The governance risk and resilience framework

Posted on 09/03/2021 by Ed Hammond.

Note: This content is best viewed on a desktop computer.

Welcome to the governance risk and resilience framework

This material is designed to support individual council officers and councillors to play their part in understanding, and acting on, risks to good governance.

It centres on an analytical framework which is designed to help councillors and officers to identify emerging risks to governance, and to tackle them proportionately. It is based on three stages:

  • Anticipating – the framework supports councillors and officers (even if they aren’t governance professionals) to observe and reflect on governance practice, through a set of characteristics and behaviours which are designed to give people a “common language” to talk about governance pressures;
  • Managing – understanding and accepting where risks lie, and taking action to find solutions. The framework is designed to be bottom-up – to empower people other than senior managers to take active responsibility to find and implement solutions themselves. However, the support of people at the top of the organisation – and especially the principal statutory officers – is important;
  • Adapting – learning from these experiences in the interests of continuous improvement. 

We envisage councillors and officers using the framework to talk about their experiences with governance, with these insights – and concerns – being escalated to principal statutory officers in a council (the Chief Executive, the Monitoring Officer and the Chief Finance Officer) for review. In some doing, this insight can help councils to agree robust and accurate Annual Governance Statements. 

This framework is designed to reflect and supplement the CIPFA/SOLACE: “Delivering good governance in local government” framework (2016). It is also designed to engage with wider support provided by a range of national organisations and, in particular, with the sector-led improvement offer from the LGA. You can find out more about support offered by external organisations on governance risk here. We envisage that this material will be updated and refined in the coming months, based on the experiences of councils, councillors and officers who use it. 

This material is divided into two parts, both linked below. 

The framework is not something that needs to be “adopted” by councils and does not operate as a checklist or process that can be used to evaluate governance risk. It provides a way for people within councils to talk about and reflect on governance, and to think about what steps need to be taken to act on emerging governance risks. In particular, it is designed to empower anyone in the organisation to identify and take action on such risks.

Download a PDF containing a summary of this material

Download a PDF setting out the behaviours associated with the “seven characteristics” which are central to the framework

Learn more about how this framework was produced

Learn more about how we define “governance”

Good governance is everyone’s responsibility.

You are likely to carry out work that intersects with the council’s governance framework every day.

If you are a councillor you need to understand who does what, and where you sit in the decision-making framework.

If you are an officer you will work within legal bounds set by the council’s constitution and the formal decisions made by Cabinet and the Council. You, too, may have direct responsibility for some governance related matters – you may write reports or prepare material to support formal decision-making as a manager or other policy expert; you may support the governance process itself as a democratic services or scrutiny officer; you may communicate with the public and the council’s partners about its decisions as a communications or community engagement professional.  

This part of our material explains your role and responsibility and the role and responsibilities of the council’s statutory officers and political leadership.

It sets out the basics of our framework

Find out more about the seven characteristics and how you can use them to better understand the governance risks and challenges you face

 

“[Y]our take on these issues – and particularly on the presence of risks – will be subjective and may not accord with that of others. Part of the process is about refining your own views by reflecting on what others tell you about their own experiences.”

 

If you are a council officer or a councillor you also have a responsibility for good governance in how you go about your role day to day. This guide is aimed at giving you the tools to reflect on these issues and think about how things might need to improve.

In doing so you will need to consider that your take on these issues – and particularly on the presence of risks – will be subjective and may not accord with that of others. Part of the process is about refining your own views by reflecting on what others tell you about their own experiences.

You may have particular insights, which will mean you have the opportunity to see problems that others haven’t noticed. But you may also think that something is significant and extremely troubling when, in fact, there is a wider context and mitigations in place of which you are not aware. We do not say this to dissuade debate – the opposite in fact. It is only by discussing these matters that councils can, collectively, understand where risks lie and their relative levels of importance.

People in senior roles in the organisation have a duty to ensure that you can do this – that an environment exists in which you can have the confidence to be able to have frank and candid conversations about these kinds of risk, and to work with others to find the solutions. If this culture doesn’t exist – if highlighting these issues is frowned upon or ignored – that is, itself, a marker of concern, and a risk around governance resilience. Under these circumstances, there are still things that you and your peers will be able to do, which we discuss below.

If you are an elected member your words carry weight. You may believe strongly that the council suffers from significant weakness; you may want to highlight and publicise that view. But you are not a spectator in the governance of the authority – you are part of it, and like everyone else you have a duty to work with others to try and improve things. Your view of the situation may be accurate – but it may not be, and you may need to temper your concerns by comparing your conclusions with those of others. Where you do have urgent concerns – and where you have made efforts to engage with the council’s principal statutory officers to resolve them without success – we have suggestions for other routes you can take that will lead to quick and decisive action.

“Each of the principal statutory officers has specific legal responsibilities. Collectively they have a role to make sure that the council is run in a way that is accountable and transparent.”

 

There are a few key officers at the top of an organisation with specific responsibilities for a council’s governance. These are sometimes described as the “golden triangle”, although in this material we call them the “principal statutory officers”. They consist of:

  • The Head of Paid Service (the Chief Executive);
  • The Monitoring Officer (Head of Law, or Chief Legal Officer or similar – this person does not have to be a qualified lawyer);
  • The s151 Officer (Head of Finance – this person does have to be a qualified accountant).

Each individual has specific legal responsibilities. Collectively they have a role to make sure that the council is run in a way that is accountable and transparent, that involves councillors, partners and the public, and overall that lives up to the principles of good governance. We have produced separate material which provides advice to these officers on how they can support you to use this framework effectively.

There are others with similar responsibilities. The council’s statutory scrutiny officer has responsibilities around the authority’s member-led overview and scrutiny function. On the councillor side, the Leader of the Council – and Leaders of other political groups – have a responsibility to “set the tone” of how governance, and the council’s political culture, intersect to create a positive working environment.

The framework provides you, your colleagues and peers with a common language to explore and understand these matters, and helps you to take action to improve.

The framework is about the work that needs to be done to anticipate, manage and adapt to the need for action to address risks in governance. This part of our material provides a basic introduction to the framework – you can find more detailed information here.

Your role as a councillor or officer with is most likely to sit around anticipation – keeping a “watching brief” on matters relating to governance that you are likely to encounter, having the understanding of these matters so that you know what good, and bad, behaviours look like, and being able to bring any concerns to the attention of others.

We think that the council’s principal statutory officers should have a role in supporting you to do the above work. Even if your council doesn’t have formal systems in place to do this, there is still important work you can do to be aware, and take action, on governance matters of which you might be aware.

As we have said, good governance is everyone’s responsibility. One of the main aims of this framework is to provide a “common language” to describe governance risks and behaviours that people can use to share their perceptions of what is going well, and what might be going not so well.

We have produced a set of seven characteristics, each accompanied by a set of practical behaviours, which you can use to explore these issues. You will have subjective views of these issues based on your experiences which you can note down, consider and reflect on. After this section we provide some ideas as to what you can do with these reflections once you’ve set them out. The set of practical behaviours are, we think, the most important part of the framework – they will help you to explore and reflect on your own experiences of governance, and to share those experiences with others. 

The characteristics within which the behaviours are organised are:

  • Extent of recognition of individual and collective responsibility for good governance. This is about ownership of governance and its associated systems;
  • Awareness of political dynamics. This is about the understanding of the unique role that politics plays in local governance and local government. Positive behaviour here recognises the need for the tension and “grit” in the system that local politics brings, and its positive impact on making decision-making more robust;
  • How the council looks to the future to set its decision-making priorities. This is about future planning, and insight into what the future might hold for the area, or for the council as an institution and includes the way the council thinks about risk;
  • Officer and councillor roles. Particularly at the top level, this is about clear mutual roles in support of robust and effective decision-making and oversight. It also links to communication between key individuals, and circumstances where ownership means that everyone has a clear sense of where accountability and responsibility lie;
  • How the council’s real situation compares to its sense of itself. This is about internal candour and reflection; the need to face up to unpleasant realities and to listen to dissenting voices. The idea of a council turning its back on things “not invented here” may be evidence of poor behaviours, but equally a focus on new initiatives and “innovation” as a way to distract attention, and to procrastinate, may also be present;
  • Quality of local (external) relationships. This is about the council’s ability to integrate an understanding of partnership working and partnership needs in its governance arrangements, and about a similar integration of an understanding of the local community and its needs. It is about the extent to which power and information is shared and different perspectives brought into the decision-making, and oversight, process;
  • The state of member oversight through scrutiny and audit committees. This is about scrutiny by councillors, and supervision and accountability overall.

Each of these characteristics has a range of positive and negative behaviours associated with it. You can find these behaviours here; they are arguably the most important part of the framework and reading and reflecting on them is what will help you to make a meaningful judgement on governance risk. You can also find the behaviours listed in a separate document which you can download

In considering the behaviours the judgement to be made is – to what extent does my experience of things in this council reflect the positive, or negative, examples? 

Once you have explored the characteristics and behaviours yourself, you may have some gaps where you’ve been unable to reach a conclusion. We suggest that you share your thoughts with:

  • If you are an officer:
    • Your team-mates (this might be a project team or a group of people who share the same line manager);
    • The direct reports of a particular corporate director;
    • Other officers who share your professional specialism (for example, other financial or legal professionals, or other governance professionals);
  • If you are a councillor:
    • Other members of your Group;
    • People who sit on the same committee as you.

Under certain circumstances it might be appropriate to test your conclusions by discussing them with people outside your organisation as well. Membership organisations such as SOLACE, CIPFA, LLG and ADSO may provide mechanisms for this to happen at a national level, and for councillor, LGA political groups (in particular councillor peers) might provide this opportunity, as might the LGA’s principal advisers. At a more local level, partners with whom you may work regularly could have their own insights. More information is available on this kind of help here.

The responses of others within (and outside) your council are likely to be different. Because the framework provides a common language for discussing governance challenges it will enable you and others to think about your subjective responses and how they differ. In doing so, it will give you a more holistic sense of how problems might present themselves and what solutions might look like.

For many matters that you might have identified, the process of discussion may help you to find solutions – or you may need to escalate more complex matters elsewhere in the organisation. 

This may be to a corporate director, or to a senior statutory officer such as the Monitoring Officer. We have produced separate material to suggest to such officers the kind of systems that they can put in place to allow you to escalate matters proportionately and effectively.

We’ve written more on “anticipating” here – explaining what the role of the principal statutory officers in a council are on this issue

The reflections that you make and the conclusions you reach after discussions with others might lead to the conclusion that there are issues with governance at the council that need to be resolved.

Accepting that this is the case will be important – and difficult. For some councils, a defensiveness over where weaknesses might exist may be a symptom of the weaknesses themselves. For some authorities political and organisational circumstances may make admissions of such risk a real challenge. This does not mean that improvement is impossible, but it may increase the need for those from external organisations to be invited to assist to work through the issues.

The framework is designed to operate even where senior management commitment to good governance is lacking. If you work in such a council, there are still steps that can be taken to improve – even if the corporate acceptance of the seriousness of an issue is not present.

Individual officers and members, and members and officers together, need therefore to have the confidence to think through where it is within their power to make improvements, and where the support of others may be necessary. We understand that this may be challenging in some circumstances – external support is available.

  • For some, practical improvements could be identified between a small group of officers. This may involve changes to systems, or to behaviours, to address concerns and to strengthen safeguards. It may include ensuring that information and decisions are recorded better, and that roles within, and outside, teams are clear and well understood. These may be improvements that can be made to the way that individual projects are managed, or the management of more general behaviours;
  • For more complex problems and/or those affecting the wider council, others need to be involved. This is where more senior officers come in. You should have confidence to bring concerns on governance to the attention of the senior, statutory officers, who should listen to those within the organisation voicing those concerns (as well as providing the space for these conversations to happen). We are providing separate guidance to councils’ principal statutory officers, and the membership organisations supporting those officers, to set out more detail about the role they ought to perform;
  • For some complex problems, assistance and assurance from external organisations may be necessary. This may be as simple as making contact with peers or other colleagues to get a sense check on a situation. It may involve professional support from a membership body or political and improvement support from the Local Government Association. These bodies will all be aware of the need to provide support on governance improvement, risk and resilience, and will have their own way of providing this support.

“People from outside the organisation may be in a position to provide advice… but ownership should always be taken by those at the local level.” 

This may be particularly needed in situations where, as an officer or member raising an issue, you find yourself isolated or part of an organisation which is particularly introspective or defensive, and where you have discussed the issue with others and exhausted all possible local avenues for action. The external help offered from national sector bodies, and/or membership organisations, can help you to navigate these situations. We have provided a list of these organisations and their roles. It’s important to bear in mind that this is not “whistleblowing” exactly. Your council will have a whistleblowing policy, which you should follow for appropriate matters. However concerns about governance risk and resilience are likely not to be adequately caught and dealt with those issues unless there has been actual wrongdoing. Of course if you do suspect explicit wrongdoing then you should follow local whistleblowing systems in the first instance.

When the risk and its potential consequences are recognised and understood, those involved can move to identify solutions.

Putting together solutions for challenges in governance is not as simple as developing an action plans. Solutions are likely to be about focusing on behaviours and organisational culture. The assistance of those in the organisation with a particular expertise and understanding of behavioural issues will be useful. As above, people from outside the organisation may be in a position to provide advice too – but ownership should always be taken by those at the local level. 

Engaging in conversations with others is the best way to work out what improvements can be made, and who might take responsibility for them. It will be in everyone’s interests to identify those improvements and a pluralistic, inclusive approach will be important in making sure that everyone with a stake in both the risk, and the solution, is involved.

We’ve written more on “managing” here – explaining what the role of the principal statutory officers in a council are on this issue

In the medium and long term, it will be important to make sure that improvements to governance “stick” – that they are sustainable, and they are used to support ongoing enhancements to the governance regime overall.

This is about learning and organisational change. These elements of our framework require leadership from the top of the organisation – but individual officers and members hold collective responsibility in making sure that they have practical impact. At an individual level, this is about:

  • Staying reflective and self-critical – not making the assumption that solutions, once in place, will permanently improve things;
  • Thinking about what improvements to governance in your part of the organisation may mean for others in different spaces;
  • Thinking about who you work with, and how those relationships may evolve as governance improvements are embedded.

At an organisational level, some of this learning and development may form part of a change programme, or other activity promoting organisational resilience more generally. It is right that things should be anchored in this way, and commitment from the principal statutory officers will provide this leadership. Our guidance to those in leadership positions on governance goes into more detail on this point.

We’ve written more on “adapting” here – explaining what the role of the principal statutory officers in a council are on this issue

Our guide sets out a framework for managing challenges to governance, but this is a framework that individual councils must work to flesh out. As a local government officer, or a councillor, you have a responsibility to become aware, and to stay aware, of risks and challenges to governance as they develop in the areas of your responsibility – and to take action to address them when they cause concern.

This has to happen in a way that shares responsibility rather than apportions blame – even where a council’s characteristics mean that it has a blame culture. The way that we have described the challenges and pressures on governance in this guide aims to provide you with a form of language to help you to support your colleagues and your council to break out of unproductive, introspective and defensive attitudes on this. But using it will also require that you model behaviours of mutual support, collective ownership and responsibility. External organisations exist to provide support on this matter and will be there, if internal systems don’t allow these matters to be understood, accepted and acted on.

With this in mind, those organisations authoring and supporting this guide and its contents are keen to provide support in its use, particularly to individual officers and individual councillors who have concerns but are struggling to have them addressed. Part of the challenge of governance is that local circumstances are all different, and there is therefore no clear, national roadmap to improvement and change. You should know however that others in the sector are here to provide support, guidance and advice to resolving problems where they exist in a way which supports local action, local democracy and local decision-making.

This part of the material is intended for senior individuals in local government to play their part in understanding, and acting on, risks to good governance – we define what we mean by “governance” here.

It is designed to align with the CIPFA/SOLACE, “Delivering Good Governance in Local Government: Framework” (2016). In particular, it engages with the sections of that Framework which relate to the preparation of a council’s Annual Governance Framework. Before reading the remainder of our framework we recommend familiarisation with the CIPFA/SOLACE framework. 

A key function of our framework is about the way it gives access to a strong evidence base for the drafting of the AGS. This anchors the framework in a member-led, statutory process – an important part of highlighting its importance and conferring legitimacy.

It is particularly designed to speak to the individual and collective roles of the three principal statutory officers in the council:

  • The Chief Executive, as Head of Paid Service;
  • The Monitoring Officer, who may also be the Head of Legal;
  • The Chief Finance Officer, who may also be referred to as the Head of Finance or the “s151 officer”.

This group are sometimes collectively known as the “golden triangle”, although in our material we will refer to them as the principal statutory officers.  

There are also significant leadership responsibilities held by other senior officers, by certain councillors who, by virtue of their positions, also have an important role to play in ownership of these issues. 

We have produced other material for general consumption by councillors and officers, which includes a general introduction to the framework. You can read a more detailed breakdown of the framework here

The framework consists of three stages – anticipation, managing and adaption. 

 

Anticipation involves observation of, and preparation for, the emergence of governance risks. This involves you drawing insight and intelligence from around the organisation – which we cover in more detail where we talk about escalation, below.

The framework provides mechanisms to identify, tease out and discuss issues – in particular, the use of a set of seven characteristics to provide a common language for discussion on governance risks. 

  • Extent of recognition of individual and collective responsibility for good governance. This is about ownership of governance and its associated systems;
  • Awareness of political dynamics. This is about the understanding of the unique role that politics plays in local governance and local government. Positive behaviour here recognises the need for the tension and “grit” in the system that local politics brings, and its positive impact on making decision-making more robust;
  • How the council looks to the future to set its decision-making priorities. This is about future planning, and insight into what the future might hold for the area, or for the council as an institution and includes the way the council thinks about risk;
  • Officer and councillor roles. Particularly at the top level, this is about clear mutual roles in support of robust and effective decision-making and oversight. It also links to communication between key individuals, and circumstances where ownership means that everyone has a clear sense of where accountability and responsibility lie;
  • How the council’s real situation compares to its sense of itself. This is about internal candour and reflection; the need to face up to unpleasant realities and to listen to dissenting voices. The idea of a council turning its back on things “not invented here” may be evidence of poor behaviours, but equally a focus on new initiatives and “innovation” as a way to distract attention, and to procrastinate, may also be present;
  • Quality of local (external) relationships. This is about the council’s ability to integrate an understanding of partnership working and partnership needs in its governance arrangements, and about a similar integration of an understanding of the local community and its needs. It is about the extent to which power and information is shared and different perspectives brought into the decision-making, and oversight, process;
  • The state of member oversight through scrutiny and audit committees. This is about scrutiny by councillors, and supervision and accountability overall.

You are likely to need to establish (light touch) systems to do this. The seven characteristics are designed to map to the “seven principles of good governance” in the CIPFA/SOLACE Good Governance Framework. 

Within each of these characteristics sit examples of positive and negative behaviours, which you and others at the council can use to review and reflect on your perspective of where governance risks might lie. It is these sets of behaviours which are, arguably, the most important part of the framework. You can download the full list here

Managing involves taking the steps necessary to accept that the risk or risks exist, and finding solution. Accepting the presence of risk can be difficult in a political organisation, and it can present a challenge for people in senior leadership positions.

Finally, adaption is about helping you to embed change and to learn from what has happened, to support continuous improvement. 

Familiarising yourself with the framework will help you to be able to put steps in place to understand the two things on which you will need to take a lead, as a senior statutory officer, which are: 

In an authority with an open culture, comprised of supportive and honest relationships between officers and members, it will be possible to have frank and candid conversations about governance risks and how they can be addressed. This guide explores how the principal statutory officers can assure themselves that they are leading and owning the development of such a culture, as part of a process of governance improvement.

The relationships necessary for the framework to operate

Taking action on governance risks involves looking at the places where leadership and ownership sits, and the relationships that need to exist between key groups. It covers:

  • The organisation’s political leadership – and the impact of political dynamics;
  • Senior officer leadership from the three principal statutory officers. Each of these officers has a unique and distinct role and set of duties. Collectively, they hold a leading responsibility for assuring good governance – but they aren’t the only people with duties here;
  • The broader range of senior officers – some of these individuals will also hold statutory responsibilities, and understanding their duties in respect of governance (and the support they may need to provide to the three principal statutory officers) is important;
  • The wider group of councillors and officers. Good relationships, bound with ethical conduct, will support the kind of candid and mutually supportive approach needed to identify and take action on governance challenges.

Relationships are not just about the council as an institution – [they are also about how good a council is at engaging others]. Councils have a huge number of partners, in the local area and beyond. All service design and service delivery has a partnership component. Many partners will have insights which will help the council to better understand its place in the local community, and to design its working arrangements accordingly.

Political leadership

“[Political challenge and debate] is entirely legitimate – although there will be certain behaviours that tip into being unacceptable, and councillors and officers will need to work together to understand where the boundaries lie.”

Local democracy is fundamental to good local governance. The role of councillors needs to be understood not only by those at the very top of the organisation, but also those in other member and officer positions. This is about ethical behaviour, adherence to standards of conduct as set out in places like the LGA Model Code of Conduct and the Seven Principles of Public Life, and a mutual understanding of where the member role rightly sits.

Strong political leadership brings accountability to local people and drives credible, legitimate decision-making which is focused on community needs. Party politics is also vital – it is the way that public debate can happen on competing political priorities. This may involve councillors attempting to block change and/or challenging it in robust terms. This is entirely legitimate – although there will be certain behaviours that tip into being unacceptable, and councillors and officers will need to work together to understand where the boundaries lie. 

The kinds of issues flagged up through this framework should not be seen as evidence of a council on a slippery slope to failure. An approach to use of the framework which sees political risk in identifying shortcomings will be one which makes the implementation of solutions more difficult. Councils should in fact expect that use of the framework will identify matters of concern, and that through prompt action risks around those concerns can be mitigated.

In short, owning up to the presence of those challenges is a strength, not a weakness.

The principal statutory officers will want to have frank and candid conversations with political leaders about their likely response to these challenges as they arise. Governance arrangements are subject to ongoing review to ensure that changes in the nature of the organisation and its politics are recognised, and this part of the framework recognises this.   

Where strong political leadership is absent, senior officers will need to recognise this and reflect on what it means for their role and responsibilities. This might be the opportunity to draw in external support – from the LGA, or other membership organisations.

“It’s no longer about: ‘I am the hero in my organisation’; it’s actually now: ‘I am a player in the system around the place’. And that’s an acute difference.”

Deborah Cadman, Chief Executive, West Midlands Combined Authority, quoted in “Storytellers in chief” (SOLACE, 2020)

 

“Modern leadership is about leading in a system, with the authority to convene and the humility to serve… Developing and making the most of relationships across our place. Doing things with people, not to people, and making the very best of dwindling resources. Spotting the flaws in systems we can’t change… and doing what we can as a local authority to alleviate some of the problems, to make things a bit better for our residents. Acting like a system, thinking like entrepreneurs. Gaining power and influence by giving power and influence away”

Jo Miller, former SOLACE President, SOLACE Summit 2017

 

Like effective leadership, good governance is relational. It relies on a culture of strong individual responsibility allied to a collective responsibility held across the organisation. While the most senior officers (in particular, senior statutory officers) have particular responsibilities for the improvement of the organisation, good governance is a responsibility shared more broadly.

Ultimately, positive behaviours here should map closely to the Local Public Services Senior Managers Code of Ethics (SOLACE et al, 2017) and the Seven Principles of Public Life (“the Nolan principles”). These principles can usually be found in a council’s constitution.

Despite the need for clear ownership and responsibility across the council, leadership on action relating to corporate governance is a key duty of the three statutory officers identified above. This framework focuses on their specific duties in this activity – activity which is supportive of the wider member and officer corps in taking their own form of collective ownership.

There are overlapping individual and collective responsibilities.

Individual responsibilities held by the principal statutory officers

 The Head of Paid Service: designated under section 4 of the Local Government and Housing Act 1989, with the duty to report to elected members on the general organisation and administration of the council. Generally, the Head of Paid Service is the council’s Chief Executive;

  • The Monitoring Officer: designated under section 5 of the 1989 Act, with the duty to report any breaches of the council’s, or the executive’s, legal obligations. The Monitoring Officer is usually a lawyer, although not always;
  • The Chief Finance Officer: designated under s151 of the Local Government Act 1972 with responsibility for the authority’s finances. This person is required to be a qualified accountant under s113 of the Local Government Finance Act 1988.

 The individual responsibilities above will often intersect. Collectively, these three principal statutory officers have a responsibility to secure the authority’s good governance, because it is only through good governance that they can be assured of their ability to carry out their statutory duties.

The most successful use of our material will be from councils whose principal statutory officers individually and collectively possess the skills, respect and influence within the organisation to lead and effect change. Such officers will work together in a way that reflects an adherence to foundational ethical principles – in particular the “Seven Principles of Public Life”. 

However, one marker of governance weakness – and risk – is where these relationships are not present. Our framework talks about this in more detail but examples may include:

  • Where there is a perception that the loyalties of people in statutory positions are owed to the council’s administration, rather than to the council as a whole or the wider area. This is never black and white and some people’s perceptions of the situation will be different from others, which is why comparing subjective views on all issues is so important;
  • Where senior officers’ roles might be stretched – because of a shared officer structure with another authority (although this does not automatically lead to weakness), because of director-level (or Chief Executive) vacancies, or any other ongoing activity which means that they have limited capacity at their disposal;
  • Where some key statutory officers have a lower status than others. The risk of this with Heads of Legal has been well-reported. Occasionally, Heads of Legal and Monitoring Officers are more junior than section 151 officers, and a lack of seniority can bring with it a lack of presence at the top table, and a relegation of legal concerns. It is also possible for the s151 officer position to be marginalised, although given the specific duties of this role it is less likely;

In the section below we set out how the principal statutory officers can challenge themselves and their relationships, and understand and challenge some of the potential areas of weakness above.

In order to effect proper governance, the principal statutory officers need the support of other officers, including other members of the leadership team. It is the responsibility of all the council’s leaders and managers to follow proper governance principles and ensure that they are embedded within the parts of the organisation they manage.

Councillors also need to play an active role. The Leader of the Council, Cabinet members, leaders of all political groups and the chairs of certain committees – for example, audit and scrutiny committees – will need to consider their own individual, and collective, responsibility and ownership of these issues. Councillors in prominent leadership positions have a particular responsibility to model good behaviours – this is something on which we expand when we talk about the seven characteristics which contribute to good governance. 

Supporting the group of principal statutory officers

There are a range of other senior officers with important, and sometimes statutory, responsibilities – and officers who individually and collectively hold responsibility for statutory services. These may include:

  • Corporate directors for children’s services and adult social care (as both strategic and operational decision-making ;
  • Heads of internal audit (who have responsibility for delivering an annual opinion on the adequacy and effectiveness of the organisation’s framework of governance, risk management and control);
  • Heads of governance and of democratic services, and the statutory scrutiny officer;
  • Heads of communications;
  • Heads of organisational development, transformation, commercial activity and others with a leadership responsibility in the council’s “corporate core”.

These senior officers may have a role in supporting a strong group of principal statutory officers – or in supporting the roles of those officers when relationships or capability may be weak. These form a halo or outer group, around the core group of principal statutory officers, who have a stake in leadership and ownership on matters of governance.

There will be others beyond the council, with insights and perspectives, and ideas, which might help those within the organisation to understand where improvements could lie. These individuals may not be the obvious people, such as senior professionals in other statutory services. Local people active in community support, for example, may be able to help the council to better understand the needs of the communities it serves and how its decision-making arrangements may need to change.

 A good governance framework is designed to allow individuals and groups within the organisation to understand the issues and take action.

The framework can be used independently without the need for corporate activity tying it together – although the presence of such activity and leadership is of course ideal. If this is the case, those focusing on the issue might find it is the time to explore whether help from external bodies might be needed.

In the section below we set out how the framework can be used from the bottom up to develop an understanding of governance risk within particular parts of a council or across particular specialisms, and how this can help to develop a common understanding of the challenge the authority faces.

Escalation

Any councillor or officer can use the framework to explore, discuss and understand the risks to governance of which they have experience, and it will provide them with the ability to use the professional skills to find solutions to some of those problems.

Everyone needs to know what will happen when a challenge emerges – how the problem is described, who takes ownership, who has oversight and so on. This is the system we describe as escalation

This is not a place for complex systems. Officers and members will however need to have a clear sense of where their individual and collective responsibilities lie.

  • Members and officers generally: using the framework individually and in small groups, possibly as part of management appraisal and team performance monitoring, or aligned to the authority’s values framework (where this exists). [We have produced separate material for officers and members on this point]. Here, the framework provides a form for conversations that are likely to be happening anyway. Officers and members, through this process, may identify smaller blockages and challenges which they can work individually and collectively to overcome. Some issues may be more significant, and may need to be escalated to more senior managers (and/or discussed candidly and constructively by politicians). The outcomes of this work can be shared with the wider organisation to assist in learning;
  • Senior officers generally: gathering insights from their departments and that relate to how their responsibilities link to the council’s wider relationships in the community. Drawing insights together may identify cross-cutting issues which demand further investigation and action – senior officers can take these individually, or collectively with others in the organisation. Or on the most complex issues, the principal statutory officers may, individually and collectively, be called on to assist. Senior officers can also take the opportunity to look out into the community and into the council’s partnerships to understand how those relationships impact the resilience of governance arrangements. Weakness in partnership governance is likely to be something on which councils will need to take action too;
  • The principal statutory officers: these officers, given the roles we have earlier described, have two particular jobs to perform:
    • Satisfying themselves as to the health of the governance framework at large. These officers will need to know that other members and officers are dealing with governance challenges as they occur, that insights on these challenges are fed through to them, and that more complex issues are being escalated appropriately. This statutory duty – in particular the preparation of the Annual Governance Statement – is something that this framework is designed to support;
    • Dealing with more complex issues: there will be issues which arise which may be more complex or difficult to deal with – matters which require a corporate response and/or the expertise of one or more of the principal statutory officers. The Monitoring Officer may have particular insights on governance challenges but the other two principal statutory officers will also have functions aligned to their statutory duties.
  • Political leadership: members will have to bring oversight on the system as a whole – ultimately through debate and signoff of the Annual Governance Statement, but also through debate and discussion of complex governance issues at Council or in committee. A politically balanced Audit Committee that has responsibility for risk management and oversight of governance, can play a positive role and its members, particularly its chair, can act as governance champions. Members can also bring their own insights on where areas of governance strength and weakness lie. Members’ insights on these matters are likely to be especially useful as they will be framed in a different way to how officers might consider the problem, and the solutions.

The above systems are about providing structure and consistency to management processes which should already exist, not about putting in place wholly novel structures and processes. In the sections above we have laid out how others can step in to act if any of these systems lacks capability, or fails to act. In the section below on “anticipation” and “observation” we further explore the approaches to be employed here.

Some problems will be more challenging. Cross-cutting issues, and other complex issues, will need to be escalated. Escalation is one of the most important systems which will need to be put in place.

This where leadership from the principal statutory officers is most important. This is not about “monitoring” governance but empowering staff and councillors to take their own action to address behavioural issues, and being prepared to pick up the more complex problems. The focus on more complex issues – rather than firefighting on a wider range of matters – will help to inform both the Annual Governance Statement review process, and ongoing reflection on governance by senior officers and councillor.

This is all about thinking of ways to challenge and tackle “groupthink” – a significant risk in any organisation. Processes that encourage deliberation and invite scrutiny reduce these risks but don’t necessarily eliminate them. 

Those in leadership positions have a responsibility for identifying this risk and acting on it. Having an accurate sense of where governance challenges and pressures lie in an organisation, and taking the steps to overcome those challenges, is easier where those in leadership positions have an overview of the whole system  – a baseline, based on timely and accurate information. This relies on:

  • Having the right relationships in place throughout the organisation to ensure that risks and issues can be brought to the attention of senior officers frankly and candidly, and that such actions are actively encouraged;
  • Having the right mindset about “external” relationships, inviting comment and challenge from partners and others and using those insights to reflect and see where changes might be necessary. People from “outside” the organisation, looking in, may often be in a good position to identify issues which are less obvious to those “inside”.

The principal statutory officers have a leading responsibility here, but also a responsibility to support other senior officers (as well as officers across the council) and politicians to reflect on their own attitudes. Other senior officers have a responsibility to support each other on these issues too.

The principal statutory officers also have an obligation to reach out to others operating in the same area. Strengths and weaknesses in the governance of a council will have knock-on impacts on partners and partnerships. Local partners can play a vital role in assisting on improvement – the support, expertise and capacity of people from outside the organisation, but who understand the local context, could help to build and sustain resilience in many cases.

Without these positive, mutually reinforcing, relationships, it will be challenging for the principal statutory officers, and other officers and members, to get this accurate picture. People will be unwilling to come forward; there will be a tendency to only share good news. Problems may be resolved but only on an ad hoc basis, and the wider organisation may not learn anything from that resolution. 

Ultimately it is about integrating “governance” into the day job, so that good governance is not something that officers and members need to consciously think about – it is just a seamless, natural part of their way of thinking and doing.

We suggest that the principal statutory officers will want to start by baselining their approach – testing the extent that a positive culture exists on governance in the authority. They can challenge themselves on this and invite challenge from others.

If you are one of the principal statutory officers, you will want to conduct an initial piece of “baselining” work which will involve looking at the framework in detail, and challenging yourself to answer:

  • Are these components present in the way that we work now?
  • How can I work with others to ensure that these components can be strengthened if they are weak or not present, or maintained if present?

You will certainly want to work through our framework yourself, and to reflect on your views of where governance risks arise. 

Other senior officers may also want to carry out a similar baselining exercise – as may politicians with particular ownership or leadership responsibilities for governance. Different perspectives and judgements can then be combined to produce a more holistic view of the situation. 

Some further questions to ask include:

  • What am I doing, and what are we doing, to foster a culture where these things are taken seriously? Do we have an appropriate ethical framework in place?
  • How do I know that I am successful in achieving these aims – what evidence do I have at my disposal to give me this assurance? What does this culture look like, in practice? (This is an issue that we explore when we talk about [escalation]).
  • How am I proactively and visibly championing good governance?
  • How am I supporting and promoting an approach to governance in the authority which is about a rigorous understanding of both individual and collective responsibility – and how am I ensuring that this understanding of roles is something which we bring, as an authority, to bear in working with other partners?
  • What have staff and councillors’ responses to this work been? What does that tell me and other senior officers about what more we have to do?
  • How am I working to support an environment where officers and councillors have the confidence and support to identify solutions to concerns and challenges, and to implement those solutions both individually and collectively?
  • How do I know that I am getting frank and candid feedback from our partners on our interactions with other organisations – large and small – in the locality?
  • How will I be able to translate all of this insight into findings that I can use to take defined, practical action to improve?

Councils have existing systems in place for reviewing the strength of the governance framework – the [Annual Governance Statement], which is a statement prepared by the council following a review of its governance framework, to provide assurance to councillors on governance matters (the AGS is required to be agreed by full Council). CIPFA has produced short guidance on the development of a robust AGS, which our framework complements. A 2020/21 version provides specific suggestions on the way that the AGS can connect to councils’ actions to support local people through the COVID-19 pandemic. More information can be found in the CIPFA/SOLACE “Delivering good governance in local government” framework (2016 edition). 

This framework suggests that the AGS review process draw on insights derived from use of the framework across the organisation. The preparation of the AGS provides a “long stop” – a way for the council to demonstrate that it is taking these issues seriously. A superficial AGS which does not fully engage with the kinds of issues raised in this framework may present its own warning sign, on which members and officers might take action.

Members and officers of the council in general may want to familiarise themselves with the framework in full to understand how their work – focused on anticipating governance risk – sits in context.

The principal statutory officers will need to look at the framework in detail to make sure that its components can function in their council. This is less about having formal processes in place and more about having the right behaviours and values. This process of baselining is something we discuss in another section. You shouldn’t expect that everything will be present – preparation for use of the framework is itself designed to highlight areas of lesser resilience, and where risk may exist at the very beginning.

This is about having strong systems in place to keep a “watching brief” on governance issues, and having the resilience to identify issues at the earliest stage. It is the process we described in the section above, whereby insights from across the organisation are fed into senior officers and the principal statutory officers, to ensure that a whole system picture  of governance risk and resilience can be built up. Ensuring that the system is in place for insights to be shared is the first thing to be done; if such a system is not present it will influence how other parts of the framework can be used.

Anticipation of risk is a responsibility shared by all in the organisation (we have written about it previously in the context of the particular role of scrutiny committees).

One of the main aims of this framework is to provide a “common language” to describe governance risks and behaviours that people can use to share their perceptions of what is going well, and what might be going not so well. The presence of this common language is one way that matters of contention – and political disagreement – around governance can be better discussed and understood. At the start, members and officers will need to think about, and talk about, how the framework can be integrated into how the council works so as to ensure that good governance is seen as part of the day job, not just an issue of compliance.

As insight and intelligence flows in, the principal statutory officers (supported by other senior officers and councillors with leadership responsibilities in governance) will need to consider how people’s subjective experiences and reflections can be triangulated

. This is about using the “seven characteristics” to keep the health of corporate governance under continual review through reflection on the characteristics and behaviours described above. It is about using effectively the system of reflection and review which we described in “anticipation” above. Our framework includes a set of positive and negative characteristics which you can access here, or download here. We suggest that all officers and members can look to these characteristics to understand where they might hold responsibility, or oversight, on an issue where there are risks around resilience in governance.

These characteristics are explained in such a way that makes them tangible to officers and members who might not think of governance as being “the day job”.

There is work that principal statutory officers, and others in senior leadership positions, can do to encourage and foster observation. This may link to a wider council programme on organisational culture change, or a values framework. Effective observation requires:

  • A communicating culture based on openness and respect, not based on information cascading through rigid management hierarchies. The golden triangle can consider what such a culture looks like in a local context, and how they work to foster and develop it;
  • An engaged and involved councillor corps, whose concerns and insights are taken seriously. The golden triangle can consider how they need to work with councillors, to understand the political dynamic within which they work and provide them with support in a tolerant and respectful environment. A robust attitude and approach towards the Code of Conduct and member and officer standards is likely to be a big part of this;
  • A need to take external reports seriously – including auditor reports, reviews undertaken by the LGA, and external inspection by CQC/Ofsted. The principal statutory officers should take a particularly close look at engagement with external support. Such support is critical but its benefits can be occluded by defensiveness – sometimes from the councillor leadership, sometimes from senior officers. Particularly at the moment this kind of external support is critical – things like peer review are not fair-weather, “nice to do” activities, but fundamental tasks central to improvement and resilience at a critical time;
  • A particular focus on financial monitoring, and the oversight, monitoring and ownership of risk (financial and otherwise). The s151 officer will be the person with the statutory responsibility to lead on this – others will have a duty to support this work. This person should already have a grasp on these issues but the question will be the extent to which these matters are understood and acted on by the wider authority. The s151 officer has an exceptionally challenging job – led by the s151, the wider cadre of senior officers can ensure that financial resilience is understood as a component of governance resilience more generally.

Elsewhere in this material we have suggested to officers and members a number of ways that they can seek to understand their own responses and reflections on governance, and how they can refine these insights by speaking to others.

For officers this would involve conversations:

  • With others working in the same team or area (this might be a project team or a group of people who share the same line manager);
  • Between the direct reports of a particular corporate director;
  • Between officers with a shared professional specialism (for example, financial or legal professionals, or governance professionals).

For councillors this might be conversations:

Under certain circumstances it might be appropriate for these conclusions to be tested by discussing them with people outside the organisation as well. Sector led improvement led by the LGA may be the way to achieve this while membership organisations such as SOLACE, CIPFA, LLG and ADSO may also provide mechanisms for this to happen. At a more local level, partners with whom councils work regularly could have their own insights. Later in this document we highlight the importance for the golden triangle in setting the tone on how external organisations are brought in to provide support.

This is about having the mechanisms in place to respond quickly to concerns about risk and capability. The principal statutory officers will need to have the resources and capability in place to take swift and decisive action where and when concerns and problems occur. In respect of the s151 officer and the Head of Paid Service, the need for appropriate resourcing to be in place is set out in statute. Even though a similar statutory prescription is not in place for the Monitoring Officer it does not mean that those duties are less important, and less requiring of resource. This includes:

  • Establishing that the principal statutory officers, individually and collectively, have the capability and relationship to take action on these issues – and to exercise leadership and ownership. For various reasons this might not be the case. Other legal professionals, finance professionals, Heads of Governance and those with wider corporate and service responsibilities – of the kind we have discussed above – can come together to provide support to the principal statutory officers to ensure that corporate ownership of these issues does exist.
  • Ensuring that the corporate capacity exists to respond to threats and risks, with clear political and organisational leadership from the top. The principal statutory officers can lead a process of scenario planning, thinking about how they will handle risks and threats. This is a planning process which should incorporate others, and may form part of the formal review process preceding the agreement of the Annual Governance Statement.
  • Ensuring that ownership of key corporate action and policies are understood so that action can be taken by the right people, at the right time, and in the right way – supported by certainty and rigour in the constitution and other governance documents. The golden triangle will consist of people who “own” the corporate plan on the officer side – a check to ensure that key projects, plans and deliverables are understood and owned is part of this responsibility;
  • An awareness and ownership of good governance across the organisation, supported by regular training and practical conversations. The golden triangle can and should, as we point out elsewhere, play a prominent role in championing this sense of ownership. Plans for organisational development, improvement and transformation should prominently feature good governance as a behaviour, not just as a process.
  • Having proper risk management systems in place, including mechanisms for governance concerns to be escalated (as discussed in the sections below). This framework itself hinges on risk. The principal statutory officers need to understand how governance risk links to wider corporate risk. Risk needs to be known, understood and acted on. Again, this is about behaviour, not just process;
  • Looking to the examples of others in the sector to ensure resilience, including engaging candidly with national sector bodies. Principal statutory officers should look outwards, engaging with fellow legal and finance professionals and fellow sector leaders, to have candid and frank conversation with peers and membership bodies. As part of the development of this framework we have talked to membership bodies like SOLACE, CIPFA and LLG about how they can support the need for professional and personal resilience to their members on governance issues.

This is about ownership of weakness and being able to move quickly to identify a problem and then the solutions to resolve it.

Different risks will demand different mitigations and solutions.

This is the most challenging part of the framework. It is about the ability of individuals within the organisation, and the organisation corporately, to understand that a weakness exists. For leaders this is a particular challenge because it can be seen as an admission of personal weakness – the system which you own and for which you hold responsibility has been found wanting.

Some weaknesses may be systemic, and recognising them may involve asking tough questions of the organisation, its priorities and its values. There may be political and organisational risk in identifying such weaknesses if it is thought that they could cause reputational damage. On these matters, politicians will need to be informed and involved.

Action here requires:

  • Acceptance of responsibility. For statutory officers, particularly for more serious weaknesses, this will be about fronting up, confirming that a weakness or concern may exist, and committing to taking action;
  • Listening to those within the organisation (including councillors) voicing concerns and providing the space for those conversations to happen productively. For principal statutory officers, it will be critical to have clear lines of communication in place to ensure that where people do have concerns, they can express them candidly – and that the individual responsibilities of each of these officers is understood insofar as who is in the legal position to take action;
  • Those in positions of responsibility (across the organisation) taking ownership of the issue and expressing a willingness and commitment to change. This is not just the duty of the principal statutory officers. Corporate directors, middle managers and – critically – the Leader and other key councillors will all have a role to play;
  • An avoidance of overconfidence, and not underestimating the scale of the challenge. The principal statutory officers may be well placed to understand if an issue is perhaps a one-off, or if it is systemic, telling a more serious story about how things are done at the council. The way that the principal statutory officers work together will set the tone in how the organisation chooses to respond;
  • Drawing together an awareness at the top of the organisation of issues critical to the business and subjecting them to particular scrutiny – a sense check of whether other weaknesses might exist as yet unrecognised. Where an issue or weakness emerges and is escalated to the principal statutory officers, proactive action may be required to stress test how the issue, and connected issues, are affecting governance in the organisation at large.

. After an issue is surfaced, understood and acknowledged, this is about moving swiftly to develop plans for improvement. These may be informed and supported by people from outside the organisation, but would always require clear and unambiguous internal ownership. The nature and intensity of actions would be influenced by the seriousness of the risk. Action here requires:

  • Solutions being brokered and agreed using a “one team” approach driven by a need for inclusivity. As a first step the principal statutory officers would need to set expectations that the development of solutions must be pluralistic. Different stakeholders will be able to bring different insights to bear which will inform and refine ideas for improvement. Just as acknowledging that weakness and risk exists is a public act, so too is the fact of drawing together solutions;
  • Not focusing on a single governance “improvement plan”, but recognising that conversation and action addressing behaviours is more likely to effect change. Governance cannot easily be compartmentalised. Senior officers will need to ensure that solutions focus on values and behaviours as much as processes and systems. Importantly, actions will need to focus on clear, specific individual and collective accountability for specific change, which focuses on behavioural change rather than structural or process change;
  • Actively seeking and using external advice but in a measured and proportionate way; not deferring to that advice but using it to construct solutions relevant to local circumstances.
  • Putting in place plans for improvement which are actively acknowledged in the organisation as realistic. Senior officers have a task in brokering agreement – a challenge in a political environment, and why external support may be required;
  • Effective external and internal communication to accompany the above. For an organisation going through challenges of this nature, “showing your working” by opening up about the challenge and the solution is likely to be uniquely challenging, but this openness and frankness is itself part of the process of governance improvement. Effective, strategic comms, led by expectations set by the golden triangle, will be central;
  • Making a conscious break from past ways of working while still taking responsibility for them, and not forgetting the lessons. The golden triangle can help to set a new direction for the organisation, where the challenge or weakness is sufficiently serious to justify such a shift.

This is about medium and long term change; a sustainable pace of change and making sure that those changes are resilient, and that they persist through the modelling of positive behaviours.

. This is about using the experience of solutions planning to inform longer term change – recognising that improvement is not just agreeing a set of short term actions to provide stabilisation, but is likely to involve more fundamental change.

Actions include:

  • Continuing receptiveness to external advice, support and challenge;
  • A restatement of the basic principles of leadership, responsibility and clear lines of accountability to ensure these issues are well understood – getting the basic building blocks right;
  • Reflecting and learning on the need to focus and prioritise – as a key factor in good decision-making and in making further governance improvements;
  • Reconnection with partners and the wider public – resetting and taking responsibility for rebuilding relationships, where necessary – building alliances and being prepared for others to take the lead.

. This is about embedding short term solutions and medium term learning to ensure that a sustainable “watching brief” on risk can be established which can provide early warning of future risks.

Actions include:

  • Investing in corporate capacity, including ongoing capacity to change (with the necessary resources to make this happen);
  • Having a narrative about change and improvement, how it has happened and how it will continue, which is shared and collectively owned;
  • Having the right people (with the right skills) in the right place to both deliver and sustain change and improvement;
  • A renewed, and strong vision for the future which aligns decision-making and oversight activity to a corporate plan which confidently reflects local need;
  • Having a clear and understood approach to risk appetite, which is followed consistently through the decision-making process and which is understood in how matters are overseen, escalated and delegated;
  • Taking these lessons out to the wider partnership, and the wider area – using them to influence how the organisation might need to be redesigned so as to engage better with spaces and responsibilities beyond the “council” as an institution.

Each of our seven characteristics has a neutral description and is accompanied by a set of positive and negative behaviours, which will be used by the material as prompts rather than a checklist.

The headings invite you to consider the following points:

  • Extent of recognition of individual and collective responsibility for good governance. This is about ownership of governance and its associated systems;
  • Awareness of political dynamics. This is about the understanding of the unique role that politics plays in local governance and local government. Positive behaviour here recognises the need for the tension and “grit” in the system that local politics brings, and its positive impact on making decision-making more robust;
  • How the council looks to the future to set its decision-making priorities. This is about future planning, and insight into what the future might hold for the area, or for the council as an institution and includes the way the council thinks about risk;
  • Officer and councillor roles. Particularly at the top level, this is about clear mutual roles in support of robust and effective decision-making and oversight. It also links to communication between key individuals, and circumstances where ownership means that everyone has a clear sense of where accountability and responsibility lie;
  • How the council’s real situation compares to its sense of itself. This is about internal candour and reflection; the need to face up to unpleasant realities and to listen to dissenting voices. The idea of a council turning its back on things “not invented here” may be evidence of poor behaviours, but equally a focus on new initiatives and “innovation” as a way to distract attention, and to procrastinate, may also be present;
  • Quality of local (external) relationships. This is about the council’s ability to integrate an understanding of partnership working and partnership needs in its governance arrangements, and about a similar integration of an understanding of the local community and its needs. It is about the extent to which power and information is shared and different perspectives brought into the decision-making, and oversight, process;
  • The state of member oversight through scrutiny and audit committees. This is about scrutiny by councillors, and supervision and accountability overall.

 

Principal statutory officers and other senior officers and leading councillors as well as other councillors and officers will be able to use this list of behaviours to better understand their own perceptions of governance in the authority.

For some of these, you may not know or see enough to be able to make an accurate judgment; for some, the behaviours you see at your council may not easily match with the examples we have given. That’s OK; all the examples provided are prompts to allow you to structure and organise your thinking. They should specifically not be seen as a checklist, and you should not be adding up the number of “positive” and “negative” behaviours you’ve seen to give yourself a “mark”.

Positive behaviours Negative behaviours

Strong relationships between the principal statutory officers and the political leadership, because:

  • There is continuity of member and officer leaderships (and succession planning is managed well);
  • Statutory officer positions (particularly that of the MO) are occupied by credible, senior people;
  • Early financial and legal discussion is considered fundamental to effective decision-making.
  • there is no succession planning and changes in personnel are not managed;
  • People in key statutory positions are interims or temporary appointments (for longer than is strictly necessary);
  • People in key statutory positions (particularly the MO) may not be regular SMT attendees;
  • The MO may lack appropriate legal support (they may not be a lawyer but this in itself is not a negative sign);
  • Financial and legal matters are treated as box-ticking elements of the decision-making process;

Strong, independently backed whistleblowing systems which employees know how to use if needed

 

A lack of effective whistleblowing systems (which may exist on paper but not in practice)

 

Strong audit systems –

  • Robust and mutually supportive relationship between the council and its external auditor;
  • Audit Committee leads on oversight of the adequacy and effectiveness of risk management, meeting frequently to discuss impact of financial stresses and pressures;
  • Annual Governance Statement complies with legal requirements, and is the culmination of a meaningful, member-led review exercise designed to stress-test both the governance framework and the health of the control environment;

Weak audit systems –

  • external auditor engages with the council using junior staff
  • audit cttee meets infrequently, and takes no active role in risk management
  • Annual Governance Statement is generic in tone and content

Management is not hierarchical – alongside line management arrangements sit clearly understood lines of accountability and ownership which help the council to deal with cross-cutting matters

Lengthy or complicated management hierarchy which dilutes ownership, responsibility and obfuscates difficult messages from the front line

Straightforward corporate approach to programme and project management, possibly with oversight from a corporate programme board and SMT

Programme management which obscures clear lines of accountability and elides collective responsibility.

Debriefs from major projects and major decisions are a part of standard operating procedure and are expected to show up weaknesses and shortcomings which need to be collectively owned

A blame culture, where responsibility for difficult issues frequently shifts between departments and individuals; frequent minor or major departmental reorganisations; top-down mindset

A clear-sighted sense of where shortcomings within the council may cause problems, and trying to bolster capacity and resilience to mitigate the risk of future problems. An approach to learning framed by clear and robust ethical principles, which are articulated and understood. 

Failures excused by external circumstances / matters beyond the council’s control

Proposals to learn lessons from failure ignored or implemented in a minimalist way, with a focus on processes rather than culture and behaviours. Ethics are understood only in the abstract. 

Positive behaviours Negative behaviours

The role and presence of politics is understood and accepted; it is recognised that councillors are politicians and that their political skills bring unique credibility, legitimacy and perspective to decision-making. Officers while apolitical are aware of political dynamics and manage them sensitively, operating confidently in the political space. Use of the LGA Member Code of Conduct and the “Seven Principles of Public Life” to explore and understood how political dynamics impact on councillor activities, with the Code used as a springboard for discussion.

Assertions of the need to be “non-political” – an unwillingness to engage in constructive political debate. LGA Code of Conduct and other material integrated into the constitution wholesale without discussion. Ethical principles are minimised or ignored.

Officers act as objectively as possible, being diligent in drawing together a full spectrum of evidence on which councillors can make informed decisions. Officers understood how their own subjectivity and biases influences their work; councillors understand how their beliefs and ideologies influences their own perceptions.

Debate is discouraged, particularly within the leading political group – there is seen as a single political approach to which all need to be signed up. Officers are treated with suspicion – for example by opposition parties who see them as having been “captured” by the executive.

Positive behaviours Negative behaviours

Corporate plan which clearly links long term aspirations with medium and short term activity to meet those aspirations. Plan also clearly prioritises, with a justification for that prioritisation clear to see. Trade-offs inherent in such plans are flagged, understood and acknowledged, especially where they engage with matters which are politically contentious.

Poor quality corporate plan. This might be a plan which is really just a programme management document, or one whose priorities are set so vaguely that everything is a priority (for example, where everything the council does is somehow engineered to be part of a corporate priority).

Risk awareness and management is part of every decision.

Risk management that is incomplete or ‘tick box’.

Directors and senior decision-making councillors have the time and space to think clearly and with confidence about the long term – the fact that this thinking is happening is communicated with the wider organisation

Fixation on project management as a proxy for strategic thinking – directors and senior members spend a lot of time on the industry of programme and project management

Internal and external communication which is frank, candid and mature. Comms which have a consistency derived from the presence of a common understanding of the council and of the area, and the challenges and opportunities that both face.

Unrealistic optimism, in public statements from the executive and internal communications, which does not align either with internal plans, or with a sound understanding of the wider context. In the context of planning for the future, this could be described as the sense that “something will turn up”

Meaningful thinking and action on what long term pressures and opportunities might mean for the council’s operating model. People throughout the organisation being prepared to innovate to handle these pressures and opportunities, with this preparation being informed realism born of an accurate understanding of the organisation’s capacity and abilities

A preoccupation with novelty and innovation as a proxy for meaningful conversations about the future and the council’s response to it, including a faddish approach to innovation which is not aligned with the strategic direction of the authority

Sufficient people in the organisation with strategic skills and responsibilities. This may involve a traditional corporate core alongside individuals in different parts of the council who combined functional specialisms with the ability to think strategically; in particular, individuals with political awareness.

It is also likely to include succession and business continuity planning for management of senior vacancies, and ensuring the council does not rely on interim appointments for a sustained period.

A small or non-existent corporate core. This is likely to include few or no policy or research specialists, or specialists in corporate communications, lawyers, financial professionals with corporate responsibility; people who might be expected to protect and support key components of the governance framework.

Preparation for the future is seen as divorced from the council as a democratic, political institution. Many senior posts may be filled on an interim basis, possibly in anticipation of a promised organisational restructure.

Positive behaviours Negative behaviours

Ethics is front and centre in how officers and members work together. The “Seven Principles of Public Life” are understood, and lived in practice; they act as the bedrock of positive behaviours.

The authority may have an ethical or values framework but an understanding of it is absent. People rely on rigid adherence to rules and checklists as a substitute for exercising responsible, personal and professional judgement of behaviours.

Councillor, and officer, conduct is taken seriously. People support each other to model good behaviour. This is based on mutual respect despite the presence of robust argument and debate. The importance of political disagreement is understood.

Conduct is treated performatively; exhortations on “civility” are used to quash dissent and disagreement. Conduct complaints are tit-for-tat and may involve both officers and members. Conduct which is clearly unacceptable is a regular feature of public meetings, with poor behaviour often directed towards officers who are not able to answer back.

Resolution of complaints and concerns may be inadequate, with disciplinary systems not working well leading to a sense that certain individuals can act inappropriately with impunity.

 

Business is carried out through appropriate formal and informal means, in a way that is transparent and understood and which adheres to consistent rules. Not everyone is involved in decision-making, but the way that decisions are made, by whom and at what time is clear, allowing accountability for those decisions to be tracked

A lot of business transacted in informal meetings between officers and members – for example Director/Cabinet Member meetings, which may not be effectively recorded. This leads to a lack of clarity on exactly who is responsible for making decisions, despite what the scheme of delegation might say.

Senior councillor decision-makers “front up” major strategies and decisions, owning tough judgements and trade-offs.

A lack of member ownership of big issues. Decisions may pass through member structures, but in a “tick box” way which provides little or no opportunity for influence.

Within a clear and consistent scheme of delegation, senior officers have the freedom to manage operational matters; councillors retain oversight (including through scrutiny) and matters which might be causing concern escalate to members effectively.

Predictability in in-year accounting – necessary changes to the in-year budget managed with a clear paper trail and using established principles, overseen by the s151 officer and with the roles and responsibilities of others clearly understood.

Overt, ongoing member involvement in operational matters in a way that takes up significant officer time, and that may involve member micromanagement. Poor behaviours may be involved; officers may be subject to member bullying.

A looseness in the management of budget changes (where senior officers and members are not sighted on emerging issues) or unreasonable exercise of control – neither of which may align with the scheme of delegation.

Unexpected non-emergency virements, large underspends and overspends not addressed.

Councillors are kept informed of and engaged in emerging issues – through briefings and discussions between members and officers – and are similarly made aware of major forthcoming decisions. A “no surprises” approach is taken with the members corps on all matters of corporate importance.

Infrequent or non-existent member briefings on matters of importance. Information is guarded and only shared with a small selection of hand-picked people.

The way that relationships between councillors and officers is mediated is appropriate and relevant to the situation. Senior officers are available to councillors and junior officers work with them to resolve local issues. Councillors liaise and communicate appropriately with officers at all levels.

Officer and member relationships are over-mediated (through members being expected to push requests and communication through a central mailbox or person) or under-mediated (members making continual, scattergun requests of officers, using up significant amount of senior officer time). Senior officers may be high handed and dismissive towards members’ requests for information.

Councillors lead in setting the organisation’s risk tolerance and risk appetite. Risk is discussed frankly and openly across the organisation. Officers develop plans and strategies which reflect an understanding of risk, its consequences and mitigation.

No meaningful discussion of risk by either members or officers, or by the two groups together; views of risks and risk appetite are largely personal, and differ significantly between members and officers as the issue isn’t discussed

Personal development is built into day-to-day work, and the appraisal process. Councillors lead and direct their own development objectives; councillor activity (particularly in scrutiny) is designed around this issue. Development includes a focus on “soft” skills – particularly relational skills and political awareness.

Poor quality or non-existent training and development, including:

  • No meaningful staff or member development programme;
  • Member training limited to formal induction, and training required to carry out statutory duties;
  • Officer training focusing on “cramming” for professional certification, CPD points or accreditation;
  • Training and development entirely distinct to the day-job with little management follow-through;
  • Training generally of a poor quality, delivered in-house or by a “trusted” external consultant to an outdated formula.
Positive behaviours Negative behaviours

Council has a clear sense of the experiences of, and outcomes for, local people.

Official council data providing a skewed and inaccurate picture (perhaps evidenced by significant numbers of member queries or complaints on matters where the council insists performance is good)

Robust performance management system which sits as part of a system by which the council collects and uses information more generally, tied into improvement activity, supportive of the council’s Best Value duties.

No effective performance management system – dominance of the form and process of scorecards and information monitoring without assurance on data quality or improvement action. The council’s duties to ensure continuous improvement are elided and not taken seriously.

There is a clear sense of who the council’s “nearest neighbours” are on key issues and attempts are made to ensure that this understanding influences how decisions are developed and made.

A preoccupation with the council’s uniqueness or distinctiveness – either as an institution, or in terms of the area it serves, with that perceived distinctiveness used as a reason to do or not do certain things

Engagement with the wider sector – through institutional membership of a range of sector bodies, networking at senior and junior level, and the use of insight gained in this way (including using good practice / nearest neighbour information intelligently) to influence the way decisions are made. This may also include a positive, proactive and welcoming attitude to external challenge.

Little serious effort made to look out to the examples of others – little senior attendance at external conferences, little involvement with national institutions like the LGA (no recent corporate peer challenge has been carried out, for example). Attempts are made to uncritically transpose national “best practice” into local operations, or to ignore best practice entirely. Adverse external opinion (from CQC, Ofsted, the LGA or others) is either explained away or subject to unambitious “action plans” which are not effectively prioritised, and which are soon abandoned.

Risk is understood, and an awareness of it is shared throughout the organisation. Risk appetite and tolerance are set, and owned, by councillors.

No meaningful risk registers at a corporate level, or risk registers which appear to some to downplay risks. Risk registers and associated information tightly managed, and seen only by a select few.

Systems are regularly stress-tested; the principal statutory officers (and councillors) scenario-plan as part of their approach to risk to understand where the greatest risks of failure exist and how these can be mitigated.

Political and organisational unwillingness to countenance the possibility of failure

Risk mitigation is planned based on existing resources and an understanding of current organisational capacity – risks and mitigation activity are “owned” and monitored carefully, including being escalated where necessary

Risk mitigation vague, resting on unproven assumptions and relying on magical thinking about how solutions will emerge

Swift action to address problems as they emerge – groups of officers and members work across organisational boundaries to understand problems and tackle them and their impacts.

Procrastination, strategically and operationally – a sense that “crisis” will bring about innovative solutions by concentrating minds; sweating the organisation’s human assets for minimal return

Continuing to invest in corporate capacity to change and transform – ensuring that the organisation remains flexible enough to be able to take difficult decisions quickly and confidently

Buying time by reducing capacity to deal with future problems – endless firefighting. Lacking capacity to invest in major change when it is needed leads to a paucity of ambition, or ambition which cannot be met, or a tacit sense of “managed decline”.

Positive behaviours Negative behaviours

Communication is treated as a strategic function of the authority. The council “thinks out loud”, bringing local people and partners into conversations about the future of the area, and participating in conversations held by others in the places those conversations are happening

Communicating being mainly operational, and on the council’s terms (both with partners and the public). Public “consultation” is managed by a comms team with little community engagement experience, or alternatively by service-level officers who lack the skill and backing to do it effectively

The information on which decisions are based are published, and added to, publicly. Statutory documents are published promptly and are easy to access.

The council invites challenge on its plans – by engaging in dialogue on those plans in a way that feels meaningful and relevant to local people. This often results in a significant change in approach.

Communication, particularly with the public, feeling performative and mainly about broadcasting the council’s “line” on an issue, with no real interest in changing the council’s approach other than on minor operational points. Members of the public challenging the paucity and poor quality of consultations are dismissed as “difficult” or troublemakers. The council has a poor FOI and complaints record.

The council and its partners work together as equals, developing a common framework of priorities which everyone works to meet. Discussions of risks happens with partners candidly; strong relationships mean that partners support each other. The council does not feel it has to be centre stage.

Priorities are not aligned with those of partners; partnership discussion is mainly about negotiation around competing objectives. Relationships are performative and superficial, focused on the council thinking what it, as an institution, can get out of partners.

Where possible and necessary, budgets are pooled and/or managed jointly between organisations, backed by strong governance arrangements. The statutory, and other, duties of individual organisations are considered as part of this process.

Tussles over budgets (with budgets possibly weaponised where the council funds certain partners and their activities, particularly where partners are third sector bodies or there is otherwise a power imbalance)

The council communicates its intentions – short and long term – to its key partners. The political dynamics within which the council operates are well understood by partners.

Partners (and the council) frequently surprised by unexpected actions of others

Positive behaviours Negative behaviours

Scrutiny uses self-evaluation, and periodic external review, to provide a check on effectiveness, with this feeding into the scrutiny Annual Report

Audit Committee is active and engaged and takes an overview of the systems of control, audit and governance

No regular process by which scrutiny members/officers reflect on the role and impact of the function

Audit Committee receives reports but work is tightly focused on financial controls or other aspects of operational management, and does not consider the overall systems of governance or make links between elements of it.

Executive works actively with scrutiny to ensure that councillor oversight is as effective as possible; executive/scrutiny protocol in place which supports meaningful dialogue

Executive attitude to scrutiny one of exasperation – wanting it to be “good” in the abstract but unable or unwilling to put the proactive measures in place to make this happen (scrutiny’s effectiveness being seen as a matter for scrutiny alone)

Scrutiny prioritises its work driven by a sense of the need to add value and can clearly demonstrate the impact of what it does

Scrutiny members kept occupied with “busywork” – lots of scrutiny activity without any real sense of its impact

Development needs of scrutiny and audit chairs well-understood – chairs are independent-minded and confident in exercise a leadership role, and command the confidence of their peers

Weak or poorly-skilled members in chairing positions

Leadership positions in scrutiny shared across parties; all parties have an opportunity to influence scrutiny’s future direction and priorities

All scrutiny leadership positions (chairs and vice-chairs) held by members of the same party

Culture of scrutiny is challenging and robust, but thoughtful and reflective, focusing on issues of most critical local importance rather than what may be expedient from a party political perspective

Member disengagement evidenced by overt political behaviours and a hobby-horse approach to work programming (ie members choosing to look at items that interest them rather than those which are of importance to the council and community)

By “governance” we mean the systems and relationships which exist to support a council to be effective, well run and accountable. Good governance exists to ensure that councils achieve their intended sustainable economic, societal and environmental outcomes while acting in the public interest at all times.

Core elements of governance include but are not limited to:

  • Obeying the law and complying with what is set out in the council’s constitution and other governing documents. These are the basic systems and structures underpinning how decisions are made. They involve making decisions which enhance public value:
    • Consciously, for example by clearly following agreed, well understood steps in the decision-making process;
    • Transparently, through the facilitation of open debate, and through engagement and participation from those affected;
    • In a timely, planned manner;
    • With knowledge of available options and using judgement to make informed choices with accurate consideration of risks;
    • With a view to monitoring and understanding outcomes, with results being reported and action to improve being taken as necessary;
    • In an environment of trust and respect where roles are clearly understood.
  • The relationships between key individuals in leadership positions (and other stakeholders in other positions).
  • The relationships between those individuals and stakeholders and the wider public – how power is understood as a feature of decision-making, and how we seek to share it;
  • How attitudes to all of the above influence and direct a council’s culture with respect to decision-making and accountability.

These elements align broadly with those set out in the CIPFA/IFAC “International Framework: Good Governance in the Public Sector” (2014).

Governance can be as limited as compliance with rules, and the law. Or it can be as broad as to encompass a wide range of associated behaviours and attitudes. The approach taken in the CIPFA/SOLACE “Delivering Good Governance in Local Government Framework” (2016) reflects this broader conception, and it is one on which our framework is based.

Governance also covers the way that the council works with its partners and partnerships, and the way it understands the markets and relationships that underpin competitive services that it commissions, and commercial activity in which it engages. Particularly importantly, it influences the way that the council engages with the public that it serves.

A range of national bodies exist which can help you to explore and understand your authority’s governance challenges. National support is intended to complement work happening locally; our framework is designed to empower such activity.

However we do recognise that in some cases, councils may lack the culture and capacity to be able to adequately tackle governance issues. Worse, in some instances there may be a lack of corporate commitment or interest in doing so. In these instances individuals with concerns can find themselves isolated, particularly where they have concerns about issues which have not developed into serious wrongdoing, but which still seem serious.

We have suggested that councils should look out to their partners, to understand how partnership can help to bolster local resilience. Councils do not stand on their own – they sit as part of a complex web of local interrelationships. Authorities with strong governance understand these relationships and can work together with their partners – to support each other and to deliver common aims. The importance of strong local relationships is especially important as councils emerge from the pandemic and try to set the vision in a landscape dramatically transformed economically, socially, culturally and environmentally.

Councils with a more introspective attitude will not have these relationships. Partnership may be transacted on the council’s terms if at all. Reaching out at this stage, for support and advice, can be the first step towards improvement.

If however local conversations have not yielded any action you may find it useful to approach national membership bodies or other national bodies who have a specific role in providing support, usually confidentially, on such matters.

  • The Local Government Association lead on [improvement in the local government sector]. One of the sets of behaviours we highlight is the engagement of councils with sector-led improvement and this particularly includes services provided by the LGA. The LGA offers in particular a regular “corporate peer challenge” to its member councils, and the framework provides a good way to prepare for and engage with this exercise. The LGA also offers specialist, subject-specific peer challenges. The LGA operates through a network of regional [Principal Advisers], who with regional programme managers work to support individual councils. PAs are likely to be a primary port of call for external support on governance issues. The LGA has several political group offices which can also provide support; Group offices can organise support from [councillor peers] who can provide direct support to councils.
  • Membership bodies for the principal statutory officers, which will be in a position to provide advice and support to their members, including:
    • The Chartered Institute for Public Finance and Accountancy is a qualification and membership body for public finance professionals. Most s151 officers, and other local government finance professionals, will be CIPFA members. CIPFA sets standards and provides detailed technical guidance on governance, audit and financial management issues, some of which is referenced in our material;
    • Lawyers in Local Government is a membership body for local authority legal professionals. Most council Monitoring Officers will be lawyers (although not all);
    • The Society of Local Authority Chief Executives, which is a membership organisation for senior officers (mainly chief executives) in the sector.
  • Other membership bodies such as the Association of Democratic Services Officers, the membership body for governance professionals;
  • The Centre for Governance and Scrutiny, the co-writers of this material, which is a body funded in part from the Government’s improvement services grant to provide advice and guidance to councils on governance issues. We provide a free helpdesk on matters relating to local authority governance and scrutiny.

 

This framework has been produced by a number of organisations in the local government sector to strengthen councils’ ability to make improvements to local governance arrangements.

It was produced by the Centre for Governance and Scrutiny and Localis over the course of 2019 and 2020.

You can read more about the development of the framework in our technical paper

 

 

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.