Reviewing council constitutions
A bit later in the autumn we will be producing a guide to the drafting and revision of effective council constitutions, funded by the LGA. In carrying out this work we’re get to get the insights of members and officers who work with constitutional issues regularly to get their views.
Council constitutions are, as a matter of good practice, subject to annual review. In reality, we know that many councils carry out such reviews much more sporadically. While councils will always seek to update their constitutions in line with new legislation, and to make ad hoc amendments as issues arise, we know that many have not conducted more fundamental reviews of these foundational documents for more than a decade.
In a way, is that surprising? The sector has been buffeted with enormous challenges over the past few years. It’s hardly a shock that undertaking a full review of the constitution isn’t up there as a major priority. Full reviews often – rightly – demand strong member oversight. We’ve seen councils setting up working groups, which need to meet frequently to work through the document, or documents, making up most council’s constitutions. Very often this kind of work is not an enticing prospect, either for members or officers.
The problem is that the experience of failure, and near-failure, in a number of councils seems to centre around shortcomings in constitutions. This is not so much about the technical content of constitutions (although some of them are better than others – and some much worse) but the way that members and officers understand and use the constitution as part of their work. Is it a rulebook to be followed at all costs? A vague set of guidelines that we can ignore when convenient? A “map” of our decision-making systems? An armoury of weapons for mischief-making politicians (and, perhaps, officers)?
How we interpret and use the constitution is central to how effective governance is. A council that takes it constitution seriously, where there’s a sense of collective ownership of the rules it contains, and where people live and breathe its values, is likely to be one with better governance overall, and that’s why these documents are important.
We are supporting an increasing number of councils to review and revise their constitutions, and while that is often framed around the structure and content of the constitution – which is important – the focus often ends up being on member-officer relationships.
We hope that the guide we produce later in the autumn, off the back of our experiences with over a dozen councils with whom we’ve recently done this kind of detailed work, will help others in the sector grappling with these issues. If you’re at a council thinking about your options in this area, and about how you might embark on a review of this nature without it becoming disproportionate, please get in touch – you can speak to Ed Hammond at email@example.com.