Open and accountable

Tim Gilling Deputy Executive Director of the Centre for Public Scrutiny (CfPS) writes on the importance of openness, accountability and good governance.

I was delighted to be able to join local government colleagues recently at the Local Government Reform conference that was held in Lisburn to reflect on the implementation of reforms to the boundaries and the powers of councils in the province. Contributing to a workshop about the councillor code of conduct, I was able to speak about the importance of governance and why openness and accountability are fundamental to the way public services are planned and delivered.

More and more these days it seems that the spotlight is shining on the things that can go wrong when governance isn’t right. Rightly so, public outcry is an appropriate response when systems fail, and invariably uncovers inadequacies in both policy and practice. The charity I help to run, called the Centre for Public Scrutiny (CfPS), exists to support excellent governance and scrutiny, based around the key principle that better decisions are made when they are informed by good insight from a range of different perspectives.

CfPS is a leading governance and scrutiny organisation, promoting transparent, inclusive and accountable public services across the UK. We work through thought leadership, for example influencing legislation, responding to public sector consultations and providing policy support. But we don’t just shout from the sidelines, we also provide practical support that helps people tackle the big issues in their local context, for example in local government, health and social care, education, criminal justice and housing. We work in the private sector too.

We’re passionate about the business of governance and decision making – the cultures and values of organisations and the actions and behaviours of individuals who either take decisions or have a role to hold those decision makers to account. Sometimes governance, accountability and scrutiny are regarded as barriers to innovation, to growth, to change. We promote a role for scrutiny and accountability as tools to underpin discussions of the big issues, that tackles the difficult problems and that acts as a bridge between people who plan and run services and people who pay for and use them.

At the heart of good governance is credibility – credibility of individuals, of organisations and of whole sectors. You don’t have to look too hard to find examples of what I mean; such as individual risky behaviour, the failure of organisational boards to truly inquire or the accepted custom and practice across whole industries or sectors carrying on without question or challenge.

In the context of local government in Northern Ireland, this is why the councillor code of conduct introduced through the 2014 Act is important, setting out a common understanding of the fundamental building blocks of personal values and behaviour in public life: Public duty, selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty, leadership, equality, promoting good relations, respect and good working relationships between councillors themselves and between councillors and officers.

These values, linked to the local government employee code of conduct and the councillor/ employee protocol, set the tone for the culture of local government. Much of the early discussions about the practical application of the code focus on compliance. This is important but the code needs to be recognised as an indicator of the broader leadership role that councillors have in their communities.

The best organisations build these kinds of values in to their culture and the way they do business, alongside other equally important elements of governance such as audit and reporting. We all know what can happen when governance goes wrong, when organisations such as the former English NHS Trust in mid-Staffordshire focus on strategy and ignore people’s experiences with catastrophic consequences or when the culture of accountability and scrutiny are weak and either risky behaviours or risky business models aren’t challenged. There are lessons from local government in England that demonstrate the importance of governance to the way decisions are made, to the way policies are implemented and to the way outcomes are measured.

An increasingly important role for councils is to understand the prevalence of risk in communities and to help communities to develop resilience. This means that councillors have to be the voice of communities to councils as well as the voice of councils to their communities. This connection to communities resonated throughout the conference in Lisburn and it is exactly this connection that was lost in Rotherham, leading to the introduction of commissioners to run the authority following revelations about child sexual exploitation in the town.

The way public services are planned and delivered is changing rapidly and fundamentally and this has big implications for governance. In England, the Westminster government has made a strong economy the basis for its offer of devolution deals with councils, deals which in urban areas tend to rely on the creation of Combined Authorities and on a governance model predicated on elected mayors. The argument is that combined authorities and elected mayors with strong visibility and accountability can give people more faith that decisions are being made fairly. But I think this depends very much on the extent of public participation, assurance and scrutiny. One of the things CfPS is calling for is much more clarity about what governance and scrutiny arrangements should look like for services planned or delivered under combined authorities and mayoral arrangements. With calls for government to go further and faster on devolving more powers to councils in Northern Ireland, governance and accountability arrangements need careful thought, especially as councils have universally chose to operate ‘committee system’ models rather than ‘executive’ models.

But whichever model councils choose, they need to demonstrate opportunities for effective scrutiny and accountability as part of good governance throughout their planning and delivery cycles. CfPS advocates four key areas where scrutiny needs to take place: Are decisions being taken in the right way? Are policies implemented and services delivered in ways that benefit the intended recipients? What different outcomes are being achieved? And finally, how is future strategy being developed? And at each of those points their needs to be opportunities for public voices to be heard and understood.

Transparency, involvement and accountability are at the heart of good governance in the best organisations. By transparency, I mean going beyond publication of historic data and being very open about how decisions are made and how people can influence decisions. By inclusive, I mean going beyond traditional consultation processes and providing opportunities to hear a range of views, understanding what’s said and responding. And by accountable, I mean going beyond formal reporting and assessment and providing a range of ways for people to make informed judgements about credibility.

As finances and demographics continue to drive more diverse and complex arrangements for commissioning and public service delivery, the perception and reputation of councillors, councils and local government is paramount. Councils need to reflect on the importance of scrutiny and accountability within good governance to help demonstrate probity and keep people safe in their communities and when they use services, to add value to democracy and to tackle the challenges we face.

If you want to find out more about CfPS’s work visit www.cfps.org.uk

or contact Tim Gilling on 020 7187 7362, email tim.gilling@cfps.org.uk

 

 

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