The Association of Public Sector Excellence (APSE) - which for connoisseurs of local government used to be the Association of Direct Labour Organisations (ADLO) - has published findings from a survey of councillors that asked about the 'modernisation' of 2000 that introduced the leader and cabinet system of administration:
Almost two-thirds of decision-making councillors believe the modernisation agenda for local authorities – which heralded the introduction of cabinet systems of governance – has been a success. Just 37% of backbench members agreed.
Two out of three non-executive councillors felt the changes had marginalised their role with 43% believing they could personally help to improve local services compared to 87% of executive elected members.
In simple terms people with front bench jobs believe the system is just great and that they can really influence what's going on but the rest of the councillors feel left out. This is a reminder that Blair's modernisation of local government was half-baked and ineffective. It began with lots of typical Blairite stuff about the committee system being a 19th century system unsuited to the challenges of decision-making in modern local government and ended up (because Labour councillors successfully lobbied to prevent the imposition of directly-elected mayors) with the rather undemocratic and opaque system of cabinet administration.
So the situation we now have is one where most councillors (Executives and/or Cabinets typically contain fewer than ten members) are no longer involved in the decision-making that their residents actually elect them to do. Once every four years there's a vote to choose a leader and this person hand picks the chosen few who will make the decisions. The rest of the council languish on mostly purposeless scrutiny committees or toil away on regulatory panels deciding planning permissions, licences and so forth - knowing that their decisions are subject (quite rightly) to challenge and external inspection.
The findings from APSE's survey shouldn't come as a surprise - any conversation with backbench councillors will reveal a genuine frustration about being able to influence the system. Instead we're fobbed off with a ludicrous role of 'community leader' - in the view of senior officers and council leadership, a role that tasks councillors with the job of communicating their better's decisions to hoi polloi. All this is made worse by the continuation of the system of 'special responsibility allowances' - extra payments to councillors who chair committees, run panels or do some other task deemed over-and-above the normal job of being a councillor.
APSE chicken out of proposing any substantial change - preferring instead to suggest stroking backbenchers and sympathising with their grumbles:
‘This study shows there is a need to find a way to better recognise the contribution of councillors who may be focused on serving their communities but feel disconnected from decision-making.’
So rather than change the system so councillors actually are involved in decision-making, we cobble together some form of words that says all the stuff we do is just as important. Except, of course, we know that it isn't as important. Being able to explain to a resident whose bin has vanished that the Council charges for a replacement is not the same as being able to make a decision about whether or not such a charge is warranted.
Perhaps we need to consider whether we should complete Blair's botched modernisation - I'd support elected mayors but even without them the current system clearly has too many local councillors - or else to go back to a system where all the councillors we elect are actually involved in doing the thing we elect them to do. That is to make decisions on our behalf about the administration of the local council and its services.
The present system lacks open-ness, is not especially democratic and produces a lot of councillors who feel like spare parts. Going back to the committee system would give those councillors a real role to play (and allow for them to develop genuine knowledge on a given area of service -something the cabinet portfolio system precludes). Alternatively we should reduce the number of councillors significantly, pay them all the same regardless of position, and eliminate the disconnection between front- and back-benches.