Thursday, 23 February 2012

Decision-making, planning and the purposelessness of council strategies


Yesterday evening was spent at Shipley Area Committee. Now while this sounds to be in the same category as Vogon poetry, it is quite often an interesting occasion and not just because I’m a masochist.

Last night showed the contrast – and the problems councils have with this – between specific decision-making and the making of plans or strategies. Put simply, we’re pretty good at the former and really rather bad at the latter.

And the meeting allowed me to speak of two great but flawed marketing geniuses...

The first hour and a half of the meeting was taken up with two hotly contested decisions – whether to put speed bumps all over Nab Wood and whether to take the zip wire and bucket swing out from Claremont Fields at Wrose.

In both cases supporters and opponents attended the meeting. As is our practice the chairman allowed each of them some time to express their concerns. In addition to this, time is given to SCAPAG members (representatives of the parishes and neighbourhood forums across the Shipley constituency).

The resulting discussion would, I feel, give a buzz to fans of good local government. Residents were involved, every member of the committee contributed their thoughts and solutions were sought that aimed (if not quite reaching) consensus. People may not like the decisions we took but they couldn’t argue that they weren’t taken with thought and care by councillors.

The remainder of the meeting – another hour – was mostly taken up receiving reports “to note” accompanied by short officer presentations. Two items were linked – headlines from the “state of the district” survey and the Council’s sustainable communities strategy.

Now without going into the details of these things, it struck me that these two reports told a great deal about how the council plans and strategises. Reading through a document littered with words like “overarching”, “transformational priorities” and “journey”, I realised that we haven’t got this process right – or even nearly right.

The problem is that these grand plans simply aren’t working documents. No council officer starts his or her day with getting down the “sustainable community strategy” as a guide to what to do. Nor does any council officer get out our “2020 Vision” to check on our progress.

Published with great fanfares and with exciting talk of partnership, mission and vision, these are little better than glossies produced to give the impression of strategy and planning. Can we take seriously a plan that has nine or ten “transformational priorities”?

Surely, we should have just one priority?

Last night, one Town Councillor (from Denholme as it happens) showed us up by saying in one sentence what priority we should set. It was some along the lines of:

“After years involved in the District, I think we should concentrate on prevention and early intervention.”

A statement of priority and an indication of strategy. That is how business sets priorities, defines strategies and prepares plans. Councils should learn.


No comments: