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Catherine Staite: Independence is essential to good governance

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Good governance demands that those entrusted with making decisions on behalf of others act as independently as possible, on the basis of the best information available and in the best interests of those they serve.

That’s a tall order in local government. 

Councils are political environments in which conflicting pressures are inevitable. Members will feel the pressure from their own group and officers will feel pressure from their managers. The contested space in which decisions are made, between political and managerial leadership, adds a further layer of challenges. Decision makers, whether officers or members, have to do the best they can to retain their independence of mind in the face of those pressures. But how can we measure how successful they are in doing that, bearing in mind it is possible for decision makers to be independent in a good way, or a not so good way?

It can be difficult for some people to accept they are not a world-class expert on every subject but the simple act of saying ‘I don’t know’ can be very powerful 

‘Good’ independence of thought is characterised by an open and inquiring mind and supported by integrity as well as a strong sense of accountability. ‘Not-so-good’ independence is characterised by a reluctance to accept any information you didn’t know already or which challenges your settled opinions. If we come to discussions with closed minds and are entirely governed by an active set of prejudices, then we are making no real contribution to the quality of decision-making.

It can be difficult for some people to accept they are not a world-class expert on every subject but the simple act of saying “I don’t know – please tell me what I need to know” can be very powerful and liberating. Self-declared omniscience is not appealing. Members are elected because the electorate thought they’d do a good job as members, not as accountants, lawyers, highways engineers, social workers or HR specialists. They should be careful about relying too much on previous professional experience in their political decision-making role. Expert knowledge may be out of date or their private sector experience may not read across to the public sector. Honesty about any lack of knowledge and expertise will enable everyone else to feel more comfortable to ask their own questions and the quality of collective decision-making will improve.

When presented with information and evidence to support decision-making, the independent of mind will ask questions. Is this information from reliable sources? Is it complete? Is what is proposed as equitable as possible? Have the people likely to be affected been engaged in earlier stages of the process? Have their views and needs helped shaped this plan or proposal? Do we really understand the impact of this decision, including the unintended consequences? Is there a better way? 

Politics, with a big or small ‘p’, is an inevitable part of any organisation and it is inherent in local government. It is important to be aware of how politics, of any kind, impacts on your role as a decision maker. There are a number of questions you can ask to ensure you really understand the political forces at work. Is the meeting being chaired in a way that means everyone is heard? Is someone dominating the discussion to the disadvantage of others? And why are the rest of you allowing that to happen? Is there anything you are not being told? Are you being rushed into a decision by a false sense of urgency, or because someone has not given you enough time to think through the decision thoroughly? Does someone seem very determined to guide you towards a particular decision? If so, why do you think that is?

Not every question is relevant to every decision but if you are an independent thinker, you will soon recognise which questions you need to ask and when. You will stand a better chance of getting useful answers if you give  advisors some notice of your questions, rather than lurking like a troll under a bridge and leaping out to ask 10 killer questions. Such behaviour will neither endear you to colleagues nor improve the quality of decision-making.

Poor decision-making reflects a failure of governance. And improving the quality of decision-making is an essential part of good governance.  

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

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