time, any of you who recognize or recall the name Ryutaro Nonomura will know precisely what comes next. Nonomura, a Hyogo prefecture assemblyman, held a long and emotional news conference to answer questions about his alleged misuse of some of his annual ‘policy research’ allowance of ¥6 million (£36,000) – during which he broke down in tears, sobbed uncontrollably, wailed incoherently, and produced a video performance that immediately went viral. I’ve selected two of the many available clips: a longer, sadistic version showing the build-up to, from about 6:45 minutes, the full car crash; and a highlights version showing in English subtitles what he apparently meant to convey.

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There are two overriding impressions left by the Nonomura video clips. The first is that he must have been as guilty as hell – which is only partly true. In acknowledgement that assembly members are proper policy and law makers, the political activities allowance – on top of an annual salary of ¥11.6 million (£67,000) – is deliberately broadly defined and correspondingly loosely monitored. Yes, Nonomura clearly did stretch the interpretation of the ‘other activities’ the allowance was intended to cover – more so probably than he admitted at his news conference.

But, unlike some of our local and national politicians found guilty of similar charges, all his dubious trips were undertaken, and, as the prefectural office admitted, they were not in themselves illegal. Had he collected and submitted receipts, he might well have got away with his travel excesses, if not some of the others. As has since been acknowledged, the prefecture’s sloppy bookkeeping also has much to answer for.

The second thing is that, if part of his aim in holding the news conference was to convince the public about his sincerity as a representative and legislator, then he surely succeeded. As the subtitled clip shows, Nonomura REALLY cares – about his prefecture, his people, Japan, its ageing population, and no doubt a great deal else – and I’m not sure you could say as much for some/most of our expenses cheats.

Chris Game - pic

Chris Game is a Visiting Lecturer at INLOGOV interested in the politics of local government; local elections, electoral reform and other electoral behaviour; party politics; political leadership and management; member-officer relations; central-local relations; use of consumer and opinion research in local government; the modernisation agenda and the implementation of executive local government.