As we head towards the General Election, parties’ policy platforms are beginning to crystallise. Promises of tax cuts, substantial improvements to public services and other radical reforms are a usual feature of this period, but in making these pledges parties forget that they also need to dwell on the mechanics of how they will be delivered. Many of which will rely on regional and local government to deliver.

The governance of public services frames the answer to this ‘how’ question. Without addressing governance – responsibility, accountability, who decides and who oversees – the person who walks into No10 on 5 July will find themselves pulling levers that are not connected to anything.

It is a good time to reflect on the governance issues and opportunities a new Government will need to deal with, to deliver on its priorities. It is also a good time to reflect on what that means for governance locally – how we might need to change the way we do things in light of the expectations of a government.

Top of the in-tray will be the need to develop mechanisms to deliver better co-ordination cross-Whitehall, and between Whitehall and those involved in decision-making and delivery at a local level.

‘Mission-led’ government is a feature of both main parties’ plans and this requires a mature approach to governance – one that is longer-term, and more focused on partnership and collaboration.

The need for better co-ordination through effective partnerships in service design and delivery at the local level is ongoing, and although it has been the goal of public service reform for over twenty years, successive governments have failed to create the necessary framework for meaningful partnership work with shared and collective governance mechanisms.

Added to this local picture is the ongoing financial challenges that local authorities are facing, placing significant burdens on members and officers necessitating consistent, difficult decisions. Weighing local need alongside an authority’s financial position requires a degree of member oversight that – in many authorities – is found wanting

While executive members are heavily involved, many councils struggle with backbench involvement in financial scrutiny and connecting this scrutiny to formal audit functions.

Although it is doubtful any incoming government will make serious changes to the financial settlement for the sector, greater fiscal freedom is essential. This would not only enhance local accountability but also enable longer-term financial planning and stability. The unpredictability of funding drives short-termism, negatively impacting the factors that enable good governance.

Perhaps the greatest enabler – or disabler – for councils in developing the capability to tackle these challenges is organisational culture. We are talking about the seriousness with which members and officers treat governance – and the extent to which people understand and act on its requirements. More broadly, it is about how culture informs people’s relationships – their candour and willingness to be challenged, their openness to alternative points of view, their willingness to conduct themselves in a way that demonstrates respect for others.

The results of our annual scrutiny survey highlight how important accountability and transparency are for effective governance. It is true to say this is as much an issue within local authorities as it is externally. Encouraging councils to adopt open data practices and ensuring decision-making processes are transparent and inclusive will further reinforce public trust and enable better scrutiny and g

overnance within. Accountability and transparency are not simply about publishing data and information, it involves valuing dialogue and engagement, constructive challenge through scrutiny and actively listening to communities. This approach can bring governance to life, turning it from a bureaucratic process to a living dynamic organism – one that can be both meaningful and impactful, through the power of relationships.

This highlights the crucial role that honesty and integrity have as the bedrock of effective governance. They are essential for building trust and fostering a culture of collaboration and partnership within the public sector and with the wider community. Without these values, the legitimacy of governance is fundamentally undermined. This needs to happen at all levels of government.

Building back public trust in local governance is paramount. Shared goals and shared endeavours built on mutual trust and respect can foster a more collaborative and effective governance environment. Transparency, accountability, and active engagement with communities are essential.

Overall, the road ahead requires not just bold promises but also a clear, actionable plan for governance addressing both the systemic and cultural challenges faced by local authorities. By focusing on these elements the incoming government can create a more resilient, accountable and effective public service landscape.

Mel Stevens is Chief Executive and Centre for Governance and Scrutiny (CfGS) team