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Prevention better than cure

September 19, 2012

Whether at national or local level, misconduct by politicians always makes good headlines. Sometimes these are the results of action by a rogue individual, but sometimes too it comes about because of a failure of culture and leadership which has allowed problems to build up over time to a point where people lose sight of what is unacceptable, or think they can get away with things.  This was seen, for example, in the culture which grew up around MP expenses, or at a local level, the culture failings which lay behind the ‘Donnygate’ scandals of the 80s.

Under the local standards framework recently introduced by the Localism Act, councils remain under a duty ‘to promote and maintain high standards’ so the Government clearly recognises the importance of continuing to encourage high standards. However, it will be interesting to see how in practice this works. One of the unheralded successes of the previous local framework was the work done by independent standards committee chairs in encouraging political and managerial leadership to focus on building a culture of high standards. Research carried out by Cardiff University in 2009 highlighted the benefits of councils having an independent element working with the council to promote such a culture. This was categorised as a ‘virtuous circle’ whereby principles and rules were clearly understood, there was strong leadership, effective independent checks and balances, people were focussed on the public reputation of their authority and low-level misconduct was dealt with before it escalated into more serious issues. This had measurable benefits both in generally higher public approval of those authorities identified and savings in avoiding expensive and reputation-damaging cases.

By contrast, those authorities where there was a more reactive approach to dealing with matters only when they became a serious problem and the independent voice was weak or neutered were categorised as being in a spiral of decline.  Public confidence was generally lower, people ‘got away with’ low-level misconduct and the leadership found itself having to deal with problems rather than get on with day-to-day running of the authority.

The new framework has been promoted as allowing local government only to worry about serious cases when they arise not about petty rules and minor misdemeanours. Both the role of the independent person and the framework generally has been ‘flipped’ so that now their role is only to become involved once a case has arisen, with sanctions for anything other than criminal matters being left to party groups to manage.  Yet, experience has shown that political management of misbehaviour often leads to political calculations about the arithmetic of the council or group dynamics rather than a focus on preventing bad behaviour.

Now that local political leaders have been asked to manage their own houses rather than rely on an independent voice (whether local or national) to set their standards and agree effective sanctions, perhaps they will in future take more responsibility for the need to promote high standards rather than relying on others to their work or awaiting for problems to arise. Effective leadership will indeed do this but will it still need an independent local voice to support it and give public assurance that there is a ‘virtuous circle’? And will a leadership who doesn’t take the duty of promoting standards seriously find itself storing up trouble?  It will be interesting to watch over the next few years how the independent role develops, what the impact is on trust in local politicians and whether we see more virtuous circles or spirals of decline.   

Paul Hoey (Guest blogger)  

Hoey Ainscough Associates Ltd


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