In a recent article on Audit Scotland’s research and guidance on Roles and Working Relationships for Councillors and Officers, we quoted a passage from this concise and valuable document:
‘Councils are responsible for ensuring councillors and officers are aware of and understand their respective roles and responsibilities, and what is expected of them in terms of conduct and working practice.’
Audit Scotland commissioners are now in Argyll and Bute Council’s HQ to investigate matters around the pre-May 2012 administration’s sale of Castle Toward and member-to-member relations in the current council around the present chaotic situation.
The presence of Audit Scotland in Kilmory has already been constructive.
The reminder of where responsibility lies for ensuring that councillors carry out their elected duties properly has spurred the Council’s CEO to take belated action in an effort to restore acceptable working practices.
Item 6 on the agenda for tomorrow’s [27th June] meeting is ‘Elected Member Development’, described as a ‘report’ by the Chief Executive.
This is not a report but a proposal which, in its own words: ‘sets out an approach to Elected Member Development which builds on the Continuous Professional Development Frame work for Elected members and Audit Scotland’s Improvement Series for Councillor and Officers Roles and working relationships: are you getting it right?.’ ‘
‘The programme of development will support the council to address the new risk highlighted in Assurance and Improvement Plan Update 2013-16 in respect of member to member and member to officer working relationships.’
The recommendation of the paper is: ‘that Elected Member development focuses on two key areas:
’1. Building individual capability through adoption of Continuous Professional Development Framework for Elected Members.
’2. Building collective capability through:
- a series of interactive seminars on strategic issues for Argyll and Bute council;
- an initial workshop facilitated by the Improvement Service on the role of Elected members and thereafter an agreed programme of development activity.
‘Council is invited to endorse this approach and request that the Chief Executive makes arrangements to put it in place.’
The tripwires – external political intervention
This is a largely competent paper, with the proposals it makes for developmental and remedial activities clearly constructive and necessarily challenging.
It has two major deficiencies which are important to note.
The first relates to a powerfully active source of the ongoing meltdown of member-to-member relations in Argyll and Bute council.
Neither this proposal from the council CEO nor the Audit Scotland guide on working relationships which it references, include the issue of external party political influence upon and instructions to elected members.
We cannot know whether the absence of consideration of and guidance on this major issue means that such influence, intervention and instruction is not supposed to happen; or whether it is too troublesome a subject to be approached.
However, in the case of the situation at Argyll and Bute, this matter has been THE central driver of the chaos we are still witnessing.
The local SNP MSP has coached and managed the SNP council group according to a personal strategy of getting them out of power to protect the independence vote in September 2o14. On occasion the MSP has actually had access to the entire coalition administration.
The SNP group of councillors have also been subject to documented and published written instructions, with threats, from the SNP Constituency Association Convener.
They have been subject to instructions, proscriptions and penalties from the SNP National Executive, supplemented by other very senior members of the party.
These interventions have directly acted upon the councillors proper execution of their elected responsibilities.
For example, a coalition capable of bringing both stability and added capability to an administration effectively brought down by the internal machinations of one political party – was expressly forbidden by that party at the highest level – on pain of expulsion of councillor members from the party.
This means that a collaborative development in the spirit of good cross-party working relationships that would have brought substantially improved governance to Argyll and Bute in the current circumstances was sabotaged externally by party political interests.
Audit Scotland must – as the responsible authority - produce proposals which address practices and guidelines governing this specific matter. Otherwise there will be nothing to prevent a future repetition, here or elsewhere, of the persistent destruction of responsible local governance we have all – including council officers – had to endure for over a year.
The tripwires – member to officer relationships
The Council CEO’s paper on tomorrow’s agenda lays out a procedure which would see external experts from the Improvement Service [IS] brought in for a foundation session with elected members, followed by a continuing series of developmental activities led by council officers.
There are obvious problems around the latter procedure.
As Audit Scotland summarise, elected members are responsible for policy, council officers for the implementation of that policy and elected members then responsible for scrutiny of that implementation.
This formula for the operation of local government simply does not work in the majority of cases.
Elected councillors, at the start of their representative career, may have little to bring to any area of council responsibility. The majority, at the start of this role, are naturally deficient in knowledge and procedure, in the handling of evidence and in the often arcane procedures that govern work in the public sector.
They have no choice but to rely on council officers who are inevitably better informed than they are and often more able.
The measure of ability relates to a starting point, not necessarily to interim or finishing points. No one can know until they know – and that takes time, experience and dedication to development. There are many very able councillors anywhere who cringe today at their own inevitable low level of capability in their early days – and there are many who don’t care.
Argyll and Bute, like too many other local authorities, is officer-led, not member-led, for these very reasons.
Many councillors are therefore, often reasonably, unconfident in dealing with officers, disempowered from challenge and intimidated from contributing in discussion.
Any programme of development which requires elected members to be tutored, mentored and guided by their own officers is flawed from he start.
This can only achieve a continuing officer-led culture, developing and confirming the dominant position of officers and breeding a relationship of master and pupil where members’ performance is under the formally acknowledged evaluative scrutiny of their officers; and where approval is sought and given or withheld.
A practical solution to this situation, in effecting the CEO’s constructive proposals, would be for council’s to exchange officer-tutors so that members were psychologically free of the discomfort of being trained and mentored by their own officers – and the council as a whole was free of the cementing of an officer-led culture of governance.
One example from the CEO’s proposals for elected member development that is a useful focus for the unhelpful difficulties we envisage, is the issue of appraisal of performance. Members are invited to choose individually how this is done, minimally by remote completion of a check list on self-appraisal alone or, at the other end of the scale, by 360 degree appraisal.
This would require members and officers, remotely or in person, to appraise each others’ performance and for members to appraise the performance of other members.
This is an obvious minefield which in theory, could be wonderfully developmental but which utterly ignores the defensiveness – and the aggression – in the human make up, never mind the reality of delicate or overbearing egos.
What can we expect?
A matter which no one should ignore, is that in our present system of local government, councillors are very badly paid. This means that neither we nor they have any expectation of serious performance – and that some are grossly exploited by this system. Neither of these positions is helpful.
The CEO’s proposals for individual development and the various frameworks on which these depend, have much to commend them.
But they are demanding of time and effort.
For a salary of £16k per annum and constituency work to do, how much can we expect an elected member to do? Many of those in opposition and some in administration, on that basic salary, will necessarily have other paid jobs to do.
We note that participation in the proposed programme is a matter for individual councillors themselves – as is their attendance at any scheduled session.
We would suggest that in the public interest and particularly in the aftermath of the events of the past year – and in the interests of transparency, the names of councilors who sign up for the programme and their attendance records are kept and made available for pubic scrutiny.
Note: The CEO’s paper on the development of elected councillors is well worth reading and we recommend that people do read it. It is at Item 6 on the agenda here and starts at Page 15 and runs to Page 10. We would have serious concerns on the calibre of CPD [Continuous Professional Development] Framework for Elected Members in Scottish Local Government which the CEO suggests employing in the proposed programme and which is attached to her paper, beginning on Page 21 – but that could be replaced by a better mechanism.