Friday, 2 September 2011

More municipal blame-shifting

Following Monday's post which suggested that the Edinburgh trams shambles was little more than much of normal municipal government writ large, it's perhaps appropriate that the Courier this week has been highlighting another failed local government infrastructure project.

This time it's the replacement for the Madras secondary school in St Andrews, which is unsatisfactorily spread over two separate and dilapidated sites. Fife Council and the University of St Andrews have been embroiled in protracted negations to build a shiny new replacement on university ground, but this week the whole thing has collapsed in acrimony and ignominy.

But at least, unlike the trams, this happened well before anything concrete had been concluded - and thus the council has only wasted a six-figure sum on the project - but what's perhaps instructive is the blame shifting which has taken place since the whole thing hit the buffers. (Or perhaps some kind of schoolkids/playground analogy is more appropriate in this case!)

Thus reporting that a "war of words has erupted", the Courier quoted the council's depute leader Elizabeth Riches as saying she had been "dismayed and disappointed by the manner in which the university attempts to conduct business", while the university countered: "Regrettably, over the course of protracted negotiations and repeated changes of emphasis by the council, the original vision for a new school physically and academically bound with us had become substantially and irrevocably diluted."

Thus quite apart from the matter of an SNP/Lib Dem coalition running Fife Council, all this seems reminiscent of the earlier conflict in the trams imbroglio between the council and the contractors.

Naturally, opposition councillors in Fife have stuck the boot in, with Labour's Alex Rowley calling for an inquiry and describing the matter as "quite shameful", while the Jenny Dawe-esque Mrs Riches responded to suggestions that she or other council representatives should stand down over the debacle by saying, "Absolutely now way."

Thus much the same politicking, failure to take any responsibility and blame-shifting that has been so self-evident regarding the Edinburgh trams recently.

Also interesting is that Fife Council leader Peter Grant "angrily dismissed" suggestions that heads should roll over the "disastrous collapse of the official plans". He said: "The determination and professionalism of chief officers is beyond reproach".

Which again brings to mind one of the matters raised regarding Edinburgh councillors Jenny Dawe and Steve Cardownie during the post mortem on the Gathering, in the course of which it was claimed they had alluded that officials had lied to them and that this breached a code of conduct which prevents elected representatives criticising council officials.

Interestingly, regarding the trams Ms Dawe certainly appeared to defend officialdom from any criticism on Newsnicht this week, while opposition councillors seemed to some extent at least use the bureaucrats as part of their blame-shifting exercise. However, this interface between councillors and officials raises fundamental questions regarding scrutiny and accountability in local government, surely underlined by the trams fiasco. As I averred/havered (depending on taste!) regarding the Gathering:
Irrespective of the facts of the Edinburgh case, this raises an interesting issue, because it underlines how officials can be unaccountable for their actions. My own impression of many facets of local government is that councillors very often act merely to rubber-stamp what's desired by officials, and since councillors are subsequently prevented from criticising officials then clearly this underlines that it's in effect officialdom that run things, with the councillor function conferring merely a facade of scrutiny and accountability.

Of course, while there are many very able and honest people both employed by and elected to local authorities, this doesn't mean that they're necessarily competent in the subject matter they're responsible for. And there's surely little doubt that there's an element of dishonesty among officials corresponding to that prevalent within the political class, not to mention that in wider society.

Thus while even if politicians are widely and justifiably mistrusted, it hardly bears repeating that our imperfect democracy never really holds them properly to account. And while bureaucrats are perhaps afforded more public trust, in reality this is no doubt often misplaced, and the principle expounded in the current CEC imbroglio perhaps underlines their even greater lack of accountability.
By the same token, in a Herald article yesterday about the trams and the implications for local democracy, Iain Macwhirter said:
The reason so many public-sector projects like this go so disastrously wrong is that there is no clear line of accountability and culpability. No one is to blame. No one pays any penalty. Why should they worry; it’s not their money after all. Civic administrations are suckers for fancy projects like trams. Their officials show them glossy brochures and take them on trips to Seville and Amsterdam where they see trams trundling along sunny streets and they decide that they want them too. It’s like having your own big train set. The councillors then get their officials to provide fantasy figures to justify the project. This is handed it over to arms length organisations like Transport in Edinburgh (Tie) who are taken to the cleaners by the private contractors. Then everyone runs for cover.

In theory, of course, the elected members are collectively responsible, but in councils like Edinburgh accountability is blurred by coalition. Edinburgh is run by shifting alliances of parties led by nonentities. The hapless Jenny Dawe, the leader of the Lib-Nat coalition in Edinburgh, is a well-meaning individual totally out of her depth who behaves like an innocent bystander at a car crash. She clearly feels no sense of personal responsibility for what happens on her watch, because she can always blame her coalition partners, or the other lot, or Bilfinger Berger.
But of course even assuming that councillors were uniformly intelligent, knowledgeable, honest and generally competent, it would still be beyond them to properly evaluate the actions of officialdom and third parties involved in council business, since non-specialists and part-timers cannot realistically hope to possess the requisite skills and knowledge.

Indeed, that's a deficiency of democracies generally, but two particular points are perhaps worth mentioning.

First, Iain Macwhirter claims that "councillors feel intimidated and inferior to officials", which is indeed a recurring theme on this blog. For example, there was Dundee's social work convener - and also Alex Salmond - praising the city's social work department in the wake of the Brandon Muir tragedy before any sort of investigation into the case had even begun. Contrast the political dimension to the Sharon Shoesmith case.

Then there was Fife councillor Maggie Taylor's predictably fawning attitude towards police, and indeed Ms Taylor was one of those more than willing to put the boot into St Andrews University this week in the wake of the Madras shambles. Which again seems to underline how often councillors seem to operate in a false dichotomy of opposition politicians and third parties regarded as being beyond the pale while public servants are viewed as beyond reproach (in turn highlighting the ludicrous notion of local accountability predictably being bandied about in the debate about police reorganisation).

Indeed, to the extent that administration councillors will identify their own interests with that of paid officials then this would also preclude criticism, and thus to a degree praise of officialdom represents councillor self-congratulation.

Second, perhaps all this demonstrates a degree of arrogance from our elected representatives, who seem unwilling/unable to recognise their own limitations. In turn, maybe this also explains their unwillingness to take responsibility for their deficiencies, which of course is a problem hardly confined to municipal decision-making.


Barbarian of the North said...

I'll tell you where the blame almost certainly lies - with the university. Councils are generally not much better, but univerities are far worse.

Most universities are managed by academics, so you have a similar pattern to politicians such as Ed Milliband.

St Andrews is very elitist as well (I dealt with them a few years back in business). Having had Prince William studying there has made them worse!

Morning rant over!!

Stuart Winton said...

Yes, you could be right, and indeed reading the numerous Courier articles in their entirety certainly suggests that the university didn't cover itself in glory during the negotiations.

Of course, from afar it's not easy for us members of the public to properly evaluate these things, but I know a bit more about how Fife Council operates in that neck of the woods as opposed to the university, so I'll give the latter the benefit of the doubt ;0)

Anonymous said...

Alex Rowley a waste of space . Who is he ? A Burnt out Damp Squib