Now is the perfect time to check your governance

Posted on 17/09/2021 by Jacqui McKinlay.

Please note: this article was originally published on the Local Government Chronicle
website here.

Most councils are in a good place for reviewing and implementing improvements that
will help improve governance resilience.

September and the start of autumn always brings with it an air of change and renewal, particularly this year as people return, hopefully recharged after well-earned breaks, ready to face the next set of challenges.

In our world, we’ve also been pleased to see signs of governance renewal.

In July we ran a constitution clinic, with colleagues from Lawyers in Local Government, an event so oversubscribed that we are running a second this month. The majority of those attending were looking beyond the usual refresh to review and capture recently enforced ways of working, seeing the need for an update as a way to engage members and officers in a wider conversation about how they want things to work and what gets in the way of good decision-making.

There is also no coincidence that for those councils requiring intervention support, Liverpool and Nottingham city councils currently, the task of reviewing and agreeing new constitutions is high on the list of Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government requirements.

In other places, seismic governance change is happening through requests for unitaries and county deals, and Sheffield City Council is becoming the first core city to transition into a modern committee structure following a public referendum. A task that it is rightly seeing as more than a structure change but an opportunity to transform into a democratic city through a new culture of openness and involvement.

Governance is everyone’s business

We were also really pleased to see Newham LBC hold its first permanent citizens’ assembly in July, following a recommendation by its democracy commission. The first session focused on the borough’s green spaces; the next one taking place in the autumn which will consider ‘15 minute neighbourhoods’.

However, the majority of councils are not in the category of wanting or being forced to implement significant governance changes. Luckily for them, being in this position is actually the best time to review and implement improvements that will contribute to governance resilience.

Governance is everyone’s business – every officer and every member. But we know that perceptions of how it is working can vary significantly between officers and members, between senior officers working corporately and in service areas, and even between statutory officers. Partners will also certainly have strong opinions on what the council is like to work with.

Often governance issues don’t arise because of the model, structures or processes, but because of how things actually work in practice. It’s whether people feel there is mutual respect, if there is an appreciation of the political dynamics, if there is a spirit of internal candour and a willingness to listen to dissenting voices, if there are quality external relationships and a desire to be inclusive.


The danger of unresolved problems

These sorts of issues often manifest as small niggles or gripes about bureaucratic delays, confusion over roles, issues escalating unnecessarily or tricky personal relationships. Left unresolved they can easily become more problematic or more likely show themselves when there is increased pressure or a crisis to respond to.

Taking the time now to have a conversation about ‘how it is working’ can help put in place measures to resolve things. It doesn’t matter who instigates these conversations; they can start as a small check-in conversation at a senior leadership team meeting, or at a regular catch-up with the political leadership.

Our governance risk and resilience framework provides a common language and a list of positive and negative behaviours for seven governance characteristics. Drawn from our extensive work with councils over the last 20 years, using this can provide an easier way to start the conversation, gauge views and consider solutions. Many councils have already used it or asked us to support in providing an impartial view.

As you dive back into the Autumn to-do list, unlikely to raise your head till Christmas, add in doing a governance check-in and get it onto your next meeting agenda. It will be worth it, I promise.

Jacqui McKinlay, Chief Executive, Centre for Governance and Scrutiny

About the Author: Jacqui McKinlay

Jacqui was Chief Executive of the Centre for Governance and Scrutiny from 2015 until 2021.