Thursday, 3 June 2010

The local government scrutiny/conflict paradox

Further to Tuesday's post about scrutiny and accountability in local government - and the possible implications of this for the pilot elections to NHS boards - Audit Scotland's Best Value report on Dundee City Council said:
Elected member scrutiny of decision-making and performance needs to improve. Some changes to scrutiny arrangements have recently been made, including the establishment of a scrutiny committee during 2009, but these have been limited, with little overall impact. There has been increasing challenge in public meetings, but this has generally been about testing the competency of the new [SNP] administration rather than effective scrutiny of policies and performance.
In effect, then, this seems to be saying that the scrutiny is mainly party political in nature rather than anything more substantive. Thus, in essence, the kind of knockabout politics born of party tribalism and self-interest, most ably demonstrated nationally at FMQs and PMQs.

However, my impression of the council - albeit largely garnered from the sedentary position of an armchair - has for some years been that its business is conducted in a fairly consensual manner, and that the spats which flare up in the press occasionally related mainly to fairly superficial politicking, particularly as regards the opposition blaming the ruling administration for any bad news, and to that extent making political capital. All very Holyrood and Westminster, then, but the fundamental difference is that it seems most council votes are unanimous, hence the politicking seems even more superficial than in our Parliaments. Thus, then, the impression of local government by officialdom, with the duty of elected members largely confined to rubber-stamping the recommendations of council officers. Meanwhile, who runs the council is more about power for the sake of it and personal advancement for councillors, with the extra remuneration from convenorships also probably acting as an additional motivation. This perhaps chimes with another observation by the Audit Commission:
Relationships between members and officers are good, and the administration meets regularly with senior officers to discuss and resolve current issues. Relationships between political groups are, however, poor following the change of administration, and little discussion now takes place outwith formal meetings. Committee discussion is often confrontational. The previous style of politics was very consensual, with party groups working more closely and agreement between them often facilitated by the chief executive.
Which can perhaps be (cynically) construed as saying that previously all the parties agreed with officers, but now only the administration councillors do and, reading both the above quotes together, the dissent from opposition councillors is merely crudely political in nature.

The view from an armchair is perhaps also superficial in nature, but I do not necessarily recognise the Audit Commission's dichotomy between the conduct of council business under the new SNP regime and that of the previous Labour/Lib Dem/Tory alliance, at least as portrayed in the press - there has always been the paradox between the more politically-motivated confrontation as reported and the more substantively consensual approach underneath.

However, to address the Audit Commission's criticism of a "poor relationship" between the political groups, a leading councillor has called for more co-operation and an all-party group of leaders to reach agreement on the financial challenges currently facing the council.

But this all points to a possible paradox - if there's a scrutiny problem identified then it seems unlikely that more co-operation will resolve anything other than perhaps toning down the more overtly political conflict. But this will not help the case of substantive scrutiny.

Of course, proper scrutiny will always involve an element of conflict, but ideally this should be achieved without the seemingly ever present political motivation.

However, perhaps the more fundamental problem in achieving proper scrutiny is that even the most able of councillors are dealing with a multitude of different issues that they cannot hope to properly appreciate and hence effectively scrutinise.

But addressing that issue and ridding local government of party politics seems a forlorn hope.

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