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Public service reform and the impact on councillors

Writing for the MJ, with services increasingly being transferred to new delivery models, MV’s Ben Cahill discusses the changing role of councillors.

On the 4 May there will be local elections across the UK and for those newly elected members the role will be more challenging than ever before. This is not just because of financial cuts, but because public service reform has changed the nature of the role over the last decade. In an increasingly marketised sector, the growth of new delivery models, commissioning, and shared services have had a kaleidoscopic effect on the role of local councillor and altered the support required by members from officers.

The traditional councillor role of representing constituents, championing causes, and attending committees will continue, as will the hurly-burly of local party politics, but the days when all services were provided by in-house council staff are gone. Instead, a single council may now have many delivery methods – e.g. a long-term contract for highways, council-owned companies for adult services and school improvement, a trust for children’s services, and a shared service with another council for back office support.

Service delivery models are only ever tools for a job and outdated approaches require reform as local needs and ambitions change. For senior officers the attraction of new delivery models are improved outcomes and efficiencies. This is also true for elected members but councillors have additional criteria. For each delivery model, there may be different ownership and governance arrangements that may alter the role of councillors and their oversight of a service. How can they be confident that they are not giving away control that they need in order to fulfil their democratic mandate and responsibilities?

In our work with local authorities, we regularly support both councillors and officers in designing and establishing new delivery models. The member perspective on new delivery models is of particular interest for the senior officers we work with. Each authority differs but there are three broad themes from our experience.

Firstly, officers need to be mindful of the appetite for change and the importance of building a compelling case for reform, bearing in mind the implications for ownership, control and governance. This work can continue well into transition as the details are ironed out. Secondly, once a new vehicle is operational, senior officers have a lead role in advising members involved in decision-making and governance e.g. as director of a company board, or the member lead for contract management. Finally, officers have an important role supporting the non-executive through the process – particularly those councillors keen to ensure that an alternative delivery model is locally accountable and better meets the needs of residents. Scrutiny has a role to play in this work.

Public service reform will continue as public services make their valuable contribution to the well-being of people and places. Yet it is fair to say that, at times, public sector reform has not fully considered the impact on democratic accountability. In maximising the value of public services, it is in the best interests of senior officers to ensure that their elected members are well supported. Councillors who are able to navigate different models and develop skills in strategic governance, managing risk, and ensuring services meet need will be at a significant advantage to those that do not. Member training and support will be vital but so too will commitment to the value that elected officials can bring to public service reform.

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