Tuesday 22 October 2013

Barnet residents - Who will really benefit from a change in the governance system?

Last night was the Constitution Ethics and Probity Committee a rather grandiose title for a navel gazing talking shop. One of the key agenda items was the proposed change to the governance system. "Cabinet bad committee good" seems to be the mantra but I am suspicious of their motives. The Council have proposed a new committee system which seems exceptionally complex and impenetrable. It will keep residents in the dark but maybe that is just the way that Councillors and officers like it. I spoke to the meeting but I got the impression that the decisions are made, the mindset fixed. There will be a public consultation meeting on 20th November 7pm at Hendon Town Hall so please try and get along if you can. If your voice isn't heard they will assume what they are doing has everyone's agreement. PLEASE NOTE. Yet again the council requires you to register in advance if you wish to attend this public meeting. Click on this link to register.
Set out below is my address to the committee:

"You set out on this review with four key principles in mind:
  •       Transparency;
  •          Accountability
  •          Inclusivity and engagement and
  •          Durability and flexibility

  You have before you a proposed structure with 18 committees, 6 subcommittees, 4 boards and a panel. That is a perfect recipe for obfuscation, deniability, exclusivity. I also suspect that with Barnet’s population rising to around 400,000 before this system can be changed again, it will also lack durability.

92% of citizen panel respondents have not attended any council meeting in the last 12 months and only 7% fully understand how the governance arrangements work. Shockingly 68% of respondents don’t even know who their councillor is. That suggests to me you have a major problem and from what I can see it is a problem you have either chosen to ignore or completely failed to recognise. The proposed structure will simply make the governance landscape even more confusing and inaccessible to the public. Based on the feedback I have received the council is body that imposes and dictates to residents not something which is there to listen and respond to residents. But I believe there is an alternative.

You have developed a system where committees are differentiated by function but it appears  that no consideration has been given to differentiation by location. What I mean by that is bringing the committee system closer to the people who it is there to represent and creating a structure that actively encourages engagement between councillors and the electorate. For example you could have developed a structure where a very limited number of strategic or statutory matters are considered at an authority level with as many other matters as possible dealt with at a local level, either groups of wards or along parliamentary constituency boundaries. Local decisions could be dealt with at a local level including planning and licensing with local councillors getting much more involved. By making issues more relevant for local people at a local level that should encourage increased engagement. Budgets could be devolved giving a much greater financial incentive for local people to get  involved with the way their council is run.  It would certainly make local councillors much more accountable. The views and recommendations from each local committee could then be integrated back into the council to give a strategic view and assist in clear decision making. That integration could be in the proposed Policy and Resources committee or some other strategic committee run by representatives of the local committees.

I know that this is the first stage in the process and that further consultation will take place but you are not giving people a real choice because you haven’t identified the all the options and therefore any views will be formulated within a framework that has already been set by you.

Ultimately the question is what is the change in governance system really for? Is it to make the system more efficient. Probably not because for all its failings the cabinet system is efficient. Is it to give every councillor a job, probably because with so many committees, sub committees, panels and boards I’m sure every one of the 63 councillors will have a committee role. Will it make the council more transparent or encourage engagement – definitely not.

As the saying goes plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose, and that is what you are presenting us with tonight, change without really changing anything. Please consider a much more local structure as one of the options".


  1. Change will only come when we have a true Leader, not the current "leader" as I call him (he is perfectly affable but not obviously effective) who has some aspirations, sadly Richard's are rather low.

    If you mixed the best bits of Brian Coleman (he has the drive to get things done but sadly often the wrong things) with the best bits of Richard Cornelius (he is thoughtful and polite) you would have a better leader. Wierd thought for a Tuesday morning but there it is.

    Must go now. I have a parking ticket appeal to deal with at PATAS.

  2. Before retirement, I was a reasonably senior player in the world of governance - I headed an Internal Audit department for a Government Department. I used to give these two bits of advice to colleagues - first, "If it ain't simple, it ain't sustainable" - if you look at any system/process/machine/building etc that has stood the test of time, it has simplicity at its heart; the second point followed from the first, I advised auditors always to be aware of "devices" and over complications - because they are very often hiding cock-ups or worse.

    The lack of simplicity and straightforwardness in Barnet Council's systems, structures and governance arrangements is worrying.

  3. MickeyN you are absolutely right. On your second point I am concerned that they have made the system over complicated specifically to keep the system as opaque as possible and avoid detailed scrutiny.