Culture, governance and collaboration

Posted on 22/05/2019 by Ed Hammond.

What is culture? How does political and organisational culture influence governance – and vice versa? And what does this mean for local government?

By “culture”, we mean the shared attitudes, behaviours and values that define how organisations work. “Organisational culture” is a familiar concept – it can be a barrier or enabler when organisations try to embark on major changes. “Political culture” is more complex. It is a part of organisational culture – that part that engages with the way that party politics, and politicians, engage with and influence organisational culture. Individual parties at local level will have their own cultures; councils as a whole may have a prevailing political culture, the attitudes and behaviours exhibited by elected members as a whole.

Our new discussion paper, “Governance, culture and collaboration”, attempts to tease out and understand these points. These issues are not ones of purely academic or theoretical interest – our cultural commitment to accountability, to transparency, to the involvement of a wide range of people in how decisions are made form the bedrock of our democracy, at both local and national level. The more and better we understand how these factors influence (and direct) how things are done, the easier it will be to improve.

This work inevitably draws on the central importance of culture as outlined in the Government’s new statutory guidance on overview and scrutiny, but it also uses as its foundation an idea developed in recent months by the New Local Government Network – that we are moving towards a new “paradigm” in how public services are designed and delivered, a “community” paradigm that treats the needs and views of a wider range of local people as being critical, and which seeks to work alongside and collaborate with those people in the better interests of public services. The oft-quoted Wigan Deal and Preston Model are examples of the development of this paradigm in action. We blogged on these developments in the early spring.

This is a evolution away from the earlier “statist” paradigm (in which councils, as institutions, provided for people in a way driven by paternalism) and the “market” paradigm (in which councils and other public sector bodies sought, through marketisation of the way that they carried out their work, to bring more value and more efficiency to those services).

This new paradigm requires a new way of thinking about decision-making and governance.

We think that councils, and the wider areas they serve, can do two things – diagnose and understand their existing organisational and political culture, and then take action to improve based on this understanding. We think that one of the ways of doing this will be through the creation of a “community constitution” – something that would:

  • Create a framework which allows agreement of mutually endorsed outcomes and priorities;
  • Be owned by all local partners and leaders in an area (bearing in mind our broad definition of “leaders” and leadership);
  • Provide a mechanism for leaders, across the place, to hold each other to account;
  • Clearly articulate roles and responsibilities, and set out the framework for collaboration and deliberative decision-making;
  • Express the new behaviours – including the new political culture – necessary for these things to be successful;
  • Establish the changes that councils and other bodies might need to make to their governance and communications systems for this to work;
  • Establish how information sharing, transparency, insight/evidence-led decision-making will operate.

 Our work on political culture will continue throughout the year, as we work to support councils to understand the changes needed in attitudes and behaviours to make governance better. If you haven’t already done so, sign up to our newsletter for updates.

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.