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The Governance Review: missing the point?

a personal view from Dave Wilson

There may be few things on which Councillor John Gilbey and I agree, but one of them is the unpredictability of the May 2015 City Council elections. In that context, the current governance review seems to be missing an opportunity, since it seems to be seeking to bind the hands of a wholly new Council which will be elected in May, whose policy aims and preferred working methodology cannot be predicted. 

It is therefore important that, whatever the review eventually recommends in regards to a functioning political structure for the Council in 2015, the options reviewed now are not consigned to oblivion. And it is equally important that what is discussed now examines as many options as possible, in order that the new Council might have the chance to select its own structures in future rather than being bound to decisions taken by this outgoing administration. So, analysing and recording a wide range of options is something which the Commission should be doing, even if it recommends a more prosaic solution for immediate adoption. 

To achieve this, the review needs to be rather more wide ranging than currently seems to be the case, with speed of decision making apparently prioritised over a real exploration of options. Currently the review not only has a narrow remit which lacks imagination, but it risks failing to address the reasons why change was demanded by so many electors. As is often the case with any developmental project, there is a time once a review has started to sense check the objectives and methodology in the light of initial discussions, to ensure that the final result delivers the best outcome. There is, at present, no sign of the governance panel taking the opportunity to draw breath and change or confirm its processes and aims in that way.

Of course, there is a high degree of pragmatism required in the review, and the severe constraints imposed by finance, officer availability, and the reduction in the number of councillors all have to be taken into account. But it is worrying that question 11 of the public consultation specifically focuses on cost, which suggests that the Council has not recognised that the issues of legitimacy and shortcomings of public engagement which have driven us all to this point should initially be addressed by designing the best available solution, and only then amended if the resulting costs are simply unaffordable – a decision which ought to rest with the new Council, perhaps. 

Is there an opportunity to review and restate the objectives of the process? Could the Council be clearer about what it seeks to achieve? Could it be more open about the real constraints and their impact on the options? Of course, all this is possible. As currently configured, the Commissions tasks (set out in section 5 of the terms of reference) are simply too narrow, lack clarity in terms of overall objectives, and lack vision to address the issues raised by CDCD and many other electors. We might begin by re-shaping the objective – for example:

“to improve the quality of the Council’s decision making through improved engagement with the voters of the District, by means of a committee system of governance which demonstrates openness, clarity and accountability.”

Nothing else in the current terms of reference needs to be changed, but that much more outward looking objective would, I suggest, radically improve the results of the Commission’s work. 

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