Bolstering governance

Posted on 07/07/2021 by Ed Hammond.

This week (w/c 5 July 2021), we are starting work to highlight the need for councils to support and bolster their commitments to good governance, as we continue to emerge from the pandemic.

The pandemic has been exceptionally tough. Restrictions are being removed in the coming weeks but we are far from through this emergency. Even if the pandemic does recede in the coming months and we are able to start looking forward with confidence – other stresses and pressures remain.

Councils’ governance systems have performed effectively during the unprecedented period. But the experience has also highlighted fault lines in the support provided to governance generally, and to scrutiny in particular.

Our annual survey – you can read a summary here or download the full report here – gives hope in some areas and also demonstrates long standing weaknesses in many authorities around councillors’ ability to play an active role in governance and scrutiny.

This is not down to a lack of commitment from councillors or the officers who support them. It is because those members and officers are working in an environment where they have become ever more stretched.

We have already commented on the need to pause, reflect and learn from the experiences of the pandemic, and to build governance back stronger as a result. This process could and should involve a reset of relationships around good governance, and a recasting and reaffirming of members’ roles and responsibilities. Conscious effort needs to be taken at the top of the organisation to lead this activity – as we set out in “Taking scrutiny seriously”, published last year.

Our risk and resilience framework provides pointers on how support for governance can be deepened and broadened. In the coming days you’ll see more from us on the practical use of this framework – and how we can support you to use it for the reflection we’ve been talking about. We’re also working with councils to carry out reviews of constitutions, and considering formal governance change too.

This is about stabilising our current systems, but also about preparing us for the need to innovate. The pandemic has highlighted the need to change the relationships that councillors have with each other, that officers have with each other, that members have with officers and that councils have with the communities they serve. It feels like we’ve undergone a decade’s worth of organisation change in little over a year. Governance can help innovation to continue – and for our councils to be on the front foot as we seek to support our communities to recover. But this can only happen if we’re able to consciously reflect now on where we stand, where our strengths and weaknesses are and how we can build to support that innovation.

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.