The new political structures introduced by some councils are only transitional, and will need to be reviewed in the light of coming legislation. The danger is these reviews may be too limited.
A council may see its task as the introduction of only an executive and a scrutiny function. This approach is dangerous for two reasons. The first is it puts structure before purpose, and form before function. It is wrong to see the aim as solely the introduction of a cabinet or a mayor.
The goal must be to build an effective council, which involves considering the sort of authority the council and its citizens want to create. Within each of the options is a set of choices which should be determined only after there has been a decision about the purpose.
To avoid these dangers we suggest some rules to bear in mind when drawing up the design. Such considerations should be faced before the design is decided.
Consider the role of the council and the way of working desired. The main case for new political structures lies in the three key aspects enunciated by the government: community leadership, democratic renewal and best value. When discussing these issues the government seems to think it is preaching to the heathen.
The reality is local government developed these ideas, which are now shared by local and central government. However, each council has to consider what they mean for its way of working.
Consider the strengths, as well as the weaknesses, of the existing structure.
Much attention is paid to the weaknesses of the existing system, but it has its strengths too - in the openness of its formal decisions and the involvement of councillors. New structures should overcome the weaknesses but maintain the strengths of the existing system.
Consider the whole range of meanings given to overview and scrutiny.
Some councils do not appear to have noticed the wide range of meanings given by the government to 'overview and scrutiny', or the change from 'scrutiny' to the broader phrase. They see it as scrutinising performance and decisions and not, as the government emphasises, including developing policy proposals and advising the executive (Local leadership local choice, par 3.19).
Consider the role of the whole council.
Some councils do not seem to have noticed the emphasis given by the government to the role of the council as the authority responsible for policy (Local leadership local choice, par 3.9).
A council will have to decide on a series of key policy plans and any decision departing from existing policy. To discharge these functions it will need to consider the form and frequency of council meetings.
Consider how to avoid the danger of executive overload. The executive will be responsible for the day-to-day running of the council. It will take over the functions of the main service committees.
This could well engulf the executive, allowing it no time for developing policy or providing community leadership. The executive must be prepared to delegate to members, officers and area committees. Consider how councillors can support as well as scrutinise.
The government recognises the executive will need support as well as scrutiny from councillors. One of the functions given to overview and scrutiny committees in Local leadership local choice (par 3.19) is to 'provide advice to the executive on major issues before final decisions are made'. Some councils introducing transitional arrangements have developed advisory
roles of councillors in support of the executive.
Consider how the representative role can influence decision-making. The government has emphasised it will enable councillors to develop the representative role. This is a view that surprises many councillors who have devoted time and effort to this role.
They must be assured it will be a real influence and lead to action. Otherwise, there will be frustration if issues raised are not dealt with. This factor has led some councils to associate the introduction of executives with area forums as settings in which issues can be raised. The Bill allows councils to create area committees with certain executive powers, making the role of the councillor more effective.
Consider the many roles to be played by councillors not in the executive.
We set out some of these roles in a previous article (LGC, 18 February). Some of the suggestions above show the potential roles: the new forms of council meetings, area committees, individual roles in support of the executive, and the different meanings of overview and scrutiny, which should all be considered.
The new structures will run into difficulties unless the role of all councillors is made meaningful. If they have no worthwhile responsibilities, they might become irresponsible.
Consider the requirements of open government and access to information. The government has said new structures should enhance not merely efficiency but also transparency and accountability, which make the requirements of open government of special importance.
Consider how to review any new structures. One thing is sure: a council will get it wrong the first time, at least in some respects. So it should be prepared to change.