The governance of complexity – four themes to bear in mind

Posted on 13/09/2017 by Ed Hammond.

Life’s complicated. So are public services. Once upon a time, we tell ourselves, things were simpler. Councils, organised into easy-to-understand departments, delivered things – things like education, housing, social services, parks, libraries. Committees of councillors made the decisions about where money was spent and why. Ratepayers read reports of these committees in local newspapers.

All was well with the world. But things changed, as they do, and we learned that the challenges that we face are more complex that we thought, and that the old ways of working weren’t especially good at tackling these challenges. We needed more flexibility, the introduction of new and different types of skills and ways of working, and governance and oversight systems to match.

For many councils this began more than twenty years ago with the spinning off of “direct services organisations” for things like waste management and leisure, continued through the rise and fall of local authority “business units” to manage the flow of cash through local authorities. The various reorganisations of local government, the NHS and other public sector bodies, saw the loss of direct responsibility for services like education and housing, and recent moves to strategic commissioning and more and more complex arrangements for designing and delivering services.

By and large, this move towards complexity has been driven by need either linked to outcomes, finances or to avoid the disruption caused by creating whole new systems – not a pursuit of complexity for complexity’s sake. But it has generally (at least, until very recently) looked and felt very reactive, and scattergun. Different systems have emerged in different councils (and within single councils) for designing and delivering different services. The same goes for other public service partners.

Different policy imperatives in different subject areas have driven what could almost be described as a fragmentation of decision-making. Formal and informal partnerships, boards and groups proliferate, taking decisions alongside each other but never quite in concert. The way that public, private and third sector bodies rub up against each in local areas could be generously described as an example of “creative tension” – partners with different worldviews, priorities and motivations, finding themselves forced to work together, can find that process very difficult.

Into this strange environment, elected councillors somehow need to understand and oversee things. This is a difficult task. It is easy to outsource and spin off responsibility – moving it off to all sorts entities outside the council. It is not so easy to outsource accountability. It will always “snap back” to the Town Hall, and it is invariably members who carry the can when things go wrong.

I suppose this is as it should be, but if members are to hold this accountability, they need the assurance that things for which they are accountable are being designed, managed and delivered as they ought to be. In many areas, a mindset has grown up alongside this increase in complexity that says that officers are best placed to understand and oversee it. Contract management, the governance of trading companies and the oversight of complicated partnership all need to be led by officers, this mindset says – only they have the skills and capability to do this work.

We don’t agree. Councillors need and deserve assurance, on behalf of local people, for what happens in their name. Accountability for what happens to the public pound does not disappear depending on the delivery route selected. How this happens in reality will sometimes involve looking into complex commercial and other external arrangements to try to understand, and bring into the public domain, the risks and challenges associated with such ventures, and their effectiveness in delivering the services local people want and expect. We should demand nothing less.

This assurance, however, needs to happen in an environment that reflects this new complexity. “Traditional”, committee-based, scrutiny is unlikely to cut it.

So what are the features of a model of scrutiny which can engage fully and intelligently with this complex landscape?

The obvious answer is, “Well, it’s complicated, so it depends”. But there are probably some general themes to bear in mind.

  • Governance of complexity must be flexible
    Scrutiny work programmes need to be able to respond quickly and proportionately to emerging concerns. They also need to engage with existing contract management or other officer-led governance systems – providing member insight in the right way at the right time. The best scrutiny is likely to look shorter and sharper. This focus will help to cut through the complexity itself, by zeroing in on the things that really matter, but demands tough and quick decision-making by scrutiny chairs
  • Governance of complexity (sometimes) has to be informal
    Keeping up to speed on complicated service delivery issues is poorly-suited to a traditional committee-type setting. Informal meetings between scrutiny members and those responsibility for delivery (particularly partners) will mean that members can more accurately keep a “watching brief” on how things are – ready to escalate things to scrutiny where necessary.
  • Governance of complexity should focus – in a process sense – on relationships
    Complexity usually implies the involvement of large numbers of partners, which makes the developing and maintenance of strong working relationships critical. Scrutiny has to understand these relationships – it has to be part of them too.
  • Governance of complexity should focus – in a substantive sense – on outcomes
    Without a strong focus on outcomes, complexity becomes overwhelming. It gets too easy to focus on the process of working – trying to draw maps of responsibility within a given service – rather than what that means for citizens. Looking at things issue-by-issue against what is the desired outcome, rather than service-by-service, should help.

The Governance of Complexity is the theme of our national conference for local government scrutiny in December which will address and expand on some of these issues – there will be lots of opportunities to hear your views and experiences there. We’re also planning further practical support that we can offer to councils as the complex environments within which they work develops – keep posted for more details.

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.