Bristol needs a new, modern committee system

I’m a fan of local government and of the different systems used to make decisions as long as they work. In my experience it is not the system that fails but rather how it is interpreted and implemented by those in power. In the build up to the Local Government Act 2000 there was plenty of discussion about how the committee system didn’t work, how it was old fashioned and out of date. At the time instead of seeking to improve the way it worked the government decided to replace it, with councils asked to chose from one of the following options:
• Leader and cabinet executive
• Mayor and cabinet executive
• Mayor and council manager executive
• Alternative arrangement

Most councils chose the Leader and cabinet model, which is still the most common form of council structure today, despite a growing number of councils now choosing to go back to a committee system. In Bristol the criticisms were about the council being too bureaucratic, too slow, lacking in vision or action, and there being no clarity over who took decisions. There was a momentum around change both locally and nationally, for a new system of governance that would enable better decision making, clearer definition of roles, less bureaucracy, more involvement, and more scrutiny. Many of the same criticisms were also levelled at this new system when the mayoral system was first proposed.

I was a councillor at the time this new model was implemented and I was part of the group that took the decision to go for a Leader and Cabinet model in Bristol. It didn’t on the surface feel like it would be that different to what was already operating in Bristol, we had our own informal cabinet already made up of committee chairs and other key Labour members. However, what this new approach did was take away the backbenchers ability to engage in policy development and public debate. It left backbenchers and opposition members in a pure scrutiny role, working on new scrutiny commissions often with unclear aims, roles and purpose. It was all new, and it took quite a lot of time to work out quite what this new approach meant and how it could operate effectively.

It also left the majority of councillors feeling disenfranchised and disillusioned. It put decision making power in the hands of a small group and made public involvement more difficult and reduced the role of most councillors to that of looking after their ward, an important role no doubt, but only part of what being a councillor is all about. Whilst the new model may have reduced the time councillors spent in meetings it certainly didn’t do anything to improve their engagement with decisions and priorities. I well remember at the time councillors of all parties bemoaning the lack of involvement, discussion and debate and how the old system had been better.

The old committee system did encourage discussion, about decisions, about policy and strategy and about operational issues. In Bristol most backbenchers on a committee would take the lead on a particular issue and more councillors of all parties were given an opportunity to be involved in different ways. The committees often had very open public debate about difficult issues, with input from all parties making a difference to the final decision. However, there were also many occasions where political voting was decided beforehand and no amount of debate at the committee would make a difference to the decision. This in my view was the main problem with the way the committee system worked in councils where one party was in overall control – they didn’t have to win the argument they just had to turn up and outnumber the others so they could win the vote! In my view what was needed was a modernisation of the committee system, to improve the way it operated rather than the introduction of a new model that introduced a whole set of new issues and problems.

Further change in recent years means the system has continued down the route of focusing power in the hands of one person and moved away from involving the majority of councillors in decision making and policy development in any meaningful way. Since 2012 and the introduction of the mayoral model in Bristol decisions can now be taken by one person without any consultation and without any reference to other elected representatives. Yes, as a a system, it provides clear and more visible leadership, and is a role elected by the whole city rather than a handful of other councillors. But, it lacks accountability within the council, it reduces the role of councillors to ward representative and scrutiny members in a system where scrutiny seems to lack teeth!

The committee system had its strengths and was a system I enjoyed working within. It provided opportunity for debate and discussion, in a public forum. It gave backbenchers an opportunity to get to know an area of the council, to specialise, to get to know the issues and the officers involved. It enabled opposition councillors to engage in discussion and to influence decisions. It wasn’t all bad! It did, however, have it critics. It was slow, cumbersome, involved too many meetings, and could be too ‘political’ with members voting along party lines. I have fond memories of the committee system, and can even now recall some of the cross party discussion and debate we had, the issues we dealt with and the engagement we had with members of the public. I also can remember the long meetings and the frustration with how long it all took to get items onto the agenda, through the various internal processes. I do think the system got a bad press as it can be made to work and is in my view more collaborative than either of the other two systems.

The leader and cabinet system introduced in 2000 was a disaster. I don’t believe councils were properly equipped to change systems. There was no real consideration about how it would really work, how officers should operate, what it meant for scrutiny members and how it really made decision making clearer. It appeared to me a compromise between what the government wanted (a mayoral system) and what councils wanted (to stick with the committee system). One of the reasons I quit the council in 2002 was because of my disillusionment with how cabinet and scrutiny operated. The role of scrutiny was poorly thought through and under-resourced. There was little training to help councillors adapt and little thought about what it would mean for the majority of councillors. We tried a range of things, from working as scrutiny and policy development, introducing select committees, providing scrutiny leads on various issues, but with limited success.

By getting rid of committees we left a lot of councillors wondering what their role was and by bringing in an elected mayor that role was once more reduced to that of local representative with little power or ability to effect change, define priorities or develop policy. What we could have, if we didn’t have a Mayor, is a return to discussion and debate, all councillors properly involved and engaged in developing and delivering on the priorities of the council as well as representing the interests of their voters in a way that may actually support change. However, this could only happen if the political parties were willing to give up some of the control over members on committees and allow them the freedom to vote without constraint.

If change is needed then needs to be relevant to Bristol, to reflect the ambitions of the city and to deliver a system that works for the city and its people. It’s a change of approach as much as it is a change of system, let’s think about how to make the system work as much as we think about what to system to have. What’s needed is a collaborative approach, a willingness to be open and debate issues in public and the ability to listen to and learn from different views. Strong leadership comes in many forms, sometimes it is powerful enough to listen, reflect and amend your views, as it is to stick to your views and plough on regardless. If I had a vote, I would vote to return to a committee system, but I would look to introduce a new, modernised committee system, that delivers leadership, openness, discussion, collaboration and debate. I believe it can if the will is there to make it happen, but as ever it depends on the people involved and how they seek to implement the sytem.

The difference a Mayor makes?

DSCN0159With all this talk about devolution and the centralised power of Westminster, it got me thinking about cities and city regions, and about the role of directly elected Mayors and the difference they could make to this agenda. If there is any chance of greater devolution to the local level in England, at the city or city region level, then is Mayoral governance an effective form of leadership to take on this new, more powerful role? As it happens I spent a couple of days last week at the Policy & Politics Annual Conference* where I attended three separate sessions on “what difference do directly elected mayors make?” as well as several plenary sessions about leadership and collaborative governance – critical ingredients for successful mayoral leadership perhaps? I wrote up each of the plenaries for the Policy & Politics blog – take a look if you want to know what all these academics were talking about!

I also recently attended a debate organised by Bristol Festival of Ideas about ‘leading the green city’ which I wrote up for Bristol 24-7. The critical point from that discussion about leadership suggests that with the potential for more power to be vested in one individual at the centre of City Hall (the Mayor), there comes a responsibility to share that power with local communities.  A potentially important lesson for all areas embarking on new forms of city governance?

The academic debate about directly elected mayors is interesting, it starts from the premise that this new model of urban governance provides more visible leadership, can better handle the complexity of local government, partnership working, and collaboration. It also accepts that there is little evidence to prove that this is the case from either the UK experience or from abroad. So does having a directly elected mayor really make a difference and is it a positive difference? I don’t intend to recount all of the discussion and presentations from the two day conference, but I just thought I’d pick out a few issues that struck me as important and where there is still so much to learn about this new form of local governance and the impact it has on decision making, collaboration and leadership. This becomes even more important if there are moves for greater devolution of power to the local level, we need to be confident that the model works and can handle this extra responsibility in the right way.

Whilst there seems to be little doubt that having an elected mayor provides for a more visible leadership role and there is better clarity over who is actually making the key decisions, there are equally some key questions raised by this new model in terms of the operation of the local council, local politicians and local communities. One of the issues raised during the conference discussion was about the role of scrutiny and whether or not this is being carried out effectively where there are elected mayors. It struck me that this is part of a wider debate that goes back to the Local Government Act 2000 where proposals to move from the old committee system to new models of local government were first introduced. The model most popularly adopted was that of cabinet and scrutiny, where a cabinet was formed (normally from the majority party) to take decisions and the rest of the councillors were organised around a series of scrutiny commissions to hold cabinet members to account.

What this new system did was remove policy development from the role of ordinary councillors, it created a 2-tier/class system of councillors, and left many wondering what their role was to be. Where in the past backbenchers might well have led on topics of interest to them and have played a key role to play at committee meetings, now they were told to focus on representing their constituents and providing some scrutiny to those now responsible for taking decisions. I was a councillor at the time of this change and it was a challenging and difficult time for many of us. I didn’t seek to become a cabinet member because I had a full-time job and didn’t think I could do both justice. So I went from committee chair to scrutiny member – quite a tricky transition for me and one I didn’t particularly enjoy, and I certainly wasn’t alone in that. My reason for going over old ground and history is that I don’t think the problems associated with lack of scrutiny of Mayoral decisions is anything new, it’s not just down to the mayoral system. The problem of scrutiny has been there ever since it was first introduced, when no one quite knew how to deal with it and where councillors and officers alike struggled with the concept and how to make it work – I wrote about this a while back in a blog suggesting we should bring back the committee system because actually it worked quite well! I think the same problems persist now, scrutiny in Bristol is not well developed, it never has been. I don’t know if it works better elsewhere, but there seems a real gap between the original intentions of this change of approach to governance and the reality of how it works on the ground.

What we have instead in places like Bristol, even before we had a Mayor, is a group of councillors who wonder quite what their role is beyond local representation. It seems to increase the oppositional nature of local politics and bring out the worst in many. The new model of directly elected mayor certainly exacerbates this process, particularly where the mayor is an independent with no reference back to a specific party group. The decision making power is vested in one person, and in Bristol that means the role of the majority of the other 70 councillors has changed even more, to one of local representation and trying to hold the mayor to account. But what does scrutiny actually mean and how does it work, can it be effective when the Mayor can choose to ignore it, and are councillors well equipped to deal with it – I have my doubts, same as I did back on 2000 when the initial changes were made. So there’s certainly an interesting academic debate to be had about the changing role of local councillors and how new models of local governance can work most effectively for everyone involved – the mayor, the councillors, the officers, the community. But nothing I’ve come across so far really answers those questions, that’s not to say the research doesn’t exist, just that I haven’t found it yet!

Like many of my blogs this started as a discussion about one thing and ended up as another – my approach to discipline in writing seems to be lacking. I started thinking about the difference mayors make and ended up talking about the need to think carefully about the role of councillors and scrutiny. It’s all part of the same discussion and there’s so much more to say, but I’ll leave that for another time.

*Note – if you want to know more about the discussion at the Policy & Politics Conference, Prof Alex Marsh & Dr David Sweeting talk about the contributions on directly elected mayors in this podcast – Talking Mayors

The changing role of local councillors – what next?

The debate about local democracy and local governance has led us in some quite interesting directions in recent years and has generated significant change in local council political structures – or has it? On the surface, with the initial change from the committee system of local government to cabinet and scrutiny and now the introduction of directly elected Mayors in some areas, things have definitely changed. We have a very different model of local governance now than we did in the 1990s and there’s a very different way of doing things, but how have local councillors adapted to this? In a blog post in November I talked with nostalgia about the old committee system and to a point lamented its loss. I also raised the point about the changing role of councillors over the last 15 years or so which I will elaborate on further here.

There is an excellent opportunity available to us a the moment, through the Local Government Boundary Commission Review, but sadly in Bristol (and probably elsewhere) there is little or no initial public discussion on this issue. It is held for now within the political confines of the party groups and officers of the council to decide what they want to do – which in this instance may well mean very little as it could be a bit like turkeys voting for christmas. I’ll explain that one in a minute.

But first, what is the Review about? Bristol has been included in the programme of review for 2014/15 which will seek to look at the size and boundaries of electoral wards and make changes in time for the whole council elections to be held in 2016. This enables the council to consider the number of councillors it needs and the number and size of wards across the city. Whist this doesn’t address the issue of how things work it does enable some structural change to reflect new governance arrangements.

Currently there is an obvious problem of disparity in terms of the size of wards in Bristol, with some ward councillors representing 3-4,000 more people than others. The biggest disparities are seen in central areas such as Cabot, Ashley and Lawrence Hill with 20-30% more electors than the average, and in areas such as Kingsweston, Henleaze, Henbury and Whitchurch Park with 10-15% fewer electors than the average. So the first job of any response to the Boundary Review is to try and redraw ward boundaries to even this out by creating similar sized wards in terms of electorate. That’s probably the easy bit actually and one that many councillors will agree on, but it’s only part of the issue. The questions then begin to arise about whether or not we need 35 wards with 2 councillors in each ward. Given the changes mentioned above, do we really need 70 backbench councillors to keep an eye on George and to represent local communities?

So the bigger question is given the changing role of councillors, from strategic, policy development, representation, decision making to more of a local representation and scrutiny role, do we really need to hang on to 2 per ward and 70 in total? Perhaps equally important is the question about whether or not this issue is even being considered seriously. Now you can see why that might be difficult, because the very people who need to consider the idea of reducing the number of councillors are the very people who would be out of a job if they decided that was the right thing to do. Hence my turkey’s voting for christmas comment above. However, to be fair, there has actually been some debate on this with some suggestion that perhaps you could lose a few councillors but I’ve yet to see any real discussion or evidence or a serious review and debate.

If you were to take a logical approach to this and accept two main premises which I believe to be true – first that the role of councillors has now changed quite significantly and second that local people want clarity about who represents them, after all that’s one of the reasons we have an elected mayor isn’t it, people wanted a clear leadership figure that was identifiable? Shouldn’t we translate that same principle to the very local level? How does having 2 councillors per ward, sometimes from different parties, help local people? Doesn’t it just add to the confusion? So how do we address this?

Well, my proposal for debate is to go for single member wards and establish “mini-mayors” for each ward that local people can relate to and identify as their representative and their first point of contact with the council. One councillor representing a smaller area, taking on that local leadership mantle seems far more sensible to me under this new system than sticking with a structure that was developed decades ago under a very different system. The debate about quite how many wards to go for will clearly create some tension and generate some debate, but 50 is a nice round number so why not start with that as an idea! We could have 50 local ward mayors in Bristol, with a clear remit as the representative for that area, involved in local partnerships and groups, on top of local issues and the key point of contact with the City Mayor. These changes can be achieved through the Boundary Review and I hope the Elections and Democracy Commission of the council will have some interesting discussion on these issues in 2014 – their last meeting in October sets out the process in detail – worth a look if you want to know more.

But seriously this is only a small part of the debate, it’s easy to focus on this because we can tinker with maps and boundaries, argue over the number of wards, councillors and where the lines can be drawn. However, whilst this is important it ignores the bigger issue of how the role of scrutiny can be developed to be a useful function which challenges the mayor and his decisions but also has a proactive role to play in the development of policy and direction. This was one of the critical challenges when I was a councillor at the time when the change to cabinet/scrutiny was first introduced. Politicians and officers alike struggled with what it meant, neither were particularly well equipped to respond to the change in a positive way, and in the couple of years I was involved it was a real struggle to define the boundaries of scrutiny in a way that worked. Part of the problem was it pitched scrutiny chairs in a role that could potentially be in conflict and disagreement with the cabinet member, and in my day we were in the same party, so you were pitched against your own colleagues in dialogue, challenge and debate. This led to real tensions which played out in different ways depending on the personalities involved. I also found that officers didn’t quite know how to deal with this new system either – how could they work with a cabinet member and a scrutiny commission chair? Their response was to divide the officer core, the cabinet member got to work with the Director, whilst as a scrutiny chair I was left to work with the next level down! Equally, some officers did a pretty good job of playing us off against one another, so when they didn’t get the answer they wanted from the Cabinet Member, they came to me as scrutiny chair to see if I would pick the issue up. Lots of room for conflict and confusion there then.

Now I’m not sure how much things have changed, as I was only involved for the first couple of years of the new system and haven’t had much if any involvement since. But from what I can see sitting on the outside, scrutiny is still less well developed than it should be and cabinet members/Mayors are still defensive about challenge. My belief – there is a real opportunity there to develop a system that engages all councillors in critical challenge, policy development and scrutiny in a way that is collaborative and effective but we need the right officers to support that and training and development of councillors to understand these new roles and ways of working.

As an aside, if you add into the equation the introduction of things like Local Enterprise Partnerships and their impact on the role and function of local councillors and local democracy then there are a whole host of other debates that need to be had to understand how the role of a local councilor has changed.

There’s so much more to say on this issue that I may have to blog again as I have merely touched the surface of what I wanted to say here!

Why we should bring back the Committee System!

With all this talk about George’s first year as Bristol Mayor and whether having a mayor has made a difference, it’s made me quite nostalgic and got me thinking about how good the old committee system actually was!

I’m not normally an advocate of looking back, as there is little we can change about past decisions or actions, but on this occasion it struck me that where we are now has been so governed by what people perceived as the problem in the past, that just maybe we can learn some valuable lessons by looking back.

The old committee system came in for significant criticism in an Audit Commission Report published in Sept 1990 – its title “we can’t go on meeting like this” gives you a clue of where its starting point was. Much of what the report said was interesting and useful and is a good reminder for current day discussions.

The report kicked off the debate about whether or not councillors could really deliver on all main aspects of their job well when they were expected to spend so much time on council committees dealing with operational and day to day issues. The committee system was seen as too clumsy and constrained by political voting systems, there was no real debate, councillors spent too long on unnecessary and irrelevant discussion, making few decisions and got too involved in the day to day running of the council – basically they spent too much time in meetings that didn’t really achieve anything.

In Bristol this debate took hold and the council was criticised for being too bureaucratic, too slow, lacking in vision or action, too much politics, no clarity over who took decisions etc. It seemed like the momentum was really building for local government change into a new system of governance that would enable better decision making, clearer definition of roles, less bureaucracy, more involvement, more scrutiny etc.

As the debate continued amongst local government analysts, academics, politicians, local and national government, more of these issues were discussed and more criticisms levelled at this old fashioned, out of date system. The outcome of all of this debate and criticism of the committee system, that had existed for some time in local authorities, was the Local Government Act 2000 which basically got rid of the old and brought in a new set of models for local government. Councils were asked to chose one of the following:

  • Leader and cabinet executive
  • Mayor and cabinet executive
  • Mayor and council manager executive
  • Alternative arrangement

Most councils chose the Leader and cabinet model, which is still the most common form of council structure today, despite a growing number now choosing to go back to a committee system. But did this new approach work?

I was a councillor at the time this new model was implemented and I was part of the group that took the decision to go for a Leader and Cabinet model in Bristol. To be honest, it didn’t on the surface feel like it would be that different to what was already operating in Bristol, we had our own informal cabinet already, made up of committee chairs and other key Labour members anyway. However, what this new approach did do was take away the backbenchers ability to engage in policy development and public debate. It left backbenchers and opposition members in a pure scrutiny role, working on new scrutiny commissions often with unclear aims, roles and purpose. It was all new, and it took quite a lot of time to work out quite what this new approach meant and how it could operate effectively.

It also left the majority of councillors feeling disenfranchised, disillusioned and un-needed. It put decision making power in the hands of a small group and made public involvement more difficult and reduced the role of most councillors to that of looking after their ward, an important role no doubt, but only part of what being a councillor is all about. Whilst the new model may have reduced the time councillors spent in meetings it certainly didn’t do anything to improve their engagement with decisions and priorities. I well remember at the time councillors of all parties bemoaning the lack of involvement, discussion and debate and how the old system had been better. And, in Bristol, with yet more change and an elected Mayor, these feelings must be further reinforced and compounded.

What the old committee system did encourage was discussion, about decisions, about policy and strategy and about operational issues. In Bristol most backbenchers on a committee would take the lead on a particular issue and more councillors of all parties were given an opportunity to be involved in different ways. The committees often had very open public debate about difficult issues, with input from all parties making a difference to the final decision – a good example of democracy at work. However, there were equally too many occasions where political voting was decided beforehand and no amount of debate at the committee would make a difference to the decision. This in my view was the main problem with the way the committee system worked in councils where one party was in overall control – they didn’t have to win the argument they just had to turn up and outnumber the others so they could win the vote!

So looking back and then forwards, what can we learn about what improvements we could make now. Well, with a directly elected independent Mayor in Bristol things are totally different – in George we have a council leader and someone who will use that leadership role to take decisions without consultation, who won’t pander to the other elected members on the council or their party politics, and who can do pretty much what he wants for the next couple of years before the voters of Bristol will be able to do anything about it. And that is exactly what people voted for when they voted to have a mayor and then voted for an independent – so be careful what you wish for Bristol.

Yet, what we could have, if we didn’t have a Mayor, is a return to discussion and debate, all councillors properly involved and engaged in developing and delivering on the priorities of the council as well as representing the interests of their voters in a way that may actually support change. However, this could only happen if the political parties were willing to give up some of the control over members on committees and allow them the freedom to vote without constraint.

By getting rid of committees we have left a lot of councillors wondering what their role is and by bringing in an elected mayor we have once more reduced the role of most councillors to that of local representative with little power or ability to effect change, define priorities or develop policy.

That isn’t why I became a Bristol councillor back in 1994 and if I were one now I would quit! I would want to be involved in developing a vision and strategy for Bristol, priorities for the way forward and addressing the inequalities of our city and that’s why we need further change that reflects what our cities need and borrows the best bits from different systems. Rather than a constant leap into what works in America must work here, or throwing out everything because it doesn’t work, without actually thinking about the bits that do.

Yes we need change, but let’s develop local solutions that work locally not generic systems borrowed from elsewhere, that if you look hard enough, don’t even work there!

I would love to know how current councillors in Bristol feel about all this and whether or not they think their role has declined and reduced?