Lewisham Council’s Democracy Review

Lewisham Council, are looking at their constitution to see if they make it more democratic. They are running a consultation  which started in 2018 and is planned to finish and I propose to submit some evidence. I thought I understood how it worked, but I don’t; here are my notes. 

  1. https://consultation.lewisham.gov.uk/corporate-policy-and-governance/local-democracy-review/

which took me to these sites

  1. https://www.lewisham.gov.uk/mayorandcouncil/aboutthecouncil/how-council-is-run/Pages/Our-constitution.aspx
  2. https://lewisham.gov.uk/mayorandcouncil/aboutthecouncil/how-council-is-run/our-constitution, they moved it.
  3. https://www.lgiu.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2014/12/Changing-to-a-committee-system-in-a-new-era.pdf
  4. Key decisions and powers of call-in, about the right for councillors sitting on scrutiny committees to delay the implementation of a decision which has been made (but has not yet been implemented) to allow a committee to consider the decision, by the Centre for Public Scrutiny.
  5. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Local_government_in_England
  6. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Executive_arrangements
  7. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Directly_elected_mayors_in_England_and_Wales

One thing that’s missing is a legislative history.

  1. Local Govt Act 2000, at legislation.gov.uk
  2. Localism Act 2011, same site, or at wikipedia

I need to consider this,

  1. Do councillors have to follow the advice of
    officers in taking planning decisions?
    , Jan 2012 by the HoC Library; this is dated before the Localism Act.
  2. Distortions and deceptions in strategic decisions, from the McKinsey Quarterly, recommends reviewing the second best option to eliminate bias.

Here are the council documents,

  1. http://councilmeetings.lewisham.gov.uk/documents/s63673/Local%20Democracy%20Review%20draft%20report.pdf, or Local Democracy Review draft report (my mirror), this claims to be the document looked at by the Council, anyway that’s how I found it; it’s incomplete
  2. http://councilmeetings.lewisham.gov.uk/mgAi.aspx?ID=22241#mgDocuments, the rest of the documents
  3. Agenda & Decisions, Mayor and Cabinet March 27th, includes links to other documents.

ooOOOoo

I have now read the report and here is my précis, summary, first thoughts.

Does this report challenge the status quo? I think not and this is at the heart of the problem. There are certainly no SMART proposals.

Missing the Point on Power

On Page 19, They say, “Clearer and more engaging ways should be explored for explaining how the Council works and the roles and responsibilities of councillors and officers.”

To which I reply, “The power and responsibilities between councillors, council and officers needs to be reviewed to maximise democratic control.”

Also on Page 26, they say, “Respect and mutual appreciation for the distinct roles of officers and members in decision making needs to be reinforced.”  I suspect that the officers and councillors have a different view as what that clarity entails.  In particular their opposition to more flexible recommendations from the Planning Department, as proposed by me, illustrates an interesting approach to democratic accountability. This issue of obtaining alternative advice seems crucial to me; if officers can veto this, then Councillors’ power is significantly diminished. Some officers seem to behave as is their first word is the last word.

Were the working party advised that the council might vary the Law by applying for a variance under the Localism Act or even by commissioning private legislation? I think probably not?

On power & decision making

The recommendations on P31 relate to Mayor/Cabinet vs. Overview and Scrutiny, I paraphrase,

  1. Recognizes the exclusion of the backbench and aspires to share Mayor’s power with full council.
  2. Audit external appointments (of Councillors) for appropriateness, relevance, accountability, clarity and transparency
  3. O&S should be revamped, more for less (in terms of time), to separate decision scrutiny from policy development, use task & finish groups pre decision, this recommendation should acted upon as far as legally possible prior to implementation in 2020.
  4. Use councillor champions or single councillor commissions to “to ensure a plethora of ways in which councillors can lead the focus of the Council.”

I have paraphrased, the report itself is so typical of the language used, very tentative and certainly not SMART. I particularly love the use of the phrase “task & finish” which it would seem is a public sector scrutiny jargon phrase.

I feel that the first proposal is good, but while the council takes the view that it won’t use the Localism Act, private Legislation or revert to a more collegiate form of governance which would require a referendum, I don’t know how far they might in practice be able to go.

The audit is good, it should be public, and the fees earned should be disclosed.

Let’s see how far we can take the proposals around more effective scrutiny especially given the fact that Scrutiny can be and usually is ignored. It might be best if it concentrated on making sure they do what they say, and engaging before decisions are taken or on a programme view, like the Housing Select did on housing ownership models and council policy. Such overview reviews could feed into the Council Policy statements which create a context

I think the Council Champions might be a good idea; I’d like to see a review on their current effectiveness. It would be particularly good at the moment when there is no opposition because it weakens the Majority Group/Executive’s control of the Agenda.

The Working Party has recommended that the Council introduce a Term Limit for the Mayor.

They recommend that a wider range of topics that are not part of any party programme should be debated at Full Council with the absence of the whip … interesting, contrary to Party rules but should be encouraged, possible should be informed by COBIT innovation management process practice.

There’s a recommendation that they reintroduce a People’s Panel. I wonder what with this & Neighbourhood assemblies when people will begin to ask what the Councillors are doing since they are the representatives of the electorate.

Communication

Much of the early part of the report looks at citizen communication which means the web site. (Lewisham & Southwark have an internet usage rate of above 92.5%, although it has dropped over the last measured year). On  page 16 it talks about its web site and says it needs to be “improved, comprehensive and more joined-up”. This is probably true of every site in the world. Specifically, I’d argue that none of the improvement objectives are SMART.

While they talk of an open data promise in the report, the following aspects are not mentioned, some should be.

  1. The document object model and an api access model should be published so that 3rd parties can enhance the site at a higher level of technology delivery than the data level. The use of semantic web tagging should be investigated to see if this improved the site’s search capability.
  2. The web site needs to be stream/feed orientated again so users and developers can enhance their experience. This would allow users to set alerts on pages changing.
  3. The council’s activities should be published in open or common calendar formats.
  4. Permalinks should be guaranteed, and the site should be archived in the internet archive aka he wayback machine.
  5. The council should use .pdf standards that permit internal document navigation and can be annotated using Adobe or other .pdf annotation tools.
  6. The council should host a petition site so that it can understand people’s feedback.
  7. They talk of using video but video is a broadcast technology, it is one way communication, it should be used with care as responding to video is difficult. (However, I am informed that Council meetings are captured on Video; these should be made available.)
  8. The comments on Infographics is equally inane; the key to a good use of pictures is semantic content, if it works they should of course be used.

There’s a nonsense paragraph about using clear language, on reports, in principle what they say is in the right direction put incredibly tentative and often failing to meet its own goals of clarity.

e.g. “Underpinning the development of the improved style guide to improve the accessibility of reports, consideration should be given to utilising appropriate tools such as the Flesch Reading Ease Readability Formula, and also to seeking appropriate support and accreditations such as those offered by the Plain English Campaign and the British Dyslexia Association.”

This is not exactly emphatic, as Yoda would say, “Don’t try! Do!”

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