Democracy and governance model reviews: supporting council’s review of democratic ways of working

Posted on 11/06/2020 by Ed Hammond.

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, many councils were engaged in serious conversations about how they needed to rethink local democracy and local governance.

For some, this has been about re-engaging with their local population. For others, it has been about being clearer on the role of councillors, when some feels that executive arrangements concentrate too much power in the hands of too few individuals. For others, a dramatic shift in the council’s operating model has posed the question of how governance and decision-making has to change in consequence.

One thing that these experiences, compounded by the pandemic, has shown us is that traditional ways of working in local governance and democracy are no longer fit for purpose.  The forms of council committee meetings – full Council, Cabinet meetings, formal scrutiny meetings – continue, but they form part of a wider democratic landscape in which an increasing number of people are asking to be heard. We have to take a step back, review and rebuild to allow this to happen.

Each council will approach this in different ways – internal reviews through to large-scale large-scale democracy reviews to consider and take action on this need. Our experience shows that bringing in our support enhances the outcomes in terms of bringing significant governance expertise and community engagement, experience of operating in difficult and senitive contexts and additional capacity to support the design, delivery and implementation of the review.  

In the past few years we have been instrumental in providing support in a number of councils – in the coming weeks we will be posting more online to reflect on those experiences. We are bringing that work to bear in offering our assistance to councils considering undertaking their own reviews.

We can support in three main areas:

Planning.

    • The scope. Getting the terms of reference and scope for a review “right” is challenging. The council will have its own sense of what it wants to achieve , but will those expectations match those of the public and all members? Getting scope and terms of reference right is pivotal to the success of a review like this, and external help in doing so may help significantly;
    • Independent, or internal? The “gold standard” approach is probably to appoint an independent commission or at least an independent chair. But some – especially councillors – may feel that a review of local democracy ought to be led by people who are democratically elected. We can help to understand the pros and cons of each approach – based on the terms of reference agreed – and to proceed with confidence;
    • Method. There are a huge number of ways to proceed. We will help with questions around how will those conducting the review gather and consider evidence from a range of audiences and sources? What will the timescale be, and how will final recommendations be drafted and signed off? We can help with all these issues.

Assurance.

CfPS can assist, as a review progresses, in providing assurance and commentary on evidence and material submitted to a commission or review panel or committee. We can bring our expertise to bear in reviewing documents, producing short reports which provide those carrying out the review with assistance in addressing technical points, or in drawing evidence from across the UK and overseas. CfPS can provide advice and guidance to officers directly supporting the review, and to members of the commission or review panel directly.

Secretariat support.

Where a review is being carried out independently, where capacity doesn’t exist within the organisation or where our expertise might be thought especially useful in helping to deliver a high quality product, we can provide a full secretariat service. This includes carrying out research, liaising with members of a panel and working closely alongside a chair, organising formal meetings, inviting witnesses, taking minutes, organising public events (usually alongside a partner organisation), report and recommendation drafting and communications planning. The amount of effort and work involved in delivering a comprehensive review of this kind can be substantial, and you may be reassured of the extra capacity and skills that our involvement can bring.

In the next week or so we will be uploading some practical examples of our recent work in this field. In the meantime, we’d like to invite you to get in touch at info@cfps.org.uk if this kind of work is something you’re planning and envisaging in the coming months.

About the Author: Ed Hammond

Ed leads CfPS's work on devolution, transformation and on support to councils and other public bodies on governance and accountability.