[Updated below with list of actions proposed.] Below is the Action Plan for Audit Scotland, laid out to guide progress towards the light at Argyll and Bute Council.
While some of what it says is incontrovertible – as with its analysis of the structural and operational weaknesses in the political management arrangements at the council – its factual basis is often incorrect. Moreover:
- Its perspective – which has to include Audit Scotland’s own role in troubled local authorities like Argyll and Bute – is far from the 360 degree one it needs to be.
- Its grasp of philosophical issues – which shape the work and the relationships today between elected members, council officers and the helpless general public – is anachronistic and fails those who have no other recourse to redress than Audit Scotland itself.
It’s all the fault of the information providers?
This Action Plan states, in an early paragraph: ‘Part of the lack of mutual trust is because of the amount of discussion about council issues and derogatory remarks about councillors and officers made in local press and online forums. Councillors expressed their concern that this includes contributions from other councillors and includes apparent leaking of private papers and emails. ‘
Echoing Mandy Rice Davies’s celebrated remark in the Profumo trial – we would pick on this item, wouldn’t we?
But what is the alternative?
Would Audit Scotland really advocate a culture of governance where wrongs are done, where poor or worse decisions are taken for questionable reasons and where plans are implemented badly or improperly – and the public must be kept ignorant of all of this and more – in the interests of what exactly? Good government?
The internet and social media today have lifted the lid on the Pandora’s Box of public information. Like it or not, the public now expect information. They do have a right to it. There is no supportable argument why they should be kept in ignorance.
The answer to the sort of disease prevailing in Argyll and Bute Council is not to close down information and gag the media platforms. It is to clean up the culture of local government; and, specifically, to clean up Argyll and Bute Council in its political and executive functioning.
The best way to neuter scrutiny and criticism is to be transparent and competent. Don’t club the awkward squad. Give us nothing to complain about.
Never forget that the primary duty of elected members is to the public whom they are elected to serve. If they find themselves unable internally to get a purchase on a serious problem, they are bound in duty to the voters to do whatever else they can to get that purchase.
The best way to keep elected members discreet is to inform them properly; respond to their concerns as seriously and fully as they are entitled to expect; and try to grow a culture of inclusive team work.
Fairy tales teach us that the Bad Fairy not invited to the christening is the one who will make trouble; and versions of Greek mythology see The Furies translated into The Kindly Ones.
It’s all the fault of the councillors?
This Action Plan for Audit Scotland shows repeatedly that, as an organisation, while it is willing to accept that some elected members can – and do – behave badly and to reprove them for it, it is assumed to be unwilling to contemplate the possibility that officers can be at least equally responsible.
There is not even a tacit acknowledgment that officers can deliberately mislead and misinform councillors – yet there is documented evidence in the public domain that this happens routinely in Argyll and Bute.
It has been publicly revealed that senior council officers had in their possession official documented evidence that electrical and other safety matters at Castle Toward were so faulty they were an immediate hazard to users of the building – yet not only did nothing for seven months – during which the building remained in use, but actively prevented the operators of the building, Actual Reality, from addressing the matters.
Yet senior officers, in defending against serious questions on the appropriateness of their conduct have assured elected members – while disguising the telling timeline – that the council’s priority in later closing the building was the health and safety of its users.
Chief Executive, Sally Loudon, in her briefing for Audit Scotland on Actual Reality, Castle Toward, Ardentinny and Argyll and Bute Council – which For Argyll acquired under Freedom of Information and recently published here – spent much time in this document piously intoning the council’s overarching concern for public safety in closing the building.
However in this demonstrably selective narrative, she neglected to provide the timeline showing that they had deliberately left in public use for a period of seven months a building they formally knew to be a serious safety hazard.
In this same exemplary matter, officers neglected to inform elected members fully on aspects of the financial arrangements they were operating.
Once again, using this single incident – which of course has not been a solitary one – as an example of the diseases Audit Scotland has preferred not to see or to address, officers and senior councillors have routinely refused to respond to members requests for information and documentation on substantive issues.
Whatever councillors do and did – and much of that has been, across serial administrations, below basic acceptability – their conduct can be seen to be as much a response to a culture of deception and manipulation by the officer class of the council as it is culturally inherent.
Where some members may feel no loyalty to some officers, the evidence suggests that there may be very good reason for such distrust.
It ought not to be forgotten that, in the ;School Wars’, the most senior officers in the council brought low the reputation of the council itself, the reputations of some elected members – and their very careers.
They did this, for example:
- in their exclusion of the Education Spokesperson of the day, Councllor Strong, from meetings with consultants, minutes and information during their demonstrably secretive working up of their proposals;
- in the utter shambles of their collective failure to prepare competent school closure papers; to advise elected members competently of the legal compliance of these proposals; and to advise members correctly on the accuracy of financial calculations presented to support those closure proposals.
The officers directly responsible here were:
- the Executive Director for Community Services and Education Director, Cleland Sneddon – whose closure proposals were shown to be serially and unforgivably error strewn, often at an elementary level of fact and were, on occasion, consciously manipulative of evidence to disguise an unsound case;
- the Executive Director for Customer Services, Douglas Hendry, who assured members on more than one occasion that the closure proposals were legally compliant with the 2010 Schools Act- where we, SRSN and ARSN showed on evidence that they patently were not;
- the Director of Strategic Finance, Bruce West, who persisted in assuring members of the accuracy of the financial figures on the savings to be gained from the proposed closures – when the reverse was the case. Mr West’s failure to grasp the Grant Aided Expenditure [GAE] formula by which local authority revenues are calculated, meant that in some instances the proposed closures would have lost the council revenue. SRSN finally demonstrated this beyond denial.
- the Chief Executive, who seemed adrift of understanding of most of the issues throughout this catastrophically damaging conflict; and who was manifestly unable to interrogate and verify or challenge the claims of her senior officers, resorting simply to accepting them as valid and assuring members – wrongly – of their soundness.
Here are a couple of examples from our own first hand experience in attending, note taking and reporting on council meetings during that prolonged and conflicted episode. These are indicative of the prevailing modus operandi in providing competent information to members – even in public.
- At a meeting of the council on 2nd November 2010, an issue of concern to parent councils and several councillors was the six week period allocated for statutory public consultation on 26 proposals to close rural primary school across Argyll’s mainland and islands. An elected member, suggesting that this period be extended, asked the Education Director, Cleland Sneddon, if this was a viable length of time for so many meetings in so many communities on so many schools under threat of closure. Mr Sneddon replied, verbatim, that he could assure members that ‘This is the statutory period‘. We reported on this at the time, pointing out its intrinsic and deliberate deception of members – most of whom, frankly never know the time of day. The fact is that, according to the governing 2010 Schools Act, six weeks is the statutory minimum period for statutory consultation on school closure proposals. It is specifically open to councils to extend this period as they see fit. This option was withheld from members, who accepted without further question Mr Sneddon’s assurance that six weeks was ‘the statutory period‘.
- At the same meeting, where a few members, briefed by the Scottish Rural School Network [SRSN], questioned some of the figures quoted in Mr Sneddon’s papers to support the closure proposals, they met with the officer’s jovial admission that he had ‘never heard of Scottish Neighbourhood Statistics [SNS]‘ but he nevertheless knew that the facts quoted in his papers were accurate. Members accepted this – they have little other option. Yet the facts challenged were indeed incorrect – and the Scottish Neighbourhood Statistics are the datazone within which officers are required to operate. Mr Sneddon, in seeking to reassure members of his authority in the matters under consideration, had just mentioned in passing that, at Argyll and Bute, he was ‘on his seventh local authority’. This made – and makes – it even more incomprehensible that he could have remained unaware of the Scottish Neighbourhood Statistics. But Mr Cleland’s working process, as we have often noted, is driven by impetuosity and pragmatism, untroubled by exposure to accurate and considered research.
Elected members as victims
Some councillors in Argyll and Bute who have trusted officers implicitly and stood in blind support of them in 2010-11 against their own constituents and communities faced with the loss of their schools, paid a terminal price for their trust at the May 2012 local authority elections.
The highest profile casualty was administration councillor, Alison Hay of the Liberal Democrat Group, a former council leader.
Stoutly defending the officers proposal to close Minard School in her own village – against powerful evidence of the unsound foundation for this proposal, Councillor Hay not only lost her seat but, as her party’s credible candidate for the Argyll and Bute seat in the 2011 Scottish Elections, she achieved the Lib Dem’s highest percentage vote loss [memory says 18%] across Scotland – on a night where they suffered a general rout.
So quite what ought to be the basis of trust by elected members of Argyll and Bute Council in their officers?
Are they supposed to take the sort of abuse outlined in the cases above, take the punishment and the loss and keep on trusting?
Such an expectation runs as counter to psychology as it does to experiential learning – once bitten?
Where to start?
In a sick culture, it has to be more effective to address the embedded permanent diseases rather than the potentially recurring ones.
Yes, councillors are often treacherous – as are all politicians.
Yes, councillors can safely be expected to abandon the needs of area-wide strategic planning in favour of ladling out to their own ward constituents the contents of the pork barrell to which they are generically addicted. This pattern of behaviour was the case in the proposed closure of the Struan Lodge Care Home in Dunoon.
Yes, this inherent instability, indiscipline and irresponsibility must, more often than not, depress and infuriate the responsible officers – who do exist.
But councillors are temporary enough. They come and go. Support for political parties waxes and wanes.
Officers and the culture they pass on down the generations are a fixed element of the operational culture in local authorities.
This is where change has to start; and even then it will have a tough time in gaining purchase in Argyll and Bute.
It could not be more damaging for the pursuit of change for the better – and equally for its own credibility with the public – that Audit Scotland seems systemically unable to confront this formative element of the cultural problem here.
Note: A reader notified us in the comments chain below that the previous link to the document in question didn’t work. Apologies. Please try this one: Action Plan for Audit Scotland.
[Update 14.15 12th January]
CEO’s proposed actions to reassure Audit Scotland on its concerns.
The document we had did not at first let us access Page 1 and we had therefore assumed it was blank.
However, we have now solved the conundrum and here is the Chief Executive’s list of proposed actions by the Council to reassure Audit Scotland in relation to its erratic conclusions on the cultural health of Argyll and Bute Council.
It has to be said that much of this is the stuff of comedy, given that everyone is aware of the reality of the situation.
Which councillor will be the first to get a Red Card for refusing to accept a Yellow one? Will they get sin-binned and banned from council meetings for a due period?
And: ‘Reinforce the role of officers as professional advisors – Members recognise and understand the role of officers as professional advisors.’
Well, it’s nowhere near as straightforward as that, is it?
To put it in another context, would anyone submit to surgery from a professional practitioner with a track record of wrong diagnoses and of sending out of theatre a series of damagingly mishandled procedures?
This set of proposals for ‘action’ ignores the parallel central problem of the conduct of senior officers and it therefore of little use.
1. Refresh Standards Commission training with input from Commissioners Office -Refresh training on standards and behaviour input from Commissioner’s office.
2. Monitoring Officer revised operating protocol – Develop protocol for Monitoring Officer / Elected Members adhere to Code of Conduct.
3. Revised guidance to officers on responding to unacceptable behaviours -Yellow card process to warn of breach of “reasonable behaviour” and Councillor Code of conduct.
4. Reinforce the roles and responsibilities of Elected Members – All elected members understand their roles and responsibilities as a member, in line with Code of Conduct.
5. Reinforce the processes/procedures for dealing with private and confidential correspondence – All elected members deal appropriately with correspondence and do not release to the press/ others.
6. Group discipline and leadership – Group leaders ensure proper conduct of members within their respective groups.
7. Reinforce the role of officers as professional advisors – Members recognise and understand the role of officers as professional advisors.
8. Revised guidance from Monitoring Officer for Senior Officers on managing expectations – Senior Officers are better informed and clearly understand their role and responsibilities.
9. Review progress, assess impact and identify further improvements.
10. Revise PMA to improve scrutiny and decision making – Committee structure set out by SLWG.
11. Clarity on roles of area committees and central committees and clear statement on terms of reference for each.
12. Align members’ knowledge, experience, and interests with senior members’ roles – Develop criteria and introduce process for nominations to senior roles and committees.
13. Establish staffing resources and operating procedures to support new PMA.
14. Development day for membership of each committee.
15. Develop work plan / forward agenda planning to try and identify key issues to be dealt with by each committee – Work plan agreed and actioned.
16. Development day for PRS Committee members.
17. PRS Committee Work plan agreed and implementation – Work plan agreed and actioned.
18. Revise report format to address Members feedback – Extend executive summary in report to assist Members understanding.
19. Chief Executive Appraisal process annualised – Appraisal completed annually.
20. Monitor impact on staff morale via staff survey – Maintain/improve current levels of staff morale.
21. Explore opportunities to broaden/improve engagement with local communities, via media platforms.
22. Further scrutiny/review of local community planning processes and area community planning groups/ partnerships.
23. Review progress, assess impact and identify further improvements.
24. Implement Elected Member Development Programme – 75% of Members engaged in EMD.
25. Establish an appropriate Peer Mentoring Programme for Members – involving external and internal peers – Development of a peer mentoring programme, involving both internal and external peers.
26. Establish a medium term programme of training to develop key skills and competencies based on members’ needs and output from committee development days.
27. Training for members on scrutiny role -75% of members completed scrutiny training.
28. Establish a medium term programme of master classes on key leadership issues and strategic issues.
29. Review progress, assess impact and identify further improvements.
30. Seminar programme to address key policy areas – Deliver seminar programme with 75% attendance.
31. Create working groups to examine long term challenges and strategic issues facing Argyll and Bute.
32. SOA Development Plans to be finalised – Clear Strategic planning/direction.
33. Align resources and services to SOA outcomes and delivery plans.
34. Corporate priorities and service plans updated to reflect alignment of resources and service to SOA outcomes and delivery plans.
35. Chief Executive Leaders Briefing – Meeting with Leader/Depute Leader and Opposition Leader.
36. Review progress, assess impact and identify further improvements.