Posted by Lorna Pannett on 4 January 2017
Over the last 12 months I have spent many hours speaking to Elected Members about public realm services and about how and why change is necessary to keep services up to date. What has struck me during these sessions is the genuine concern that members have to understand the implications of their decisions, to see the evidence to support suggested change and to understand the ramifications for householders and the public purse.
The conversations that I have had have been through a range of fora from briefings to Lead Members and Portfolio Holders, to facilitated workshops for full council, cross party stakeholder groups and agony aunt style drop in sessions. I have also supported Officers in developing technical reports, briefing papers, cabinet reports and other materials for informing Members of options being considered and the business case for a recommended course of action. We have looked at topics as diverse as street cleansing priorities, quality of parks, options for refuse fleet replacement, changes to collection services, in-sourcing or contracting out services, waste treatment options and setting an overall vision for waste services.
Members are the ultimate decision makers within the Council and their support can make or break change programmes. Projects which succeed have the backing of at a minimum the Portfolio Holder and ideally of full council. This kind of support needs to be nurtured through dialogue and timely communications and through sharing of supporting evidence.
Over the years I have found that there are some key actions that officers can take to enable Members to understand the issues being considered and to obtain the support and sponsorship required to deliver changes:
Elected members have a range of backgrounds and differing levels of technical knowledge and so it is important to provide them with enough information to make key decisions. We have found that this often means that for complex decisions (or even relatively straight forward ones!) it is vital to communicate with Members early; informing them that a decision will be required in the future, that officers are gathering evidence and assessing the options available and that members will be consulted at key stages in the process. Giving members an opportunity to set out their priorities at an early stage can direct the shape of options considered and inform evaluation criteria. It can also give Officers a steer on the type of evidence that will be required and the extent to which a business case will need to be set out. It is unrealistic to inform Members at the end of a detailed business case or strategy development project and expect their unanimous unconditional support. Allowing Members to input and buy in to the process from the outset will significantly increase the chances of a change project gaining traction.
It is also vital to take into account governance structures within the Council, the role of scrutiny, timing of cabinet meetings, the need to put decisions to full Council and how any process fits with the overall Council timetable. Projects that don’t take these issues into consideration can flounder or slip when it becomes apparent that critical path decisions can’t be made in a timely manner because a decision needs to be made by full Council and delegated powers have not been set up.
It is also important to consider at what point in the process information becomes public and how that fits with the overall communications plan? It is important that significant changes don’t come out via the press in an uncoordinated fashion due to the need (and rightly so) for important decisions to be made by elected members in public meetings.
There are a number of issues which are being considered by Councils across the UK at the present time and which we are regularly asked to support Councils with. In order to support this work we have developed a series of Briefing Papers which are available for Members, or for Officers to use as part of their discussions and briefings to Members. The aim of these papers is to provide a summary of the key issues surrounding a certain topic, like the impact of austerity, contamination or extended frequency of residual waste collections. The papers highlight the key drivers for change and issues to be considered, providing evidence and case studies to show what has been implemented elsewhere, as well as providing useful links to relevant guidance and the services Ricardo Energy & Environment can provide in support to authorities wishing to enact change.
The briefing papers can be accessed, free of charge, from the links below:
If you would like to know more about the topics covered in this blog post, please feel free to contact me.