Wednesday 29 October 2014

The missing component is democracy

I've been meaning to blog this article for a couple of weeks. Hannah Fearn is of the view that the abolition of council chief executives was Eric Pickles’s worst idea ever.

For starters it's entirely up to councils whether they delete the post or not. Some councils have done exactly that and are now living to regret it.

I have been quite vocal in my opposition to such roles in that if elected councilors themselves are not de-facto the executive then what is the point of having them at all? Fearn remarks that other councils that chose to delete the role, such as Rugby, have essentially turned their council leaders into quasi chief executives. "They are suddenly responsible for all the mundane parts of running the council as a business, rather than the big vision that should be the preserve – indeed, the great promise and privilege – of elected office."

One should always be wary of politicians with big visions, especially on a local level. It is not the function of councils to have big visions. We pay council tax to maintain infrastructure and manage sanitation and basic public health. These are quite mundane but essential functions and very little in local government out to be anything beyond the mundane. It is the purpose of councils to keep things running which facilitates businesses and individuals with big visions.

That we have elected individuals is to ensure that our money is spent wisely and that spending priorities reflect the wishes of the general public. As a matter of course, no local government ought to have the money for big visions in that we pay for the services we use, not to finance the vanity projects of politicians. Anything beyond that should be subject to a special levy which should really be put to the public in a referendum.

By having a chief executive, the mundanities have been delegated to overpaid unelected officials who are not held properly to account. Local vanity projects, often failures costing several millions may result in the ousting of a councillor, but it is always the CEO left sitting pretty accumulating a grossly inflated pension.

Moreover, it is often said that our government is out of touch with the every day concerns of the public. I cannot think of a better way to reinforce this dynamic than to have a public official, sitting pretty on wages few could ever dream of, who is immune from democratic accountability. One might argue that since a council can remove a CEO, that they do face such accountability but in reality, they seldom do. Were that kind of accountability working in practice, the thoroughly corrupt Bryn Parry-Jones would have been ousted a long time ago.

I am not suggesting we have directly elected CEO's because as we have seen from police commissioners, yet another elected official doesn't equate with more democracy. It means another layer of government squandering an even bigger share of funds.

It is argued that we need these CEO's because councillors lack the commercial experience to negotiate and get the best deals, which is a reasonable argument, but again, in practice we have a revolving door for these executives, many of whom have not been held to account for their previous failings in other authorities taking up new posts on larger salaries, many of whom have never worked a day in the private sector. The notion that these individuals posses such unique talents that command salaries exceeding £170k is offensive.

The town clerk has become a corporate manager while our elected representatives are kept distracted and discouraged from interfering with their work. What we need is inquisitive, talented councillors who understand that their role is to properly scrutinise expenditure and management and an an executive secretary who answers to them.

The notional reason we have to appoint these CEO's is because the councillors we get aren't very bright and couldn't hope to bring the necessary skills that a CEO might posses. This is not an unreasonable argument. To look at some of the candidates we get anything from the mildly eccentric to the criminally unhinged. But in practice, these CEOs fail to produce results much better than if it were left in the hands of elected drongos.

So you might wonder what is to be done? For starters, no local authority ought to be so big that they need executives to negotiate £100m contracts, for any local authority of that scale can only ever be of a corporate size and thus by definition unaccountable and unresponsive. Secondly, we need to address the question of why councillors are such low grade dimwits (with a few notable exceptions). That's a easy one. Being a councillor comes with very little power, very little prestige, lots of work and little recompense. Any high flier with time on their hands and an interest in politics would naturally gravitate toward London to work in central government or a think tank.

From local elections we can see that the public have rightly deduced that voting is a waste of time. Nothing ever changes because councillors have no real power. Give the position some actual power and then it becomes a prestige position, which naturally creates competition for candidacy. That can only drive up standards while improving democratic participation and accountability.

Abolishing council CEOs is a welcome reform, but it only works in conjunction with a package of other democratic reforms, which unfortunately are not within the gift of councillors. Councillors are largely democratic furniture and while local authorities are gigantic corporates, the whole process of democracy is one of managerialism, thus the few notionally democratic posts we have are largely redundant. Consequently, we get the worst of all worlds and councils are little more than regional development agencies carrying out diktats from afar and executed by corporate managers. The notion that people who pay for them should have a say is somehow lost.

Hannah Fearn's thinking is caught up in the paradigm of managerialism, and like so many in local government, has forgotten what councils are for and what the word democracy means. The very existence of council CEOs is a symptom of government retreating from public participation - and we are well rid of them.

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