Catherine’s blog on governance and scrutiny (26th September 2013) was spot-on in highlighting the complexities and difficulties associated with achieving real public accountability in the modern public services world. The debate in local government seems stuck on how many local authorities the Williams Commission will recommend and whether this will lead to greater efficiency. Hopefully, it will move on to what it all means in practice after the Commission publishes but even then the numbers game will dominate proceedings.
Anticipation of the Commission’s recommendations have caused some to abandon thinking about the need to continue with what is possibly Welsh Government’s central policy stream, namely collaboration by public service agencies. Yet it is wrong to assume that a reduced number of local authorities will be a self-sufficient answer to current problems or that we can suspend collaborative initiatives whilst waiting for local government reorganisation. Implementation of LGR will require legislation which takes time and the 1974 and 1996 experiences suggest political horse trading will go on up to the last minute.
So, collaboration will remain important and this has continuing implications for governance and scrutiny. Research I undertook recently on attempts to achieve cross authority integration of social services which led to new guidance for authorities http://www.ssiacymru.org.uk/home.php?page_id=7911 proved how difficult it was, not least for the governance and joint scrutiny aspects. The models are out there – joint committees, special purpose vehicles etc., but each carries numerous risks for decision-making, sovereignty and accountability which are the real tests of good collaborative governance and scrutiny. Too often, discussions start with the form (the governance model) rather than the function which is the shared vision and purpose of the collaboration itself. It’s even more complex when other sector agencies are involved and it’s important to remember that joint scrutiny needs its own secure governance. For example, it’s illogical to have joint governance and separate scrutiny – they must mirror each other.
Governance and scrutiny are not only about political structures. If front line workers are unsure about the parameters of their decision making powers, governance is faulty. Similarly, the public must expect accountability to be evident at the executive as well as political levels. The governance and scrutiny threads must be strong through the vertical lines of the single organisation and horizontally across collaborating organisations. Achieving this needs attention to a whole range of public service issues – political, organisational, constitutional, legal, financial, managerial and operational. Underestimate these and you run the risk of creating models which tick the structure boxes but fail to recognise that collaboration is much more than an extension of partnership working. It’s difficult territory demanding strong shared leadership and beliefs and a constant eye on what the public expects and deserves.
Contributed by Tony Garthwaite, now Senior Research Fellow, WIHSC, University of South Wales. Tony was a former Executive Director at Bridgend County Borough Council, http://wihsc.southwales.ac.uk/staff/TonyGarthwaite/