Have you noticed more influence at a local level since 2009?
Swindon Council has to take a new, more joined up approach based on working closely with residents of the town to deliver its services in the future, according to a report to the cabinet on 16 March.
Council chief executive Gavin Jones wrote that this can only be achieved if the council accepts that ‘the key assumption for developing a new relationship with local people is that as many decisions as possible should be devolved to as local a level as possible.’
The cabinet agreed to discuss a new way of working with groups across the borough like the Swindon Strategic Partnerships, parish councils, ward cluster meetings before conclusions are debated at the full council in July.
In the January 2009 Swindon Link magazing Mr Jones described the big changes Swindon Council was introducing by setting up ‘clusters’ of wards under its Connecting People, Connecting Places policy – to give residents the chance to meet and discuss local issues with the councillors representing their areas. He said, “this is a five year project to change the culture of the council. The criticism that the council is detached from the people it serves has been valid in some situations. Connecting People, Connecting Places is about changing this fundamentally.”
In his 16 March cabinet report he writes, ‘vibrant local democracy is essential and it must be exercised responsibly and appropriately. We must always respond to need, but we must also recognise, when we design services, that people have capabilities that can help to reduce long term dependency.
‘A genuine partnership based on trust between public service providers and Swindon’s communities will result in more resilient communities
‘The council of the near future will have to be, through necessity and design, very different from now. It will need to move away from services designed around organisational structures and statutory regulations to seamless working across all partners. It will need to enable decisions about services to be made as close as possible to the people who receive them. It will need to challenge existing behaviours, assumptions and ways of working.
The full report is available at: http://bit.ly/fX0PVP
However, Lisa Hawkes , chair of Swindon Civic Voice (SCV), expressed amazement at the report. “SCV has repeatedly requested to meet the leader of the council to discuss community involvement in the One Swindon process but have not had the courtesy of a response. The Swindon Strategic Partnership is directly influenced by the council and parishes are another form of government. “Even though the council thinks the Connecting People, Connecting Places policy is working, I don’t see evidence that Swindon accepts that the input of local community groups are central to this process. People want to get involved – after all its what the government is calling for – but they need that involvement acknowledged and acted upon by their elected officials.
“Swindon councillors and officers must learn that they have to do more than tick boxes and pay lip-service to community groups and local action groups.”
What is Swindon council up to?
Des Morgan looks at the One Swindon policy that Swindon Council is implementing.
In all the fine words contained in the ten pages of the report recently presented to Swindon Borough Council’s Cabinet – ‘Stronger Together: An Organisational Commitment to One Swindon’ – there are eighteen which should cause every resident, taxpayer and voter to shudder.
According to the report’s authors a reduction in the Council’s finances “makes it impossible to sustain the same level and variety of services we currently offer to Swindon residents”. This is the precursor to an initiative to make fundamental changes to the way services we currently enjoy are provided and to change the organisational structure of the Council.
Traditionally public perception of the Council’s function in life has centred on the collection of waste, roads maintenance, education and libraries. It is a reflection on the communication skills of the Council that many residents do not actually know the range of services for which the Council is responsible: nor would they know what services the Council has a statutory duty to fulfil and those in which it chooses to become involved. Without knowledge and understanding, good decision making is very difficult to achieve.
Many might agree there are areas of activity which should be managed by third party providers and some might accept that responsibility can be devolved to individual residents. However, we have become used to having a service provided by the Council and find it difficult to accept the thought that it could or should be provided by a charity or voluntary organisation, worse that it should be provided by the private sector and beyond reason to suggest that individuals should take ownership. Such arguments should be debated as there can be no sacred shibboleths; it is a misnomer to believe that because a service is currently provided by the Council it must continue to be forever.
Reality is that we want our dustbins emptied regularly, preferably once a week, it really doesn’t matter who collects them, SCS, Biffa, Veolia or Hill’s. The public requirement is that the Council will negotiate a contract which allows for a good service at a fair price. The public assume the Council will obtain Value For Money, a wholly justified expectation founded in the belief that Council officers will display a high degree of professionalism. The principle can be extended to every facet of service provision; the caveat is the same and can be guaranteed with good contract management.
Deputy Leader of the Council, Councillor Garry Perkins has previously stated that many services were now provided on tender specifications, or on a partnership basis, and were often less flexible to change than directly provided services. The loss of flexibility should be a key factor in the decision making process as when ignored the result is generally a poorer service albeit at a lower cost.
Perhaps the reports authors are correct when they warn of the need to accept change in the type of service provision. What the people of Swindon want and need is to be engaged in the debate, we must not sit idly by and allow Councillors and even less officers to determine what is in the best interest of Swindon. Nor should Councillors and officers consider that they have all the answers simply because they have undertaken ‘consultation’.
Having outlined the bare bones case for the need for change in the services provided by the Council we are then presented with what the report refers to as organisational structure. A question to be asked is does the organisation include Councillors and officers? Changing the Council’s management structure alone is not the answer to the problem; rather the change must include the role of Councillors who after all are the elected representatives of the people. It is generally considered that Councillors have powers and influence, sadly such a notion can swiftly be disabused unless one happens to be a member of the Cabinet. Backbench Councillors are often ignored, and frequently left ‘in the dark’ which limits their knowledge of events and issues and makes their active participation in debate very difficult.
Swindon over the last few years has undoubtedly improved as a local authority; in the face of overwhelming evidence it is churlish to suggest otherwise. What is subject to challenge is the order of magnitude of the change and whether or not the change is universally beneficial to the town’s population. That I suggest, is a matter for another article
The Chief Executive seeks to steer us through the Council’s achievements to date, concentrating on the quality of leadership, the contract with Capita, the development of One Swindon and the New Ways of Working programme. Each is proffered as an example of success even though concepts such as One Swindon are not yet clearly understood by the public, indeed the Council appears to have ignored the public in their efforts to ‘sign up’ support, relying on the relationship they have with their partners; organisations wedded to the importance of meetings, mission statements, working groups, implementations and outcomes.
Many people will accept that maintaining the status quo is not an option; how often have we been subject to enforced change at our place of work in order to improve efficiency or reduce costs? Equally some will be less than impressed with what at first sight appears to be nothing more than another exercise in the re-organising of desks and office space.
There is a need to exercise care in the creation of a new model way of doing things. Just as leaving things as they are might not be an option so to it might be best not to make changes for changes sakes or more explicitly for the purpose of being seen to be doing something. One only has to attend a committee meeting to understand and appreciate the number of people it appears are required to support the decision making process in the Council.
Senior Councillors might well point to savings in senior management costs, such savings are welcome but are they enough? The Chief Executive might think so, but would one expect anything else? Central Government talks about devolving power and responsibility to Local Government, in turn it is suggested that responsibility can be passed down to Parish Councils and communities. The need for more resource will be argued while no reduction in headcount will be seen at the highest levels of the administration. Monitoring will replace actual ‘doing’ as services are commissioned from others as opposed to being provided by the Council directly.
The Council certainly faces a dilemma; on the one hand they want to ‘deliver the best outcomes’ while on the other they seek to ‘reduce demand for services’. For the paying taxpayer the future will be stark, under the guise of localism there will be a seismic shift for the responsibility of service delivery – less from the Council and more from the voluntary and community sector. What I believe we can be sure of is that Borough and Parish Councils will claim not to have the resources to implement proposals, the proof is clear for all to see as already the seeds are being sown.
There is another great truth promoted in the report, ‘difficult decisions will still need to be made’ we look forward to reading the Chief Executives proposals for change. However, if the exercise culminates in nothing more than a move of bureaucracy from Westminster to Swindon we shall be unimpressed.
Trust the biggest factor in effecting change
Juliett Platt says Swindon Council has to listen and act impeccably to build community links
Des Morgan is right to be concerned about the adequacy of organisational restructuring in the council to better engage local citizens and encourage greater sharing of responsibilities to deliver effective public services. As he rightly points out, significant change in local governance will not be achieved by shifting desks about.
With the localism bill and the Big Society ethos forming the mainstay of the coalition government’s policy tool-kit, what is the biggest factor in effecting change locally?
At the recent Swindon Strategic Partnership Conference guest speaker Nick Stanhope from not-for profit organisation we are what we do, detailed the four tenets of good leadership, one of which is “to obsess on the details of human behaviour”.
It is my contention that this is the vital piece in affecting the most sustainable degree of change in our communities. Quite simply it means that we each do our best to show respect for those around us, and become obsessed with the behaviours that are most likely to elicit the best responses in others.
This is an attitudinal shift that must take place at every level, hierarchical, individual and organisational. All the stakeholders of local governance, including council officials, elected representatives, local and Parish councillors, and the electorate ourselves all need to make greater use of common sense, to listen better, and to trust and respect each other more.
This is not Polyanna-esque. Trust needs to be earned and is built on the four pillars of sincerity, follow-through, history and competence. In order to build trust we need to pay greater attention, let go of vested interests, be impeccable with our word and prove that we are up to the job by doing what is asked of us.
As citizens we absolutely must feel that we can trust our councillors to represent our views clearly and fairly, and that these views are clearly and fairly listened to within the entire council body. The public needs to feel confident that elected members and council officials work openly to shared objectives for the good of the electorate, and that there is synergy in their working practices.
Right now, in parts of town where local residents are making their feelings known about deeply troubling housing development plans, there is an uncomfortable sense that council officials are tied to the existing bureaucratic machine that must trundle ever onwards, regardless of the fire that is blazing in the hold.
Meanwhile elected representatives are either remaining frustratingly non-committal or saying whatever it is they feel they need to in order to appease the electorate as we prepare to go to the polls.
Perhaps it was forever thus. But now a real opportunity to engage the public in localism truly exists like never before. The council and our elected representatives have our attention in North Swindon over the core strategy, and as one resident said at a local public meeting “is it possible that we might form a united front?”
The council machine ignores this opportunity at its peril. Now is the time to listen and to act impeccably if they want to establish greater trust in the local community.
Have you been involved in Connecting People, Connecting Places cluster meetings in the last two years? Mail: email@example.com