Argyll and Bute for Change certainly seems to be gearing up to go for change in ways no one would have predicted.
We have had sight of a two page document, Ever Increasing Circles, prepared for the group and which appears to be guiding the way it intends to carry out local government.
At first sight, we thought they must have hired a consultant – always the public sector’s first recourse.
The document is highly professional, highly literate, written in classic ‘management speak’ and accompanied by extremely well produced graphic representations of how the Ever Increasing Circles proposed as a management model would work.
The model sees the same ‘ever increasing circles’ operating in the work of council officers as well.
In both cases, everyone reading this paper will have their private grins at imagining councillors and council officers alike in the centrifugal grip of ‘ever increasing circles’ and being hurled gasping into the rhododendrons in Kilmory.
This is, of course, teasing – but Councilor James McQueen, a member of Argyll and Bute for Change, is best known for two things:
- saying ‘I agree with Dick’ [his Dunoon colleague and Former Council Leader, Dick Walsh. There is a story, possibly apocryphal, that when Councillor McQueen offered this position at one council meeting, it was pointed out to him that Councillor Walsh was not present.]
- inviting those with opposing views to ‘… step outside.. just you and me’.
Neither of these two modes would fit the required pattern of working in Ever Increasing Circles.
In a professional context, we would view this proposed model differently – but local government is not a professional context. It is amateur and part time – and is structured and paid to be nothing else.
Councillors are not paid to work much or to be capable of delivering the level of competence and commitment we would like to see. Happenstance always delivers a handful of effective and conscientious councillors but far too many are:
- mediocre at best
- glaze over at the sight of numbers
- do not fully acquaint themselves with the content of papers for meetings
- simply vote regardless as instructed
- are in awe of council officers whose equals they do not feel themselves to be
- and are only in the job because of the opportunities it offers for influence and patronage.
In the context of that reality, it is great fun to imagine Ever Increasing Circles in operation on both sides of the fence in Kilmory.
Before we move to look at the detail of this proposed operational model for teamwork in Argyll and Bute Council, there’s a matter we might tidy up. We thought at first that this had been produced by a consultant – for the reasons given above.
Then we realised just who the architect of Ever Increasing Circles must be.
Who would think structurally? Who would have a professional interest in the way modelled structures might work? Who would professionally see models and structures graphically? Who would revel in the intellectual challenge of producing such a model? Who would have the level of skills to conceive of and produce the diagrammatic representations of the Ever Increasing Circles?
An architect would.
Step forward – we think - Councillor Iain Angus Macdonald of Oban North and Lorn, architect, Independent and member of Argyll and Bute for Change.
Ever Increasing Circles
Let’s look at a few key parts of the verbal description of this model:
‘The ideal teams share the same view of the world‘. Just have a look at the membership of Argyll and Bute for Change, given at the end of the article here, published earlier today.
‘The proposed system is designed to maximise communication (the red lines of the diagram), build integration and create the opportunity for all councillors to contribute to both the strategic aims and tactical delivery of council policy.’ There will be no escape. They will have to work. This could be funny – or it could actually be fun. Councillors might learn to enjoy working differently.
‘A co-ordinating councillor will act as a facilitator for each team. All the facilitators act as an inner team centred round the hub, the convener, who in turn will act as a facilitator to them.’ This may not be ‘hierarchical and linear’ but it is certainly hierarchical – but flat pyramidal. The ‘convener’ is the leader; the ‘facilitators’ are the line managers and the peripherals are as ever, peripheral – but without the easy life they currently enjoy.
‘The process allows everyone to contribute and removes the idea of personal ownership of any of the suggestions thus creating a sense of shared building rather than ‘my idea is better than yours’ and the old adversarial situation of above.‘ This is correct in theory but less so in practice. The psychological engagement of producing an idea creates a powerful ownership of that idea, regardless of the operational model you may be working within. Anyone who has acted as just such a ‘facilitator’ knows the compromises to integrity that have to be deployed to keep a team together. The final decisions always have to have a little bit from every member woven into them – to satisfy the demands of conflicting ‘ownerships’ the model claims to overcome.
‘The facilitators create the environment for the discussion and are responsible for co- ordinating the output from the discussions.‘ These are very high level skills that require training and guided experience before they are fit to be set to work. There is no sign of any such abilities existing amongst elected members at the moment. But there is a budget for professional development of councillors – each of which is constitutionally required to have a ‘personal development plan. Has anyone ever seen one of those?
‘The system also has the opportunity to place an independent ‘expert’ within the team (see coloured disc in diagram at the top of the page) enabling an independent perspective of materials being brought forward from council officers.’ Now this could be fun. It’s the joker in the pack. It allows for the fact that councillors are usually incapable of interrogating what officers serve up to them – so in may come an outside expert scrutineer. The model does not say whose decision it is to bring in – and when to bring in – such a expert. We assume it would be the responsibility of the Convener/Leader.
‘Councillors are asked to operate at both a strategic and a tactical level and the system provides a strong feedback loop between these levels.‘ This will be educative. At the moment, few councillors could distinguish between the strategic and the tactical, never mind choose which mode would be the most appropriate for specific purposes.
‘This system allows for free discourse and encourages it, so no more decisions behind closed doors, no more frustrated councillors.’ Ah – there’s the rub. Old habits die hard. Robert G MacIntyre – who succumbed in the end and hopped back into Argyll and Bute for Change today, to help to give them their majority, experienced a flood of phone calls from Duncan MacIntyre to persuade him to do so. This part of the model looks a loser from the off. Dick Walsh, Duncan MacIntyre and Michael Breslin weaned away from ‘decisions behind closed doors’? Mmmm…