- If local councils worked, what would they be like?
Democracy in action
As the democratically elected representatives, politicians have absolute say on what goes ahead and what does not. However, the four-year political cycle is relatively short term when thinking about regeneration and how neighbourhoods evolve. Whilst there should be ongoing support and maintenance, as well as regular delivery, of facilities, amenities and services, this needs to be within coherent mid- to long-term thinking.
Because of political interplay, the result of this situation is significant waste of resources through projects being developed then shelved. This indicates a need to address and counterbalance both the result of four-year (political) cycle and the annual budget cycle that further exacerbates this issue.
The state of affairs
Local government has become very focussed solely on internal processes. This may be at least partly the result of being a large and complex organisation, existing over many generations. But the outward result is the same, seemingly out of touch with the people they serve, typically lacking in impetus to resolve issues and improve neighbourhoods, despite the best of intentions, as fulfilling internal procedures has become a higher imperative.
One result of this internal focus is that many council staff lack the skills to achieve outward objectives, although they may have become experts in internal procedures. Prioritisation of objectives has become confused, with little basis to genuinely re-prioritise towards these ‘on the ground’ results.
What kind of ideal is the private sector?
Currently, many of the services of councils are contracted out to the private sector. Whilst often portrayed as being more efficient, the private sector should not be held up as an ideal - as some politicians do - there are criticisms there too, although private sector consultants can often become entangled in the internal processes of local government, which prevents what could be a more efficient delivery.
There would inevitably be criticism of more use of the private sector (and the private profits that go with that) to deliver public services, but if there was a way not just to bring more efficiency but also fundamental change in improving public services (through a more consistent decision process with a reduction in wasted resources), then there is good reason for considering it. There needs to be a balance of the responsibility of the public sector with the efficiency of the private sector.
The strive for efficiency has its natural limits, and should not be seen as a goal in itself; better neighbourhoods are a higher priority. Where people are involved in often conflicting priorities there are bound to be 'inefficiencies', but the dialogue and arenas of this is democracy too – interaction of human nature. With the entrenched four-year political cycle, has the definition of democracy become too narrow? There are many sectors of society that seem marginalised from genuine input to shaping how we live.
What do we want?
What is needed is a re-formulated interface between local government and the public, whereby the needs of each neighbourhood or district is appraised, efficiently communicated and acted upon in an integrated manner and with reference to higher level strategic considerations.
- Outwardly relevant;
- Achieve more results ‘on the ground’;
- Responsive: ‘pro-actively reactive’;
The right to govern – a proposal
The proposal for a revised local government structure is summarised by four main aspects (further detailed below):
- Reduction in size of the council as an organisation;
- Introduction of non-political area advocates as the public interface;
- Increased outward delivery and support;
- Constitution of a forum of mixed representatives, political and non-political.
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This model would bring savings in efficiency (when real world results are also factored in). Such a proposal would tend to mitigate the lack of integration between (political) boroughs, which are, after all, arbitrary political lines often with little direct relevance to most people. This would also address the issue of being too focused on a borough as a geographical vicinity, to the detriment of areas smaller (neighbourhoods) or larger (regions).
This structure should not be set up so that individual areas compete with each other or ignore other areas, but work more closely in an integrated way, an issue which is addressed by the forums. The structure needs to mitigate the danger that such a structure just multiplies inefficiencies.
- Reduced size
The council as an organisation is shrunk in size so its external interface is minimised, and it focuses on background work and baseline information gathering.
It would stick to core functions as a provider - akin to a queen bee - providing the key resources. This is a distillation and concentration of its ‘nature’ – being internally focussed, which to an extent is necessary as a council is a large complex organisation with many seemingly disparate objectives. But that cannot excuse outward results becoming secondary or being less than responsive to the balance of genuine needs of the neighbourhoods and communities they support.
- Area advocates
The re-structured organisation would have an outward interface of neighbourhood or district based leaders/ managers, or ‘area advocates’. They are responsive in the short-term, and strategic in the mid- to long-term, to complement councillors who they would work closely with.
They would each act as central hub in contact with all council departments, key stakeholders, residents, local people and businesses - essentially a local conduit. Reciprocally, all council departments would go through area advocates, who maintain contact with their area and know all that goes on, and relays that back to the council when relevant or required.
These area advocates would recognise and highlight issues, appraise proposals to ensure relevance and value for money, as well as prioritise objectives between local, often conflicting, priorities, as well as local need versus more strategic or infrastructure requirements in dialogue with the wider forums outlined below.
The designated areas for each advocate should be small enough so as to be able to communicate effectively with people in that area.
- Delivery and support
Delivery of facilities, amenities and services is in conjunction with a range of intermediaries (associations/ institutions/ NGOs/ consultants/ local groups) who are firmly embedded in, and drawn from, the community.
This array of intermediaries would range from research foundations for social innovation initiatives to delivery agencies for actual implementation of services and ongoing management and support.
With a forum of mixed representation, combining politicians, council officers, area advocates, and direct local representation, decision making should become more consistent and responsive to genuine need. People can become representatives of groups through consensual processes that broaden the definition of democracy. There could be a range of forums from the very informal to more constituted formal arenas akin to democratic bodies. An association of advocates could represent areas larger than boroughs to expand knowledge and gain experience from other parts of the country.
The number of advocates in each forum should be small enough to be able to communicate effectively and know many other advocates personally.
Through the key forums, area advocates maintain contact with each other and council departments, to share experiences, discuss resources and communicate in both directions, towards economic and social objectives, that complement physical/ spatial initiatives, and achieving genuine sustainability.