CROYDON COMMENTARY: With election day a week away, Conservative councillor and member of the scrutiny committee, ROBERT WARD, offers a few ideas for any incoming Mayor
Dear New Mayor,
Congratulations on your election victory. You have an opportunity to make a difference to the lives of hundreds of thousands of your fellow residents. I wish you well. I hope you can spare a few moments of your time to consider some suggestions that I believe will help.
In my working life prior to election as a councillor, I came to value challenge and diversity of opinion. I hope you agree with me, because I think we can do a whole lot better on both.
On the evidence I have seen in four years on Croydon Council, diversity and challenge, along with openness and transparency, are thought of as all fine and dandy for an opposition party to demand, but politically naïve for a party in power. Their absence was, though, a root cause of the failure of the council to manage its finances and to deliver very poor service to residents. If we truly do not want that to happen again, we must do things differently.
There is much to be done.
Cabinet meetings have been little better than time-consuming speeches. Meetings of the full council have been similarly ineffective. Of these, I have little to say except that the changed governance model is an opportunity.
I have more to say on scrutiny, of which I have been a member for four years. It has been a main arena for public challenge outside of elections. It can and needs to improve. The main committee has six members, four from the majority party, one of whom is the chair, and two from the opposition. This makes it very difficult indeed for the ruling party to be impeded.
For a decision to be referred back to the decision-making body, two councillors from the ruling party must be persuaded. If just one, then it is a three-three split and the chair, from the ruling party, has a second, casting vote. Making the chair a member of the opposition party has been proposed, which I support. The ruling party voting in unison still has control of the committee, but not such a vice-like control as before.
A significant shortcoming that enabled the council’s failings to persist was the inability of councillors on the scrutiny committee to access diagnostic information. Delay by council officers, failure to answer the question posed, or the question just ignored, frustrated all channels, from Freedom of Information requests to scrutiny questions. Without the ability to confirm suspicions with solid evidence, a councillor, journalist, or member of the public can easily be brushed aside.
A new access to information protocol has been agreed.
Forgive my suspicion, but I have bad experience with the council and processes. The council was not short of processes, they were just ignored. Many of the personalities have changed, which is good, but longer-term I think we need more than that. We need diagnostic performance indicators.
Let me explain. Too many council performance indicators are not diagnostic, by which I mean reflective of the required performance. A performance indicator that claims 90per cent of information requests are delivered to the required time scale is useful information, but it is not diagnostic. It will not reveal if there is an ever-increasing number of unanswered requests.
It also drives the wrong behaviour. Inflating the number of trivial requests that can be quickly answered makes performance look better. Difficult requests can be ignored because they only count in the month in which they are submitted. The following month they are out of sight, out of mind.
My suggested performance indicators are the number of requests more than two weeks overdue and the number that are more than two months overdue, with the latter to be brought down quickly to zero.
This will hopefully bring us a more responsive system, but it will fail if requests are ruled out of order before they ever enter the process. For example, past requests concerning the Fairfield Halls were denied on the grounds that I did not need to know because the matter was not on the scrutiny work programme.
If that is the hurdle, which I do not agree is right, then a means needs to be found to get matters on to that work programme in a manner that cannot be blocked by the majority party, or by council officers. A possibility might be to conduct swift mini-reviews, a tool that we have used too infrequently.
Not to take up too much of your time, one last request.
Scrutiny is demanding work. It can only be effective if it is properly resourced. It needs good people sitting on committees and sufficient good officers supporting them. To retain good people, we need scrutiny to be a well-regarded, constructive part of the decision-making process, not a box to be ticked or an obstacle to be circumvented.
Best of luck.
- Robert Ward, pictured right, has been a councillor for Selsdon and Addington Village since 2018, and is standing for election again next Thursday. He is the opposition lead member on scrutiny
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