Five steps to get West Sussex County Council functioning again

So, Louise Goldsmith has resigned as Leader of West Sussex County Council following a run of appalling independent reviews of performance at the authority and a little over a year after I called for her to go.

While we have not yet seen the latest report which finished her off, the summary presented in the Local Government Chronical certainly reflects my experience of four years as a councillor at the council, as I know it does for many who have worked with West Sussex over recent years (although, to be fair the problems at the authority go way back before Louise became leader).

Despite one local chief executive suggesting to me a few years back that the only way to fix West Sussex was to shut it down and start again, we are where we are and the departures of Louise and Nathan does give the council the chance to at least start giving West Sussex the chance to stop being a massively underperforming authority. Here are five possible steps for doing that:

1) Appoint a competent chief exec

For the last decade it has been Louise’s way or the highway, that’s how she has managed to get through more chief executives than anyone has ever managed in that timeframe before. This included a period in which the entire role was deleted and Louise stood completely unchallenged. As a leader I know my role is policy and the chief exec is there to run operations. It works this way because my mandate comes on the back of securing public support for political positions and the chief exec is a career civil servant with the expertise to turn that into reality. Councils go wrong when people forget their role or where chief execs go along with things they know to be wrong because their leader is unwilling to listen. Leaders need to appoint capable people and trust their judgement.

2) Delegate to Cabinet Members

Much the same as point 1, you have a Cabinet and you need to trust them to do their job. You simply cannot keep on top of the whole work of a council by yourself and it is not your job to. Your role is to set a direction for the council as a whole, to be its face looking outwards, to resolve differences between cabinet members and crises as they emerge, and to help deliver the resources cabinet members and senior officers need to do their role. If you cannot trust your cabinet then you need to appoint a new one.

3) Open the decision making up

During my time as a county councillor, I was lied to by various officers, I repeatedly had reasonable requests for information rejected and key decisions were taken behind closed doors. To say there is a culture of secrecy at the council is an understatement and the complete rejection of effective scrutiny is a large part of how things got so bad. Under the Cabinet Model, you can have greater and lesser levels of delegation to cabinet members and senior officers. At West Sussex this delegation (or rather centralisation) has been taken so far that almost all major decisions never go before the Full Council. Those of us who have served on other councils know this level of centralisation is utterly absurd and it needs to go. Cabinet should start meeting regularly in person, key decisions should be voted on by councillors representing the whole of the electorate, and officers should never again fear the consequences of being honest with elected members.

4) Reset the relationship with partners

No one enjoys working with West Sussex right now. I work happily with many other councils of different political colours, but the dishonesty and arrogance of West Sussex reps has alienated the very same partners the council will depend upon if they want to get back on their feet. A new leader and chief exec will give the council a chance to reset this relationship, and let me be the first to extend my hand to whomever gets the roles. Things can’t go on like this, we need to work as equals to get things moving again.

5) West Sussex needs a new Monitoring Officer

Every council has a ‘Monitoring Officer’, typically the head of Legal Services and their role is to ensure that the council operates legally. The latest report shows that the council has not been acting legally in how its Children’s Services department has been running, that the law was not followed in dealing with the scandal around the Nathan Elvery’s relocation bonus, and that the Monitoring Officer appears to have tried to cover this up. How can anyone have any confidence in them continuing to carry out a role when they have failed so badly in the past? My own experience dealing with them leaves me with no confidence, having seen them essentially do whatever they were told by the administration regardless of whether it was right and the regular failure to respond adequately to FOI requests. Much as it pains me to say that anyone should ever lose their job, this step is fundamenal for anyone who wishes to restore confidence in the authority.

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