Governance review: structures or cultures?

Maggie Chapman ponders the City Council’s governance review

Over the course of August the Council is changing the way it does things.  Green bins with waste for landfill will only be collected every two weeks and there will be a step-up in efforts to recycle.

And then there’s the governance review, set in motion soon after the election back in May.

Of the two I have no doubt which will generate most emails and phone calls.  The changes to waste collection are certainly the right direction of travel but success will lie in how well it is implemented and how well the Council responds to inevitable teething problems.

It is hard to see the governance review generating quite so many headlines.  I mean, it’s a governance review, isn’t it?

Nevertheless, it is a critical early step by the still-new Council. Nothing more unites the parties in the City Chambers than a recognition of the need to rebuild the reputation of the Council which, over the years, has lost the trust of many people in the city.  It is seen as a remote institution, deaf to dissenting voices and to the talents of the city as a whole.  A “we know best” culture is how Greens have described it.

The governance review, which comes to full Council on 23 August, is ostensibly a major step on the way to shifting that.  It says the right things and articulates the right principles – improving transparency and scrutiny; building consensus; involving the wider city much earlier in decision-making. Indeed, in reviewing the Green submission to the review, made earlier this week, I see there is an awful lot we have welcomed.

But it is difficult to see how it is up to the task of achieving its ambitious aims.  Aside from the new idea of a petitions committee (which the Greens pushed for in the last term and is also in the Green manifesto) there is little explicit which reaches out to Edinburgh as a whole.  Better involvement of stake-holders is, I fear, not much more than wishful thinking at this stage.

On the other hand, the proposal to create an all-powerful Policy and Finance Committee which would be the hub of almost all decision-making is potentially a narrowing of the base on which decisions are made, particularly when a disproportionate number of places are mooted for Administration councillors.  Squeezing out opposition voices is an unusual way of seeking to improve consensus…..  And it is probably backbench SNP or Labour councillors who should be particularly fearful of being marginalised.

The Green submission suggests some ways in which the proposed centralised structure could be improved – and we have had an indication that these thoughts will be received favourably.  But more fundamentally we believe that the starting point is wrong and that many of the objectives of the review could be achieved through a more distributed form of decision-making.

Overall though, structures are just structures.  Culture is what defines an organisation and conditions how it is perceived.  Where is the impetus for culture change coming from?