Fit to govern?


  • Communities

It may seem an obvious point, but governance and politics are important both in themselves and in their effects. There is substantial evidence that good governance is an important variable in the economic growth. And, as there is also evidence linking good governance to public well-being, it is a reasonable hypothesis that in two countries or localities with similar levels of aggregate prosperity and growth, life will be better in the better governed place.

Three thoughts flow from this simple insight. First, it should be a matter of great and growing concern that our political parties – which still collectively act as a closed shop controlling entry into democratic office – are so narrow, self-indulgent and dogmatic. At a time when the public craves authentic and responsible leadership, at all three major party conferences we see politicians pandering to party opinion. Even though the public in general is not paying much attention, they can surely sense the disturbing power of sectional interests at these increasingly depressing events.

Second, we need a fresh debate about the nature of democratic accountability. In the last week I have seen examples of failure and innovation. The former was the ugly attempt to blame the West Coast mail line fiasco on middle ranking civic servants. The argument that ministers cannot be expected to second guess the detailed work of officials is weak both in this specific case and generally. Surely, when ministers had been repeatedly asked to double check the bid process and calculations, their failure for so long to require due diligence was negligent. More generally, ministers should – like any organisational leader – be held accountable for the capacity of their institution. This Government has not been shy to sack or redeploy senior civil servants. Transport ministers had the opportunity to discover and address failings in departmental skills and processes and they should take responsibility for the consequences of wasting that opportunity.

The innovation emerged from a report the RSA has prepared for Oldham Council. As part of the local authority’s commitment to being a co-operative council it is grasping the nettle of councillors’ roles, responsibilities and competencies. Elected members will be given greater support in their role as community leaders but only if they demonstrate a commitment to take this role seriously by, for example, producing a Councillor report each year and attending courses designed to strengthen their skills. Elected politicians tend to argue that being voted in is itself evidence of their credibility and competence, so this explicit recognition that election is a necessary but not sufficient basis for legitimacy is important.  Commenting on this aspect of the draft RSA report for Oldham I made what I thought was a bold suggestion: ‘surely it would be in keeping with this enhanced idea of accountability that the Council leader himself be subject to some kind of 360% appraisal by colleagues, officers and other civic leaders?’. In answer I got this reply:

‘Great minds must think alike because that's exactly what Cllr Jim McMahon [Oldham’s leader] is going to do next week! He will get feedback on his role from senior politicians in Oldham (Cllrs, other leaders in Greater Manchester and MPs), senior managers in Oldham and Greater Manchester and business/voluntary and community groups across the borough. This will be up to 30 people giving confidential feedback on his role as leader, areas of success so far and areas for improvement. In fact the whole cabinet is going to do the same’ 

Next time we hear the mixture of condemnation and condescension national politicians tend to direct to local government imagine for a moment a cabinet minister subjecting himself to this kind of scrutiny.

Third, it is worth exploring more deeply the question of governance capacity and its relationship to good policy and good outcomes. I had a fascinating meeting this morning with David Robinson from Community Links. He and a panel of third sector thinkers have exploring the idea of triple dividend (better outcomes, better use of money, economic growth) which comes from a greater focus on preventing social problems rather than simply dealing with their consequences.

The problem is that we have been saying these things for years; every Government has its own solutions (for this one it is Community Budgets and Social Impact Bonds) yet, aggregately, the desired shift from treating symptoms to addressing causes remains elusive. My suggestion to David is that his work needs to be allied with an analysis of the underlying issues of capacity. So in relation to governance, we might assess levels of openness, respect and trust to get a picture of current governance capacity. Other critical local variables might be levels of inter-agency collaboration, civic engagement, levels of social innovation and enterprise. The project I am envisaging would analyse the key factors influencing the medium term capacity of places to solve problems. My own starting point would be the framework I elaborated in my annual lecture.

There is much talk of what is needed to sort public finances and to get economic growth back on track, but if we assume public sector austerity and modest growth for a generation, it is vital to understand, analyse and shape the factors which will determine why some places will become better despite the challenges while others will not. Quality of governance is undoubtedly one of those factors.

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