Audit Scotland 2015 report on Argyll & Bute Council

The national scrutineer, Audit Scotland, has published its 2015 report [attached below] on Argyll and Bute Council this morning, 4th December 2015.

Of comfort to the local electorate and to the Commission is the finding that the council is ‘a significantly different council now than it was when we reported in 2013, with a consequent reduction in risk’. Specifically, ‘The stability of the council’s political leadership that we reported in July 2014 has been sustained and confidence amongst elected members is growing’.

The report notes that: ‘The council does a number of things well and communities have a generally positive view of local services. But the amount of public criticism that the council attracts has an impact on its reputation among local communities and more widely.’

In relation to this is the focus on continuing internal tensions. These do not relate to the SNP opposition groju of nine councillors, with the report saying ‘The Administration and the main opposition group have established a working relationship, although this will face the stresses and strains that will apply in many councils over the next 18 months.’

The auditors instead highlight that: ‘Despite considerable member development activity, and improved relationships between most councillors, long- standing political and personal differences remain amongst a small number of key individuals in Argyll and Bute. These differences are played out in a very public way and are damaging the council’s image and reputation, with implications for relations with local communities.’

They emphasise that: ‘Whatever the merits of the individual views and motivations of those involved, the discord must be resolved in the best interests of he people of Argyll and Bute’.

However, while the issue of the damaging impact of criticism is well taken, a major paragraph in the report’s summary of its findings identifies a core inability in the council’s thinking, mindset and strategic planning that leaves those frustrated by this faced with the choice of continuing to be critical – which is virtually all they can do in a continuingly manipulative and closed administration – or being silent, lending tacit consent to inability and letting it run.

The paragraph in question is paragraph 14 in the Summary statement and reads:

’14.   The council’s approach to meeting future financial challenges needs to improve. It has agreed a strategy, “Planning our Future, which aims to transform the work of the council to invest in the future and support communities by protecting jobs and preserving the most important services. However, in a public consultation currently underway, options for longer term savings are heavily based on low-level cuts to individual service budgets and involve reducing or stopping services, rather than doing things differently. Links to Planning our Future are not clear, nor is the impact that the proposals will have on strategic priorities. There is no indication of what sustainable services will look like in the future.’

This indicates two parallel features in the council’s current operation:

  • the ability to produce competent proposals on how the work of the council may be transformed – in future;
  • the inability to put those insights into action in the way they are continuing to work.

The divorce between the former and the latter speaks for an administration that is either cynical or incapable.

The report is correct that the council does a lot of things well. The ‘client facing’ staff are largely very good at what they do and the lower levels of management are largely honest, competent and hard working.

The highest level of management, though, is where the greatest failings are to be found – and this is the level that dictates the operations and the culture of the council – and the source of power that is as often used to obstruct as to enable.

There is an impediment even on hope for the future, when staff changes and new appointments come. The highest level of appointments are made by a panel including those at the same level; and the strategies behind the appointments they have made are transparent and too often addressed to varieties of convenience rather than need.

It is clear from the report that the auditors’ perception is that the nature of the culture within the council is largely unevolved and needs to change.

A side issue but one of local interest, is that the report gives an up to date account of just which group of councillors is part of the administration or of the opposition just now. This continues to be something of a lobster quadrille. With a by-election reported to be in the offing in Oban North and Lorn,  this picture may change again to some degree, one way or the other.

The full summary from the report is reproduced below verbatim; and the full report itself is attached at the foot.

Audit report summary

10.   The council has continued to make progress in response to previous Accounts Commission findings. It has focused on improving political and managerial leadership. New committee arrangements are improving decision-making and scrutiny. The senior management team is actively improving the way it works and the culture within the organisation. It will take time and commitment to achieve real and lasting improvements in culture, behaviour and understanding, but Argyll and Bute is a significantly different council now than it was when we reported in 2013, with a consequent reduction in risk.
11.   The stability of the council’s political leadership that we reported in July 2014 has been sustained and confidence amongst elected members is growing. This has allowed the council to conduct its business more effectively and develop its organisation. The Administration and the main opposition group have established a working relationship, although this will face the stresses and strains that will apply in many councils over the next 18 months.
12.  Despite considerable member development activity, and improved relationships between most councillors, long- standing political and personal differences remain amongst a small number of key individuals in Argyll and Bute. These differences are played out in a very public way and are damaging the council’s image and reputation, with implications for relations with local communities. The nature of these relationships makes it difficult to judge the rights and wrongs of the situation, but we do not see much prospect of them improving in the short term. Whatever the merits of the individual views and motivations of those involved, the discord must be resolved in the best interests of he people of Argyll and Bute.
13.  The council does a number of things well and communities have a generally positive view of local services. But the amount of public criticism that the council attracts has an impact on its reputation among local communities and more widely. The council can operate much more openly as a means of building better relationships and developing greater trust with its communities. It can further improve how it involves local people by building on the local area committees and local community planning arrangements.
14.   The council’s approach to meeting future financial challenges needs to improve. It has agreed a strategy, “Planning our Future, which aims to transform the work of the council to invest in the future and support communities by protecting jobs and preserving the most important services. However, in a public consultation currently underway, options for longer term savings are heavily based on low-level cuts to individual service budgets and involve reducing or stopping services, rather than doing things differently. Links to Planning our Future are not clear, nor is the impact that the proposals will have on strategic priorities. There is no indication of what sustainable services will look like in the future.
15.   We have identified improvements that the council can work on in areas such as its culture, how it works with communities, and how it
responds to the challenges it faces.
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Related Articles & Comments

  • Point 82 in this report sums up the failures and poor general management of this local authority. Management decisions on reorganisations should have already be well under way years ago. A key weakness in this local authority has been shown to be it’s HR department, absolutely incompetent.

    As stated already, most of the proposed cuts are low level cuts on the front line which will damage service provision.

    Frankly some of the poorest proposals ever placed forward for public consultation, a failure across the board. By all means have a public consultation but don’t insult the public by putting across proposals not fit for purpose.

    Hot debate. What do you think? Thumb up 14 Thumb down 3

    Thought I'd heard it all December 4, 2015 2:49 pm Reply
    • At the end of completing my submission to the consultation I noticed a box that allowed me to make other suggestions – which I did. I trust you have done the same?

      Hot debate. What do you think? Thumb up 11 Thumb down 4

      Lowry December 4, 2015 5:36 pm Reply
  • Wow Fraser are you on planet argyll and bute? Have you seen dick Walsh’s crazy cooked up services ‘choices’? Words fail me. It was crap in 2013 and it is still crap now in fact possibly worse… It all smacks of a ‘tries hard’ school report or damming with faint praise. Ok so you don’t like mike Breslin’s blog…but how else would we know all this stuff that’s going on and it really helps with transparency.

    Hot debate. What do you think? Thumb up 10 Thumb down 7

    Citizen of argyll and bute December 5, 2015 12:52 am Reply
  • Have to agree, if old rules applied then this business would be shut down or changes at the top would have been carried out to save the work force.

    Argyll and Bute is a business, the business of everyone who lives here, the audit Scotland report is damming and very true, the plans for cuts have been made in a dark room with a dart board and very selective items to cut, as it says all low level.

    What happens next is that the council makes the cuts that they were always going to make and say that it’s based on what we in Argyll asked for or told us to take through the consultation.

    How do we get to a new leadership contest and start at the top instead of chopping from the bottom ?

    It is a very dull day in Argyll today in many ways

    Hot debate. What do you think? Thumb up 15 Thumb down 3

    MB December 5, 2015 9:44 am Reply
  • Another year nealy ends. How much has been spent on Toward? Chord etcetera

    Walsh if he can’t get booted out should with his sleepy colleagues ( well during meetings at least ) say that they will not stand for election in 2017. We all need cheering up.

    Hot debate. What do you think? Thumb up 9 Thumb down 8

    No Cheese Here December 5, 2015 10:59 am Reply
  • 2 thumbs down! McQueen and Walsh have woken up!!

    Lol

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 6

    No Cheese Here December 5, 2015 12:28 pm Reply
  • How has that whole Castle Toward issue played out? Has any money been changing hands yet, I mean as a purchase. Is Argyll and Bute still paying for its up keep, or have the new people taken over as yet.

    One for someone from the Dunoon burgh to answer

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 1

    MB December 5, 2015 5:34 pm Reply
    • Given the silence since the deal was done I’d guess the new owner is keeping mum until she’s got something concrete to tell; half the bother with developments is the developer going wild with PR and then not building anything, like the development at the torpedo station. As to whether the council have been paid, that’s probably top-secret-Dick’s-eyes-only.

      Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 1

      db December 5, 2015 9:12 pm Reply
      • The sale isn’t showing up on the land registry at any rate.

        Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 1

        db December 5, 2015 9:28 pm Reply
  • Para 49 says,in effect, that there are problems and because they involve a small number of people they are difficult to resolve. They would be easy to resolve if the council officers didn’t have a vested interest and were more open and dare I say honest in their dealings and didn’t create the problems in the first place

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 2

    Steve December 6, 2015 9:23 pm Reply
  • If this is the best Audit Scotland can do,they should be binned,along with the cooncil

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 2

    Hugh Jazz December 6, 2015 10:41 pm Reply

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