Basic principles of governance for the post-COVID world

Posted on 22/10/2020 by Ed Hammond.

In a previous post, we set out four possible scenarios for how governance could develop as we continue to navigate the pandemic. 

Since then, we have been successful in securing funding for a major campaign on post-COVID governance. This post explores our initial thinking on this issue – inviting comment as we seek to turn these ideas from theory into practice.  

In thinking about possible future scenarios, we see risks around increased centralisation, and big opportunities to recast our sector to place local communities at its heart. We also see the risk of continued uncertainty, as major issues to do with reorganisation, social care reform and financial reform continue to sit unresolved.

We know that there will be impacts on governance. The challenge is that we cannot wait to see what the future looks like before making some of the necessary changes to our governance systems.

Change happens in a dynamic and unpredictable way. Priorities can shift and change. A few weeks ago, the Devolution White Paper was imminent – it was about to set us on a track to nationwide council reorganisation alongside significant new arrangements for devolution. Now, the White Paper has been pushed into 2021 and looks likely to have far less impact. Dealing with and understanding these sudden changes of emphasis is a real challenge.

We have to think of the changes that we can make now, and that we can continue to make, to our governance and decision-making systems to ensure that:

  • They are fit for purpose in the months to come;
  • They lay a foundation for longer term change in the way that we do business – even if the nature of that longer term change itself isn’t something we can easily predict.

We can choose to look at governance in two ways.

The first is that it is a compliance matter, focused on how institutions choose to run themselves. By and large, this has been the dominant framing device for governance in this country in the modern era. It was solidified, in the 80s, in the rigid dogma of New Public Management – the focus of NPM being on structure, conformity and compliance with systems, processes and rules.

The second is a more connected and distributed model. This is model which holds echoes of the “web of accountability” that we first posited in our publication “Accountability Works”, ten whole years ago (and on which we have blogged here). It’s a model that takes account of complexity and that, instead of seeking to batter that complexity into submission, embraces it, recognising that true good governance is about human beings, understanding each others needs and working together to try their best to reconcile them (when they conflict) and ultimately to meet them.

The second model is, we think, the only one that can meet the challenge of the many different directions that we could head in – the directions that we attempted to lay out in the four possible future scenarios in our previous post.   

Here are some opening ideas – we know they need refinement, and that we need to explore what they mean for governance in practice. For the moment, think of them as draft design principles – echoing the approach that we’ve recommended that councils take when looking at governance change in the past.

So, governance to meet new challenges has to be:

  • Flexible: the way that services are designed and delivered is subject to sudden and swift change – governance will also need to bend and flex to accommodate this. Overly rigid systems risk being overwhelmed or simply ignored;
  • Friendly: as things stand the way that decisions are made can be opaque – even to those within traditional systems. Friendliness is about transparency, clarity and trust – so that everyone in the system understands their roles, and those outside the system understands who does what and – crucially – who holds accountability and responsibility;
  • Fragmented: local councils do not “own” local governance. Many different partners are involved – they will each have their own responsibilities but need to recognise their collective responsibility to support and protect good governance across a place. Local areas are likely to want to experiment with more local forms of decisions, and with co-production and deliberation through methods like citizens’ assemblies. “Hyper-local” governance and decision-making could proliferate – a world which makes real the central tenets of New Local’s ongoing Ostrom Project. Here, fragmentation may well be a good thing – it promotes resilience and cuts down the traditional boundaries between organisations, as well as empowering decision-making at the most local level;
  • Focused: governance has a job to do – that job is supporting and empowering others to do *their* jobs. Governance has to be focused on this end result. Systems have to designed to facilitate high quality decision making which makes a real difference, proportionate and punchy oversight of those systems, targeted and meaningful involvement by a wide range of local stakeholders and the transparency to knit it together – all of the service of the ultimate goal of making a difference;
  • Fortified: we may need to think differently about the formal, and legal, structures that underpin local governance if it is to be robust and sustainable. Protections and safeguards – for the roles of individuals and groups – need to be built in. This is about structural safety but also about culture – developing mindsets so that the bulwarks of good governance lie in the way that we relate to one another, not just the processes set out on the pages of a constitution.



About the Author: Ed Hammond

Ed leads CfGS's work on devolution, transformation and on support to councils and other public bodies on governance and accountability.