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Catherine Staite: How councils can assess their governance

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Getting governance right improves the confidence of decision makers, and makes their organisations kinder, more inclusive and more creative.

It is impossible for decision makers to establish and maintain good governance alone. They must be supported and guided by the right blend of values and rules, embedded in their organisation’s culture.

The recent publication of a report from the Committee on Standards in Public Life has refocused attention on a vital aspect of good governance: setting and enforcing standards of behaviour for local authority members. The report highlights three striking aspects of the problem of bullying and harassment by members: that it is getting worse, that it can go on for years and that it is enabled by social media. It makes depressing reading.

This notwithstanding, the report is helpful, flagging that standards of behaviour in local government are generally high, and exploring the potential for stronger sanctions against the minority who are bullies and harassers.

The complexity of governance is a big obstacle to sensible discussions when exploring ‘good governance’ – many different ideas are encompassed by the term.

Everyone has a different interpretation of what good governance means. Those interpretations cover different combinations of values, norms, rules, codes of conduct, regulations and legal obligations. It is hard to find a coherent model when so many different aspects compete for attention.

Some will tend to focus on ethical standards, the efficiency and effectiveness of decision making, or openness and transparency. Some think governance should be rules-based, externally defined and regulated. Others believe it is based on values, internally driven and grounded in individuals’ own moral and ethical beliefs.

Governance is all these things and more, so how can we develop a coherent model? Unresolved conflicts between different groups about how governance should work can hurt organisations’ ability to act effectively.

Some areas of responsibility lie with members, some with officers and some in contested territory between them.

Fundamentally, governance provides the spaces, structures and safeguards that allow us to do and be our best. It unites the values that inspire, motivate and inform the best public services with a framework of supportive rules and processes.

Values without rules cannot lead to good governance because values are subjective, and it is hard to hold others to account for failing to meet diverse and sometimes conflicting ethical expectations. Likewise, rules not underpinned by strong values will be worked around and broken.

The different elements of good governance do not operate in a vacuum. Excellence in one area will underpin excellence in another. Similarly, catastrophe in one element will undermine every other aspect of governance.

One contentious governance issue that absorbs a significant amount of individual and organisational energy is where the boundary should lie between the responsibilities of politicians and officers. John Nalbandian, professor emeritus at the University of Kansas, identified that some areas of responsibility lie with members, some with officers and some in contested territory between them. Each local authority mediates and manages that contested territory differently, but good governance is vital to managing it well.

Good governance requires trust and a continuous discussion about how it currently operates and could be improved. This will enable better understanding of how and why the organisation balances conflicting needs in governance.

A governance review methodology I’ve developed can help assess how well organisations are performing in terms of six key elements of governance, covering values and behaviours as well as organisational systems, like codes of conduct, and structures, such as how hierarchies underpin or undermine good governance.

The six elements of governmance

Independence: Do decision makers act independently, without undue influence from special interests?

Openness and transparency: Is the whole organisation as open as possible, only keeping information confidential for valid reasons?

Accountability: Do key players understand their roles and responsibilities and those of others, and do partner organisations fulfil their obligations

Integrity: Do decision makers act with integrity and in the interests of those they serve, rather than their own?

Clarity of purpose: Are the decision makers clear about their strategic priorities?

Effectiveness: Do decision makers act in a timely manner, based on the best available evidence?

It’s better to begin by focusing on what works well, later moving to consider what the aspects of governance should be, why, and how they will work. That avoids the risk of only focusing on the negative and taking the positive for granted.

Individuals’ perceptions will always be contested, and only represent a moment in time. Discussions mustn’t become bogged down in detail or recriminations, but should focus on building stronger governance for the future.

Independence is a tricky concept, and too much independence may not be a good thing. Individuals and decision-making bodies who are blind to evidence, dismissive of expertise, unable to listen to views contrary to their own, and who consider their own opinions and experience as more than sufficient to inform their decisions, show the worst aspects of independence.

However, those who focus on the bigger picture and seek knowledge and understanding of all potential impacts of their decisions, including what could go wrong, show independence in a good way.

Openness and transparency are crucial because secrecy in decision making breeds mistrust and can hide abuses of power. It is a governance failure when non-confidential minutes are redacted because decision makers might be criticised. It’s as much a failure when personal data is hacked or paper copies of confidential information turn up in a skip.

Questions about what information should be shared with whom and when should form the everyday discourse about good governance. One positive approach is to start from the point of publishing everything unless there’s a good reason not to. These reasons include if the information relates to identifiable individuals, might interfere with justice or provide a commercial advantage for a third party.

The latter reason should be closely interrogated to check it is valid. All sorts of things can be labelled commercial when they are not. Be similarly tough on professional information hoarding, a cause of more harm to individuals and organisations than can ever be properly measured.

Openness and transparency are crucial because secrecy in decision making breeds mistrust and can hide abuses of power.

Accountability is another complex concept – accountabilities can be competing and contradictory. Public sector organisations must ensure taxpayer money is used wisely. They are also responsible to the vulnerable and voiceless who are dependent on expensive public services for their quality of life, and even for life itself.

But accountability means more than ‘duty of care’. It includes the duty to ‘take account’ by listening to a range of views, to ‘give an account’ by explaining themselves, and to be ‘held to account’ by being open to challenge and willing to take responsibility when things go wrong.

Integrity is easy to recognise but hard to describe. Kindness, empathy, humility and selflessness are key, but acting with integrity is not the same thing as being nice.

People with integrity may well prefer to be nice but can also be direct, name problem behaviours, restate organisational values, and will resign rather than collude with poor governance – protecting their reputations and refusing to condone or cover up others’ misconduct.

Integrity requires courage, and can take people to lonely places where conflict between loyalties and what they believe to be right can cause huge personal distress and significant losses of status, income and a sense of belonging.

And beware faux integrity. One useful rule of thumb is that the more people talk about their own conscience, the less likely they are driven by it. The dissonance between what people say and how they behave is usually apparent to their audiences – if not the person.

Clarity of purpose is evident in the visible aspects of governance and in the way in which decision makers conduct themselves. Discussions that focus on the key matters requiring decisions help show what this means.

But this clarity of purpose is not the same thing as carrying on regardless. Openness and transparency help create an environment that allows challenge and provides space for re-thinking when circumstances change and help to underpin clarity of purpose.

Effectiveness, the final element, goes hand in hand with clarity of purpose. Decision makers need the right support to be effective, including access to accurate and up-to-date evidence and information.

Local authorities are constantly asking their decision makers to do more with less. Such decision makers are increasingly exposed to criticism from inside and out, potentially hurting their confidence and even their mental health.

If we can get governance right, many other good things will follow. Decision makers will feel more confident, and the organisations they work in will be kinder, more inclusive and more creative.

Catherine Staite, emeritus professor of public management, University of Birmingham


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Readers' comments (1)

  • As many of us said at the turn of the century the leader and cabinet model was a recipe for lack of transparency and in particular muddying the waters as what was an officer domain and what lies in the remit of (leading) members..the situation has been further exacerbated by the Eric Pickles castration of the standards regime

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