On the 5th May 2011 I failed in my attempt to be re-elected to Luton Borough Council after eight years serving as an elected councillor. This article is part of a series of posts where I attempt to process what those eight years have meant for myself by asking the question “what did I achieve?” in that time.
The main way in which politicians act and attempt to achieve things is through their role within the decision making process of whatever body to which they have been elected. After all the primary reason why we elect people is for them to make decision on our behalf. So it has always surprised me how few politicians are interested in, or even take the time to fully understand, the workings of the decision making process that they are involved in.
Constitutions, procedures, committee remits, agenda planning, and standing orders may not be the sexiest elements of politics but they are key tools within the politicians’ workshop. You use a screwdriver and not a hammer to fix things together with screws. You use a saw and not a blow torch to cut wood. So why is it that the political craftsman is so careless about which tool he or she picks up?
In my first few years of being a councillor one of the most frequent questions I found myself asking was “why are we doing it that way?”. Almost invariably the answer would come back “because we’ve always done it that way”. No one had appeared to have done any thinking about the process by which decisions were made for a very long time. This was despite a very significant change in the framework in which local government operated having occurred only a few years previously.
Up until 2000 local government had operated under what was known as the committee system. Councils were made up of committees of councillors the membership of which was in proportion to the numbers of councillors elected from each political party. These committees would cover different areas of responsibility and the councillors on them would make the decisions for those areas. So you would have committees with titles like the education committee, and the social services committee, and the wonderfully named general purposes committee that would hoover up anything that was not dealt with elsewhere.
Obviously where you had a council where one party had a majority that party would have a majority of councillors on every committee. So it would be councillors from that party who would in reality make most of the decisions. In Luton this meant that for many years the real decision making body was the group meetings of the Labour Council group where decisions would be stitched up before the committees met. Still the committee system meant that at least at some level all councillors were involved to some extent in decision making.
In the Local Government Act 2000 the Labour government required councils to work in a different way. They abolished the old committee system and replaced it with the executive and scrutiny system. Under this new system a few of the old committees were retained for things such as planning and licensing but most of them were got rid of. Instead most decisions would be made by an executive or cabinet of councillors. This did not have to reflect the balance of the parties on the council, instead it was made up of councillors from only the party (or where there was coalitions, the parties) that made up the administration. Each of the councillors who sat on the executive was expected to have a portfolio, an area of policy they were responsible for, and in some cases they could make decisions about these areas on their own.
The remaining councillors, including all of those who made up the opposition plus the councillors from the ruling group who were not on the executive, would be involved in what was called the overview and scrutiny process. Their job was to question and hold to account the decisions of the executive and to investigate areas of policy and concern. They couldn’t make any decisions themselves but they could make recommendations to the executive. They could also “call in” executive decisions, essentially a request for the executive to think again.
Opinion is divided about whether this change was a good thing. The merits and the failings of both systems can be argued about. I don’t want to get into that here. My point is that this was a major change in the way councils and councillors were to go about making decisions. Moving to the new system required major changes to the procedures and processes of how councils worked at both the member and officer levels.
Only, in the case of Luton at least, it didn’t.
When the Liberal Democrats formed a minority administration on Luton Borough Council in 2003 we found ourselves heavily dependent on making the executive system work. Because we were a minority and so didn’t have a majority on the committees and the council that we could use to force through our decisions when necessary we became very reliant on the powers of leadership and decision making inherent in the executive system. We also had a number of strong individuals who, although inexperienced, were keen to grasp the new opportunity they had and make an impact through the role they had as portfolio-holders. But it soon became apparent that this new assertive executive had come as something of a shock to both the council officers and the Labour opposition group.
One story I heard that I believe to be true is that soon after the election the Labour group asked for a briefing from the officers on how the council actually worked. What they wanted to ask was “could the Lib Dems really do that?”. Only to be told that “yes, that is how the executive system works”.
There were also a number of examples where council officers struggled to deal with the demands of the more hands-on Liberal Democrat portfolio-holders. I think there were a number of misunderstandings and frustrations on both sides. I personally experienced a number of clashes that I think were down to different expectations of what my role as a portfolio-holder actually involved.
After a while I realised that what was behind this friction was the fact that the council had never truly adapted to the change from the committee system to the executive and scrutiny system. Yes, some bodies had changed their names, some councillors had got new titles, and reports got labelled differently but by and large the council had operated more or less as it had always done. Crucially the real decision making body had remained the group meetings of the Labour group. It was only when the Lib Dems came in and wanted to make the executive work the way it was supposed to did the cracks start to show.
I am not sure how fully my colleagues shared this analysis of the problem, but many of them shared my frustration with the difficulties we were experiencing in getting the council to work in the way we wanted it to. So I took it upon myself to work out how we could reform the decision making process of the council.
Sometime during 2005, with the help of Ros our then group support officer, I spent some time doing research into the structures and arrangements that other councils had put in place and went back and looked at the relevant legislation to understand what the requirements were. I then developed some proposals that adapted some of the models from elsewhere to what I thought would work for Luton. Finally, I put together a presentation to take to the Liberal Democrat group.
I still have that presentation and I have uploaded a version of it here if anyone is interested to see what I came up with.
The key objective I had was to improve the coordination and communication between the ruling Liberal Democrat council group and the formal bodies of the council. I wanted to replace a rather confused and ad-hoc set of arrangements with something a little more formal and structured. The main way I wanted to do this was to create two new bodies. The first of these was a “group board” designed to strengthen the leadership of the council group and to help establish a more clearly communicated Liberal Democrat political agenda. The second was a “joint board”. This was a regular meeting of the executive and the most senior council officers. It was designed to improve communication between the councillors forming the administration and the senior managers and to ensure that both sides understood what the other wanted to achieve.
Although I got agreement to go ahead with these proposals from my group I don’t think I ever got full buy-in into the ideas from them. So my scheme was never fully implemented in the way I wanted it to be. I got elements in place but regrettably the full package of my reforms was not followed through. Sadly Liberal Democrat politicians are not immune from the failing to be interested in, or to fully understand, the decision making process that they are involved in. Still, some progress was made and I do believe that a real achievement that I can claim credit for was the establishment of, for Luton, the innovative idea of the Joint Board.
Just think about that for a moment. Until I suggested it those elected members that formed the council’s political leadership never had a regular scheduled meeting with the senior management team. There was not a forum where they sat down together and discussed the critical issues of the moment. I hope I am not alone in finding that extraordinary.
So I am confident that the introduction of the joint board has helped to improve the quality of the decision making in the Council. Probably not as much as it should, or could, have done but enough to make it worthwhile.
The joint board still exists and meets today. It is now a fixed part of the council’s meetings calendar. I don’t suppose that any of the people who are members of it know, or care, that it was I who introduced it. Indeed I strongly suspect that, in the unlikely event that any of them asked “why are we doing it this way?”, the answer would come back “because we’ve always done it this way”.
This content was originally posted on my old Strange Thoughts blog.