Monday 30 June 2014

Council governance review - some more food for thought

If the WLGA panel which is about to start looking at governance in Carmarthenshire is going to do a thorough job, it will certainly have its work cut out gathering evidence and talking to "key partners and stakeholders" over the next month.

Following on from the letter written by Caebrwyn and Cneifiwr which concentrated on the council's constitution, here is some more food for thought for Mr Byron Davies and his colleagues.

Some of Carmarthenshire's failings can be put down to the cabinet system of local government which concentrates power in a very few hands, and the poor calibre of some of the councillors themselves. No amount of "member development" and training courses can turn those sows' ears into silk purses.

These problems are not unique to Carmarthenshire, but apply to local government across Wales.

What is unusual about Carmarthenshire, however, is that these factors have combined with the extreme longevity of a few key players at the top of the council. The chief executive, some of his hand-picked team of senior officers and some key members of the cabinet (known in Carmarthenshire as the Executive Board) have been running the council for the best part of 15 years.

Stability is a good thing, and so too sometimes is having people at the top who know, trust and even like each other, but the flip side of that coin can be an arrogant and self-perpetuating oligarchy which is never wrong, and where cronyism takes root.

All of that is outside the remit of the review panel, but the symptoms of it are not.

So here are some more areas for the panel to consider.

The Appointments Process

Last year the process of appointing a new technical services director was derailed by one senior councillor after pressure was brought to bear from outside the cross-party committee responsible for making the appointment. This not only wasted a lot of time and money, but constituted gross interference in the democratic process.

It was not the first time that questions have been raised about the appointment of senior officers. On a previous occasion the normal procedures were bypassed and an acting director of education was brought in through the back door.

The current head of administration and law has been in post now for several years in an acting capacity, and councillors have not been given an opportunity to decide for themselves who should occupy this very important role.

With a large proportion of the council's senior officers about to go into retirement, it is vital that the appointments process is cleaned up. It is for elected councillors to decide who to appoint to these posts, and the process is meant to ensure not only that the best candidate gets the job, but also that senior officers enjoy cross-party support and don't owe their jobs to particular individuals or factions.

The Monitoring Officer

In addition to other responsibilities, the Head of Administration and Law is also the council's Monitoring Officer. Monitoring officers have a number of duties, including overseeing the constitution (see previous post for what has gone wrong there) and ensuring that the actions and decisions of the council comply with the law.

The role of Monitoring Officer is one of the few statutory posts in local government, the others being head of paid service or chief executive, and chief financial officer. By law, the chief executive and monitoring officer cannot be the same person, the idea being that having a separate monitoring officer will ensure that there are checks and balances in place to prevent abuse of power.

When you have an acting head of administration and law and monitoring officer who has not been through the normal appointments process and who reports to and depends on the chief executive for their next pay cheque, you have to wonder how sound those checks and balances really are.

There have been countless disputes about the constitution and standing orders over the last few years. On how many occasions has the Monitoring Officer come down with a ruling which does not favour the executive over backbench and opposition councillors? Answer: none.

Carmarthenshire is not unique in this either (see Pembrokeshire), but by accident or design we have ended up with a monitoring officer who, fairly or unfairly, is widely perceived to be little more than a legal fixer for the boss.

The closest this arrangement came to being upset was the recent scandal over the pension and libel indemnity payments to the chief executive. These were branded unlawful by the Wales Audit Office, and the Monitoring Officer was very closely involved in both.

Bearing in mind that one of the monitoring officer's primary duties is to ensure that the council acts within the law, acceptance of the WAO's findings would have had very serious consequences for the monitoring officer and others, and so Carmarthenshire County Council refused to acknowledge that the payments were unlawful, and it went to great lengths, and huge expense, to avoid accepting that what it did was contrary to law.

In what looks for all the world like political fudge, the WLGA "will not consider the specific issues of the WAO's recent Public Interest Reports", but they will "form part of the evidence base".

Press and PR

One area of the council's activities which has repeatedly come under fire is its press office. There have been complaints about its behaviour and partisan output for years. These include attacks on opposition politicians and others outside the council, and attempts to bully and bludgeon newspapers into refraining from criticism of the council. All are well documented, and not once has any action been taken to discipline the culprits.

During the recent scandals over the unlawful pension and libel indemnity payments, the press office launched a string of attacks on the integrity of the Wales Audit Office itself. Again, no action has been taken.

The press office is in reality nothing more than the public manifestation of the image-obsessed, never-wrong culture which has developed at the top of the council.

It is no coincidence that Carmarthenshire has ended up with a chief executive who has by far the highest media profile of any local authority boss in Wales. The chief executive of Ceredigion, Bronwen Morgan, may not be loved and admired by the public, but then outside the council hardly anyone has ever heard of her.

One result of the obsession with the media is that Mr James has appeared to cross the line which separates civil servants from politicians. And that in turn has undermined the integrity of both senior officers and the council itself.


Social services is the most challenging and difficult part of the council's responsibilities. It employs large numbers of people and is responsible for the welfare of many more. There is no doubt that the overwhelming majority of staff are hard working and dedicated, but in any operation of this size things will sometimes go wrong.

We all know how badly things can go wrong from other local authorities, and that makes it all the more important that there is a culture and robust processes in place to ensure that whistleblowers can come forward.

In recent years there have been three known cases of whistleblowers, and all three have ended up being dragged through disciplinary procedures, employment tribunals or had to take their cases to the Ombudsman.

What message does that send to staff who witness abuse, bullying and criminality? Doing the right thing all too often means that you will have a very heavy price to pay.

The best known of the whistleblower cases involves Delyth Jenkins, whose story has been documented extensively on this blog and Carmarthenshire Planning. It is hard for anyone who reads the material, and most particularly the press reports and council's own published meeting minutes, not to conclude that the main priority of some of the senior officers and councillors involved was PR management.

Delyth was treated appallingly badly, and her life nearly destroyed. Nobody was prosecuted, and nearly all of those involved directly or in management were later rewarded with promotions.

And that brings us back full circle to the difference between effective management and leadership and an oligarchy whose main objectives are self-preservation and protecting their image.


Anonymous said...

Councillors have allowed a separate institution to develop, an institution composed of senior officers and members of the executive board. When attacked, the first response of this institution is to protect itself. That is a normal response. The urgent issue seems to be how to obtain a majority in favour of reversing harmful changes to the constitution,changes which increased the autonomy of this separate institution, when we may not have elections for another 4 years.

Anonymous said...

It seems that there are big changes ahead where whistleblowers are concerned.
The Government has responded to the whistleblowing framework/ Call for evidence. Really pleased something is finally being done in this area. Well overdue.

Anonymous said...

Last post was written by me but something is still blocking me from putting my name in.

Delyth Jenkins