Thursday, 5 February 2015

Rotherham and local government's crisis of accountability


We are supposed to breathe a sigh of relief, to relax as the government imposes five 'commissioners' on the metropolitan borough of Rotherham. The implication here is that the cavalry is over the brow of the hill and charging down amongst the wrongdoers. I intend in the next few paragraphs to disabuse you of this view and to argue that, however warranted the intervention into Rotherham might be, it doesn't suggest that somehow this means that in our particular local council things are more-or-less OK.

First though a reminder of what the Casey Report into Rotherham says:

‘In denial. They denied that there had been a problem, or if there had been, that it was as big as was said. If there was a problem they certainly were not told – it was someone else’s job. They were no worse than anyone else. They had won awards. The media were out to get them.’

Pretty damning. Just as the Jay Report a few months ago was pretty damning. But every single councillor in the country, every chief executive and every council director should read these reports. Not for the shock factor or the schadenfreude of seeing another council in such trouble but to be reminded that, as the saying goes, 'there but for the grace of god go I'.

I'm a local councillor. I've been a local councillor for twenty years. I've been a cabinet member in a big metropolitan authority. I've chaired scrutiny committees. I've been an opposition front-bencher. I reckon I've a handle on how local councils work. And I think the most telling phrase in that quotation above is 'they certainly weren't told'. Because that is the reality of how council operations - and especially social services and social care - work.

A council is a body of men and women elected by the people to govern a specified set of activities delegated, defined or permitted by national government. This means that, in Bradford, "the Council" isn't a lot of officers but ninety councillors meeting together. The problem is that central government has gradually eroded this in the following ways:

1. By giving statutory authority to people appointed by the council (i.e. by those ninety councillors in Bradford's case). This is authority that, because it is set out in statute, councillors cannot challenge yet results in decisions for which we are accountable.

2. By allowing officers the ability to be selective as to what they tell councillors. I was recently asked to submit a formal request for some information (relating to a property transaction) so that request could be considered by officers. Yet I am, as a councillor, accountable for that decision - a decision officers felt I had no right to be informed about.

3. By blurring the boundaries between officers and councillors in decision-making. Health and Wellbeing Boards contain - as voting members - both officers and councillors (as well as board members and executives of health bodies). I am not fussing when I say that, once again, this process raises questions about who is actually accountable and in what way for the decisions we take.

The thread through all of this is accountability. Most of the time it doesn't matter much and we let it slide accepting blurred edges and fuzzy boundaries because we want to get the job done. But Rotherham tells us we need to stop doing this - at least if we want to do our job as councillors (a simple one of making decisions on behalf of the folk who elect us and being therefore accountable for those decisions).

I wrote this a while back - it sums up the problem:

There's a dangerous view out there among professional public sector 'leaders' that we've moved to some sort of 'post-democracy', to a world where what they are doing is too detailed, technical, specialised and private for elected politicians at any level to merit any say over those decisions.

The other day, at a Health & Wellbeing Board, I was informed by the chair (I paraphrase) not to worry my pretty little head about the 'Implementation and Change Board' as they were doing the 'heavy lifting' for the Board and it would all come to us in good time. For 'heavy lifting' read too detailed, technical and specialised for us mere elected folk to be usefully involved. And anyway the Chair was 'briefed' so that's fine isn't it?

The problem we have in local government isn't one party rule (although that doesn't help), nor is it corruption or poor councillors. The problem is that the chain of accountability from the front line to the council - the councillors meeting together to make decisions - simply doesn't exist in any recognisable way. A while ago Simon Danczuk, the Labour MP for Rochdale rather summed the issue up:

We’re also starting to see a worrying cult of leadership. Highly paid managers are seemingly untouchable and distant from front-line workers. The rise of the unsackable, unaccountable and unapologetic public-sector manager is a trend that will only see services continue to deteriorate. And let’s be clear about what that means. It won’t be just missed targets or a poor Ofsted rating. We’re storing up huge social costs. 

The terrible reality is that, unless we resolve this problem of accountability, we will have more Rotherhams. Even more worrying will be all the failures, all the let down residents and all the mismanaged decisions that don't result in Eric Pickles sending in the cavalry. Right now local government is crying out for more powers, for devolution and for central government's apron strings to be loosened. And unless the crisis of accountability is addressed and resolved we won't see the better, more effective government but a whole series of Rotherhams.


1 comment:

Curmudgeon said...

In many spheres policy ends up being largely made by officers, often in pursuit of their own agendas, and councillors end up just nodding it through. As you say, there's a widespread view that many issues are just too technical for elected members to get involved in.