Over the last few months I’ve had a number of discussions with different politicians about the changing role of councillors and the role of scrutiny. There seemed to be general agreement that whilst a new system of governance has been introduced in places like Bristol, little thought has been given to the impact this might have on elected politicians. With the introduction of the mayoral system, and arguably the election of an independent mayor, the role of the 70 councillors elected to Bristol Council has now fundamentally changed. It also appears that this change has taken place within a vacuum of knowledge about impact and the subsequent change needed to the systems and processes of the council. It is an issue that the current Mayor has tried to address by changing the way Full Council meetings are run and how the Cabinet/Scrutiny split works. But it would be fair to say that many councillors are disillusioned with the way the council works and the way their role has changed.
Indeed, if you look at the research findings of the Bristol Civic Leadership Project, then it is clear that councillors are far more sceptical about the impact the mayoral system has had in Bristol than other groups tend to be. Perhaps not surprising as the role and responsibilities of the Mayor are drawn directly from those previously held by councillors. However, part of the problem could be down to the lack of time, resource and consideration given to getting the structures and processes right before the Mayoral model was introduced. That means councillors and officers have been left feeling their way through a new system, defining boundaries and adopting new approaches whilst the Mayor gets on with things.
One of the issues raised during my discussions was how ineffective scrutiny is in actually providing robust and effective challenge to the Mayor’s decisions or policies. In my view this has been a problem in Bristol since the change to Cabinet/Scrutiny took place in 2000/01. The role of scrutiny has stumbled along, doing some good work, but against a tide of resentment and powerlessness. Whilst I’m certainly no expert on scrutiny systems or how things are now working in Bristol, I am a firm believer in drawing on experience to solve existing problems. With this in mind, back in the old days of committees we had a wonderful sub committee in Bristol called Performance Review. This committee was certainly not for the faint hearted and was consistently capable of generating immense amounts of paperwork. I spent a couple of years on the sub committee and what it did incredibly effectively was scrutinise performance on a department by department basis and against corporate cross cutting issues. In those days it was largely scrutiny of officers but there’s no reason why this type of approach couldn’t be used to scrutinise the performance of the Mayor and the council as a whole.
It worked on the basis of a set of annual performance targets, some statutory, some prioritised and selected by politicians and officers in each department. These were then monitored monthly by officers and quarterly by councillors on the sub committee. It was a terrifying experience for lead officers as they were basically grilled on every aspect of their plan both when it was initially agreed and as we went through the year. The initial discussions were a good check on the realism of targets, whether or not they were too soft, whether they covered the right things and whether all key political priorities were adequately covered. The quarterly meetings then focused in on where targets were not being met and why. Each member of the committee, across all parties, took the lead on a particular department or cross cutting issue, and led the grilling. It was incredibly effective in identifying progress, or lack of, and in keeping track of a lots of policies and targets.
I’m not sure if something like this still exists, but perhaps is should? I know it’s certainly not the answer to the problems of scrutiny but it might provide part of the solution to some of the currently perceived problems. What do you think?