A public accounts committee for every town hall?


Could Ed Miliband’s new policy for local government energise local democracy?

The reports are at the end of this page -> summary and full. It was featured in The Guardian here. The report covers a number of things, but the bit I’m interested in is establishing local systems of scrutiny and accountability across what is a fragmented public sector.

‘That’s not a city council issue, that’s a county council issue’

This was a phrase I heard incumbent councillors explaining to members of the public while on the campaign train with Puffles. In the grand scheme of things most members of the public couldn’t care less which public body is responsible, so long as it is done well. One of the most frustrating things for the public and councillors alike is the structures and systems don’t work for them. The structures are complex and take time to understand and navigate – time that most of the public don’t have. At the same time, they prevent local councillors from taking action on issues the public would like them to take action on because it’s outside the scope of the organisation they are elected to. The comments posted here by Cambridge City Council Leader Cllr Lewis Herbert, and the Communities portfolio holder Cllr Richard Johnson explain this in more detail.

Local institutions ignoring councillors – will this become a thing of the past?

Because when it comes to ignoring council committees, some of Cambridge’s taxpayer-funded institutions have got form – as the minutes and matters arising item here show in one case. There are several others that have been ignoring correspondence from councillors and council committees. I’ve gone on public record calling such behaviour ‘a contempt for the council’ at the first full council meeting of the current administration. (See item 14/36/CNL here).

Some of the significant policy questions will be answered should Miliband’s Labour Party win the 2015 election. Page 32 of the full report (titled ‘Stronger accountability for public services’) does not state for example which institutions will be subject to local public accounts committees.  This is where civil service teams take the main principles of a policy and start working through the detail. For me, any institution receiving taxpayer funding beyond a minimum level in return for delivering a public service should be subject to such committees.

What powers should committees have? For me, I’d like to see something along the lines of public duties to co-operate in the now defunct local area agreements. The text in Part 5 Chapter 1 of the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Act 2007 indicates how such duties could be drafted into law, rather than having the need to give committees powers of summons. That said, giving committees powers of summons could be a last resort if such duties were ignored.

What would the impact be?

For a start it would force local public bodies to start working together more co-operatively. Councillors could look at a particular problem and call the responsible organisations to appear before them. The sights and sounds of the heads of organisations squabbling in front of councillors and the public is something the former have an incentive of trying to avoid. The Openness of Local Government Bodies Regulations 2014 (very recently approved by Parliament so the website needs updating!) – in particular Regulation 3 gives the general public the right to film and report such meetings using social media. (See the explanatory notes at the end of the regulations in the link above).

A combination of proposed and recent changes in the law, with digital media

The way local media and independent community reporters are using digital media to open things up is helping people find out about things happening in their area. That’s been my experience anyway.


For me, it only needs one person viewing my digital film footage who was otherwise unable to attend a meeting to make turning up and filming worthwhile. The data on downloads and views is showing an even more interesting picture. Since I started uploading lots more digital videos, more people are viewing my vimeo page. It’s not been anything spectacular on my part. In the grand scheme of things I’ve sat there holding a camera and filming. The talent is with the people in front of the camera & the makers of the tech.

Take the Cambridge Lakes meeting in my previous blogpost as an example, the data shows over 50 views in 24 hours. (The ‘downloads’ are showing ten times that figure, but I’m treating that variable with a pinch of salt). Note the context of the two clips I uploaded is ‘hyperlocal’ – they apply only to a minority of wards on one side of Cambridge. They are not ‘big news stories’ that would have people flocking to them going viral. But that’s not the intention. If the impact can get a handful of interested and motivated people involved in a local project, then that’s good enough for me.

Thinking digital

This is where Cllr Dave Briggs‘ short document Thinking Digital (which is a superb read for local democracy types) indicates how this could be done in terms of changing systems and structures. My favourite parts:

“Hire for attitude, not skills or experience. Both skills
and experience can be learned. Not so with attitude.

What are the attitudes [local government should be] looking for [in potential new staff]? Curiosity, willingness to learn, cooperation, openness.

No organisation can do everything on its own. It needs  to work with others, in a grown up way.

Many partnerships involve organisations doing what they were doing anyway, separately, then meeting up to talk about it every so often. That’s not collaborating.”

The last quotation from Cllr Briggs’ slides speak volumes to me. How often are public sector staff barred from attending cross-body meetings because they are the wrong grade? It was only the senior staff during my civil service career that had the regular cross-organisational meetings. The more frontline and junior staff (who were a hive of ideas & awareness more often than not) were stuck in the silos. Social and digital media users are breaking down those silos. Good.

But…Ed Miliband, Tristram Hunt and Education Policy

They both talk about local directors of schools’ standards – see the press release here and a BBC comment piece here. It’s always difficult for politicians to let go! I understand why Hunt’s gone for this: schools and hospitals are two of the most politicised issues in public service delivery. Therefore if as a future education secretary he’s going to get blamed for any bad stuff happening, he’ll want to have the levers of control to do something about it. Hence having local directors outside local council control and directly accountable to Whitehall. Again, the devil will be in the public policy detail. Think of the number of local council areas affected. (Over 100 with an education/schools remit). Then think of the support staff needed. Then think of the relationship with OfSted. This could get messy.

As I’ve stated before, the centralisation of education policy in recent times reflects successive administrations’ failures to deal with failings in local government. My take is central government simply does not have the organisational capacity to manage schools from the centre. Far better to strengthen local councils as institutions & give them a greater encompassing role in the delivery of public services generally rather than artificially breaking them up into little bits.


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