Governing, auditing and opening up the Council

An unreviewed council meeting (picture via Colchester Chronicle)
Some of you may have heard the news that I’m the chair of Colchester Borough Council’s Governance and Audit Committee for the next year, after being Deputy Chair of it last year. As I wrote last year, Governance and Audit is a committee with somewhat of a dull reputation because its main job is to review the council’s procedures and oversee the various audits the council undergoes, and they’re the sort of things that usually only get very interesting when something has gone, is going, or is about to go wrong.

However, one thing my predecessor as chair of the committee, Chris Pearson, introduced last year was to make it a bit more proactive in looking at ways we could improve the governance of the Council. That’s why last year we had the snappily-named Review Of Meetings And Ways Of Working (the ROMAWOW, as no one has yet been heard to refer to it in public) which I wrote about here, and which has its final report coming back to the committee tonight. There are a number of changes coming about as a result of it, most notably to the public that Have Your Say public speakers at council meetings will now have the opportunity to speak again in response to the answer they’ve been given, but there are a number of other changes in how we present information at meetings and how they’re run that should hopefully make them better for members of the public and councillors. One of these changes is starting some meetings later, which is why tonight’s meeting will be starting at 7pm instead of the usual 6pm.

Having done that review, though, I’m aware that a lot of people’s frustrations can’t be addressed by just changing the way we do meetings. So, that’s why I’ll be suggesting tonight that we build on this review with another one that will look at issues around elections and public participation in the democratic process. This will hopefully have two element. First, looking at the procedural elements of how the council runs elections to see if there are ways it can be improved to make it better for the public. Obviously, this has to be done under the rules set out by the Representation of the People Act so my favoured solution to a lot of problems – change the electoral system to Single Transferable Vote, like they have in Scottish and Northern Irish local elections – is a non-starter for now, but there are other aspects that can be looked at. For instance, I know people have suggested the design and information provided on polling cards could be improved, but I’m sure there are lots of other suggestions that could be made.

The second part is a bit more nebulous at the moment, but I want us to also look at how to improve public participation in elections and local democracy more generally. One thing I’ve always tried to stress is that democracy isn’t just an event, it’s a process, and for that process to occur we need to have those public spaces – which can be physical or virtual – where people can access information and share opinion. What the council can do directly here is perhaps limited by law and current levels of funding, but how can we as a council and a wider public improve the levels of information and debate available to everyone so we can move towards a better and more responsive local democracy?

All thoughts are welcome, and we’ll hopefully have a wider discussion on this at the next committee meeting on 25th July and see how to move this forward. (And yes, I should have posted this a while before the meeting, but I was on holiday last week…)

Can accountability bridge devolution’s gap between identity and practicality?

englandjigsawOver on CityMetric, Jonn Elledge writes that devolution is meant to be about practicality and delivery, and wonders why questions of identity are mixed up in it. I think there’s a problem with phrasing the debate in that way because both sides of it are ignoring a key third factor in delivering workable devolution: accountability.

Both sides of the practicality vs identity debate have strong cases through looking at different sets of existing facts. The economic case points out that the way regional and local economies work rarely pays much heed to existing political and cultural boundaries and if you’re creating structures to enhance those existing economies you need to take account of that. The identity case argues that the cultural and political links that have developed outside of the economic sphere are just as important as the economic links and need to be recognised too. As Jonn points out, existing devolution in Britain has been based primarily on those cultural boundaries rather than the economic ones, which has led to an expectation that further devolution (particularly within England) should follow the same course.

This isn’t actually a new argument, but one that flares up continually whenever local government structures are tinkered with. The Redcliffe-Maud proposals for local and regional government were based on similar ideas of economic practicality and foundered on questions of identity and even the more modest reforms of the 70s faced opposition to the movement of borders to reflect economic reality. This is why I live in Essex now, not Suffolk as was proposed back then.

As I’ve argued before, one of the key problems facing local government in England is the confusing mess of accountability and responsibility built into the current system. Even people who’ve worked in local government for years have problems keeping track of which acronymic organisation covering which patch of geography is responsible for which issue, which means that any attempt to do something often disappears into a mass of conflicting bureaucracies. The current proposals for devolution are doing very little to resolve this mess, and are even adding to it by adding another organisation (the city region) into the equation.

This leads us to a situation where we have some institutions and organisations that are based on practicality, while others are based on identity, but none of them end up being very accountable to the people they’re supposed to be serving. The arguments from the two sides (practicality and identity) end up sailing past each other because they’re both referring to different things and basing their arguments on different sets of facts.

That’s why I think accountability needs to be an important part of any devolution proposal. It is possible to create new institutions that work over historic cultural boundaries, but the people have to be part of the process and the drawing of boundaries has to reflect cultural links as well as economic ones. The technocratic practicality argument of ‘this is what is best for you’ has to yield to some local realities, but the identity counter-argument also has to accept that identities can change over time and people can have multiple ones.

Expecting cultural, economic and governmental boundaries to match perfectly is foolish, and any devolution solution is always going to anger somebody. Demanding that identity or practicality alone should be the sole consideration is going to lead to problems, and any solution that’s going to be successful in the long-term needs to balance the two through ensuring it’s accountable. Accountability isn’t just about the practical structures of the system but also recognising and creating shared expectations and culture amongst the people that system is representing and serving. That may be the common ground that enough of the two sides can come together on to create something that pleases enough (if not all) of them.

Thoughts on police commissioners

As today’s the day when England and Wales go to the polls to elect police commissioners, I thought it was about time I set out my thoughts on them, if only so I don’t look too far behind the curve. I’m not going to give you any advice on how to vote, or whether to vote or how to actively not vote, as I feel those few people who do still read this blog are clued up enough to work that out for themselves.

Since the first modern police forces in this country were founded there have been debates about just how they should be run and controlled. Are they a local or a national responsibility? Should they be wholly autonomous and only answerable to the Crown, controlled by local politicians, some balance between those options or something entirely different?

One interesting thing about commissioners is that for all the talk of them being a radical change in the governance of the police, they don’t make much difference in the overall balance of power, with the police caught between local priorities and Home Office dictats. Commissioners aren’t about changing where the power is held, just who holds it in one place – and even then, the old Police Authority regenerates itself into a Police and Crime Panel which will still hold some powers.

For me, the introduction of police commissioners was the solution to a problem that very few people even thought existed. There probably is a need – especially in the light of recent revelations on a variety of issues from Hillsborough to Savile – for a large-scale debate on just what sort of police force we want and how it should be run. However, that debate needed to happen before someone came up with the answer ‘one run by locally elected commissioners’. Instead, we’re now being asked to have our say on police and crime priorities in our area (or whatever it is the posters say) but without actually being given the option to say ‘hold on, we don’t want to run it this way’.

I think this can be seen as one of the lengthening list of things the Liberal Democrats have got wrong in Parliament. If the Tories were determined to push on with this – and they did have it in their manifesto, so there was some vague mandate for it – we should have made them at the very least subject to the same restrictions as elected mayors. They should only be introduced in areas that actively wanted one and voted yes in a referendum for it. Indeed, like the city mayor referendums, those could have been held in May, and the areas that voted yes could then be holding their elections now. As it is, they were instead imposed on everyone (in England and Wales, at least) without ascertaining if there was any real desire or enthusiasm for them.

Like elected mayors, these elections were meant to encourage high-profile independents to stand, but that hasn’t really happened. Mayoral candidates at least had the option to become known in a distinct area, and it’s worth noting that the independents who did win mayoral elections were people who’d become well known in that area beforehand – Ken Livingstone, Ray Mallon, Frank Branston etc. However, the size of the constituency for police commissioner elections means that nowhere has a high-profile independent candidate known across the area. Indeed, there are very few high-profile party-political candidates running.

My prediction is that today will see a very low turnout, possibly around 20%. The problem is that not only is it an election that no one really wanted, there’s been very little campaigning for it, and there’ll be little in the way of polling day operations in many places. People won’t get the little nudges and reminders to vote the way they do in normal elections, and while they may fully well be intending to vote, a lot of them won’t realise until they pick up a newspaper or watch TV on Friday and realise they meant to vote the day before.

As an example, the only leaflet I’ve seen in this election is the official one that came a few weeks ago (surrounded by other junk mail that was delivered at the same time, so in many houses it would have gone straight in the bin). No one’s delivered anything near me, let alone attempted any canvassing and I haven’t seen a single poster on my travels about Colchester. (I was in York earlier this week and the situation was the same there too)

What we’re seeing is the result of the belief that democracy is merely about voting. That forgets that it should be a process in which you engage with the people and create an informed electorate. Instead, we’ve got an electorate that’s being asked to vote for a post they don’t understand the need for or the role of – and one they certainly haven’t asked for – after a campaign that’s told them little about what the different candidates will do if elected. The choice everywhere appears to be between candidates who’ll work to cut crime while listening to people or their rivals who’ll listen to people while working to cut crime (with the occasional pseudo-fascist candidate who’ll work to cut certain types of crime while only listening to certain types of people). Still, let’s just be glad they weren’t introduced twenty years ago with Jimmy Savile standing in West Yorkshire.

This is voting for the sake of voting, an election being held purely as a ritual to summon the great god of Accountability, without anyone ever bothering to think about just what being accountable really needs.

One prediction I will make: these will be the first and last set of police commissioner elections. Sometime before 2016, the positions will be quietly wound up into the Police and Crime Panels, which will start looking just like the old Police Authorities did. It’ll be a brave step backwards into the future of accountability, no doubt.

Do as I say. No, just do as I say.

The irony might be amusing if it wasn’t affecting me and the people I represent but Lord Hanningfield, the leader of Essex County Council and a man who’s never shed away from grabbing any power that comes within a few miles of him, believes County Councils should have the power to hold quangos to account.

The proposals are interesting, and might be worth discussing, especially if any of the quangos have the power to react in the same way Hanningfield does whenever anyone tries to hold him to account or question him.

Oh, and the first comment on Hanningfield’s post is most amusing too.

Democracy happens more than once every four years

Thanks to Chris Black for linking to me yesterday and reminding me to write about this story (also covered in the press here).

It’s stories like this that make me realise that, for all David Cameron’s cosmetic changes on the surface, the Tories haven’t changed underneath. Maybe they’re good at presenting their caring, sharing face elsewhere in the country but give them raw power like they have in Essex (where Colchester is the only Council they don’t control) and the velvet gloves are swiftly removed. When I went to a County Council meeting last year, one of the Tory Councillors declared ‘democracy in Essex belongs to the Conservatives’ which is scary either in its ignorance of the meaning of the word or its utter contempt for the process.

And that’s why I don’t expect anything different from Cameron and the rest should they get into Government. Just like Blair, it’s easy to talk about caring, sharing, consensual government when you’re in opposition, but then you win an election, find yourself in possession of something close to absolute power and why would you ever want to give any of that away?