Robert Ward: Applying the principles of Sherlock Holmes to scrutinise Croydon Council

16 Jul

Cllr Robert Ward represents Selsdon and Addington Village Ward on Croydon Council.

As opposition lead on Croydon Council scrutiny, there have been times in the last three years when I wished for the deductive skills of Sherlock Holmes. I suspect, though, that even he would have been challenged to figure out the extent of the shortcomings of Croydon Council. Without access to information, we are all helpless.

At first sight, the enhanced powers of scrutiny members to access information should have solved the case without the need ever to knock on the door of 221b Baker Street at dead of night. The dogged but unimaginative Inspector Lestrade would have cracked the case by lunchtime. Why did it take so long for the truth to come out?

There is no simple answer, but restricted access to information is one reason. According to the Statutory Guidance on Overview and Scrutiny in Local and Combined Authorities “the prevailing organisational culture, behaviours and attitudes of an authority will largely determine whether its scrutiny function succeeds or fails”. A culture of secrecy sets scrutiny up for failure. Breaking down secrecy barriers is crucial to turning things around.

More from the Statutory Guidance:

“Scrutiny members should have access to a regularly available source of key information about the management of the authority”.

That such information must exist should not be a matter of debate. An administration cannot pretend to be in control of an organisation without it. The only question is whether they are willing to share it.

Yet a dashboard of diagnostic data is ineffective without contextual knowledge. Councillors need help to make sense of what they are looking at. Without understanding, it is all too easy for councillors to make vague, unfocussed requests and for officers then to dismiss them as time-wasting or politically motivated fishing exercises. The truth may be a lack of understanding by the councillors, or a handy excuse for officers unwilling to share. What, after all, is wrong with a fishing exercise when it is fishy behaviour that you are trying to catch?

The upside for officers of well-informed councillors is reduced effort. Well-framed questions are a lot easier to answer. Back to the Statutory Guidance: “Authorities should consider whether seeking clarification from the information requester could help better target the request” and “Officers should speak to scrutiny members to ensure they understand the reasons why information is needed”. The latter should not be to seek out reasons for refusal, but to give a better answer.

Sherlock Holmes’ first literary case in Croydon was a murder in Upper Norwood. In The Sign of the Four there is the famous quote that when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth. Councillors are not world-renowned, albeit imaginary detectives. They should not have to submit a succession of questions to eliminate all other possible options to get to the truth.

Questions clearly expressed should elicit a response in plain English. It is for officers to figure out how to give an informative and diagnostic answer, not for councillors to decode answers written in elliptical officer-speak or spend hours searching for gaps. Back to the Statutory Guidance: Authorities should “ensure the information is supplied in a format appropriate to the recipient’s needs”.

Unlike the characters in Conan Doyle’s books, several of which were written during the years he lived in Croydon, the Council “should adopt a default position of sharing the information they hold, on request, with scrutiny committee members”. What is more, even if information cannot be shared publicly, the Council “should give serious consideration to whether that information could be shared in closed session”.

But enough of the Statutory Guidance – I recommend you read it for yourself; here is my quick assessment guide of your access to information service:

  • Do you have a dashboard with comparative performance data?
  • Is there a presumption that requested information will be provided?
  • Is provision as a confidential item always considered for what cannot be shared publicly?
  • Do councillors know how a request should be made and to whom?
  • Are there time limits on provision of responses?
  • Is performance against those time limits monitored and published at least annually?
  • Is there an appeal process for refusals?
  • Are written reasons for refusal provided to the full committee, in public, on request?

At a more emotional level, if the response to information requests leaves you feeling like you are dealing with Professor Moriarty, you have a problem.

Robert Ward: The three tests to see if your council is on the path to becoming another Croydon

22 Jun

Cllr Robert Ward represents Selsdon and Addington Village Ward on Croydon Council.

A study by management guru, Jim Collins, concluded that you start off on the path to greatness by confronting the brutal facts of the organisation. The facts about Croydon Council are as brutal as it gets. There is a bookshelf full of reports, still being added to, following the Section 114 Notice, effectively declaring its bankruptcy. From the Non-statutory Review the Council is:

“Unfamiliar with taking and implementing difficult financial decisions and as a consequence it has engendered a culture of poor budget management and poor financial control.”

The Council’s failings were attributed to “poor leadership and poor management over a number of years.” The Report in the Public Interest euphemistically cited a “collective corporate blindness.”

To declare an interest, I was for the last three years, and am, the opposition Scrutiny lead. My response to the bankruptcy, like that of Council employees and Croydon residents, was anger and disbelief that the situation was so bad. My feelings had an extra edge because throughout the last three years I believed the Council was dysfunctional. I made those views known, but at the end of the day I did not take the crucial step of voting to refer decisions back for reconsideration.

As has emerged since the issuing of the Section 114 Notice, reality was worse than I had imagined. Dipping again into management-speak, if successful project management produces “no surprises”, each report on the Council’s failure has regularly produced not just surprises, but jaw droppers. The organisation appears to have had few business processes and did not take seriously those it had.

The mess was covered up by delay, obfuscation, and secrecy. That is a toxic mix, but on top of that, the Regina Road scandal revealed that far from being delivered a service, the council’s housing tenants were treated with contempt. Getting out of this mess is not going to be quick or easy, because it is not about easily fixable issues, it is about culture.

I dislike the use of ‘culture’ to describe a failing organisation. It puts a veneer of respectability around what is really a set of very bad habits. Contempt for customers, failure to follow proper processes, misleading those who try to find out what is going on, should not be dignified as ‘culture’. Whatever you call it, this is not something that can be changed quickly. To quote another management guru, culture eats strategy for lunch.

We now have the clarity of hindsight. The stock phrase is that we must learn lessons so that this never happens again. My personal view is that we need to re-think the approach to scrutiny, which is often expressed as that of a ‘critical friend’. That sounds very comfortable, but what do you do if your friend is an alcoholic? How long do you put up with denial or the faux outrage of “how dare you suggest I’ve been drinking”? How often do you give them the benefit of the doubt before calling the cops as they drive off, again, in an inebriated state?

For the moment may I offer fellow councillors three diagnostic tests.

Test 1 – The Freedom of Iinformation test

Quick and easy, put in a couple of Freedom of Information requests; I recommend using whatdotheyknow.com. Ask for simple things that every Council should have. Make sure you know what one looks like. If it comes back immediately, which it should, then you are in good shape. If nothing happens, or you get a document that is not a valid response then you have two indications – your FoI process does not work, and the council may not have a policy that it should have. Start to worry.

Test 2 – The complaints process test

Follow a few legitimate complaints. Complexity and delay are the failing council’s weapon of choice. A high proportion of residents, and councillors, can be relied upon to give up their complaint in the face of failure to respond and muddle. If you do not see a working complaints process, worry more.

Test 3 – The show-me test

Pick a matter of some importance, say, a significant decision on service delivery. The Council report will claim data gathering, analysis and evaluation of options, but typically show none of this. The options presented are typically what the council wants to do and the status quo, predetermined as inadequate. Ask for the analysis. Research what good looks like. I recommend the six elements of decision quality. If you are refused or get an inadequate response (including ‘commerciality’ or lack of officer time), start to worry a lot.

If your Council fails all three of these tests, my recommendation is that if you are in opposition, start voting against the administration; if you are in power, start losing sleep.