This immediate crisis
(A shorter version of this piece appeared in the Local Government Chronicle on 18/03/20)
In a time of crisis, accountability, transparency and good governance are even more important.
There will be a temptation for councils, in the initial stages and as this crisis deepens, to cut back on “traditional” approaches to governance. Some of this is absolutely necessary. Elected members and staff will need more freedom to make big operational decisions; our approach to finances will need to shift to accommodate pressing local need.For practical reasons, as staff and councillor self-isolate or follow guidance on travel and social contact, traditional in-person meetings will need to be scaled back significantly. Councils need the freedom to reduce this burden and reframe their approach – the calls from ADSO and LLG to Government to put in place arrangements to provide this freedom therefore need to be answered.
But big decisions – decisions made as the economic and social landscape changes profoundly in the coming months – have got to be subject to oversight and scrutiny. Councillors themselves need to be kept in the loop and recognised as having a valid and vital role to play, even if they are stuck at home.
The danger lies in thinking that meetings can be postponed or cancelled without thinking too much about putting in place a replacement – based perhaps on the assumption that things will return to normal in a couple of months. The last few days should have disabused us of this notion. Councils should now be looking at their overall plans for 2020/21 – and beyond – and thinking about the huge shifts and changes they need to make in those plans. These changes need to be set in motion in a matter of days. How do councils assure themselves that they are taking the right decisions? As the crisis unfolds how will we prioritise the pressing demands on time and resources? How will we support businesses, communities, individuals?
These are inherently political choices – choices that executive councillors and senior officers have to make in a way that takes account of different viewpoints. Decision-making like this has to secure wide buy-in – an incredibly tough ask under the circumstances, but critical as we come to understand the way we will all need to work together in the coming months – councillors, professionals and the communities we serve.
This is very different to the standard way that we think of “emergencies”. Since the Second World War emergencies have been relatively short term, and relatively localised – even foot and mouth, our most recent touchstone for widespread disruption, is small beer compared to what we face now.
It is a professionalised approach, assuming strong, expert leadership. Our civil contingencies infrastructure is planned to reflect this – it assumes an operational response for a comparatively limited period, not sustained, high levels of disruption for a sustained period of potentially up to a year.
Our way, as a sector, of managing this challenge must be a form of accountability and oversight which looks and feels more distributed and dynamic, and which engages with the realities of the situation with which we are faced. It will involve councillors coming together remotely in wards, and divisions, to understand and deal with the biggest challenges. It will involve the chairs and vice chairs of scrutiny committees doing the same – even if their formal committees fall dormant – to consider and reflect on what is happening, drawing on intelligence from the community, and feeding a different insight and perspective into the council response. It will involve the conversations throughout this process being both publicly accessible, and ones in which the public can also positively participate.
- Small groups of members could take a lead in understanding and overseeing the impact on key groups in the local area – children (including children in the care system), the elderly, disabled people and those with other vulnerabilities, businesses and employers.
- Publicly-viewable discussion could draw on the insights of local people, and transparently feed back into the council’s emergency planning process – providing accountability and justification for decision-making.
- More traditional scrutiny task and finish working could continue, in a form. Members and officers need time to pull themselves out of the immediacy of the operational response and look to the longer term.
- Regular officer briefings – in writing and through remote video – could keep members up to speed on the operational and strategic response, and could help members to better support their own constituents – both directly and in partnership with mutual aid networks, where they exist.
Many councillors find it difficult to use electronic tools; the first step for councils therefore needs to be to understand members’ overall needs. I have assumed that members will want to be on top of the operational response, contributing to tough policy decisions and driving forward support to local people. But practically what this looks like will differ from area to area, and the technological (and other) tools to achieve this will vary too. Councils will have to provide training and support to councillors to engage in new ways.
At CfGS we are rethinking the way we provide guidance and practical support to reflect these new demands. National level thinking and sharing of learning, combined with bespoke local approaches will be the key to navigating this unknown territory.
A failure to do this risks councillors being cut loose, with those aside from a core of executive councillors becoming spectators, as their role in squeezed into insignificance between professional emergency response on one side and volunteer mutual aid in communities on the other.
The coming months will remind us just how much of our local democracy relies on the structural forms of committee and Council meetings. As these traditional methods are curtailed by necessity, do we risk key parts of the local governance system withering on the vine; will councillors become spectators? Or will we do what we must – make councillors central to the response to the upheaval that is coming?