Last week the County Council underwent what is known as a Corporate Peer Challenge. This is a process for reviewing the County Council using a team of Officers and Councillors from other local authorities and, in this case, someone from a major business.
On Friday they presented us with their findings in a presentation (which we will publish as soon as we can).We will also get a fuller report in a few weeks time.
There are a number of strands to the review that I thought I would raise here because they are worthy of public consumption - and I will try to be balanced.
But, it is clear that the overall findings of the review are very positive. The opening finding in the presentation is "Cambridgeshire CC is 'Premier League'". But explains that we are at a pivotal time where the big decisions need to be got right. This particularly revolves around finance where they believe there are serious risks because of the huge savings we have got to make. This is not helped by their view of the management structure which they don't just believe is lean, but 'very, very lean'. This statement will challenge those people that mistakenly claim we can make savings by slashing management (because the review shows that we have already done it) but that very, very lean structure becomes more important going forwards - which I will talk about later.
The aspect of the review that I was most pleased about was the way it recognised the loyalty, commitment and strong values of our staff - something I have always been very aware of. During the feedback session, one of the reviewers used the words "cracking" and "lively" to describe our staff team. The presentation also mentioned the need for myself and the Chief Executive to try and be more visible; This was not a criticism of what we do at the moment (both myself and the Chief Exec make a point of getting out and about) but rather a reflection of the need to up our game because of the increasingly tough financial decisions we face. I have already discussed this with the Chief Exec and we will be responding to this challenge and looking at ways we can engage more, to ensure sure we bring out the thoughts, views and ideas of our great staff as well as letting them know that we are very, very aware of how good they are.
One area of concern is that we may be over-ambitious, in particular around our capital programme (because of the impact on revenue in future years). The big concern is that if we don't get the City Deal that we are trying to agree with Government, our infrastructure ambitions could be difficult to achieve. This is the right challenge and an issue we have been aware for some time. When the City Deal is decided one way or another we have to review our capital programme. But people need to be aware that much of our capital programme is about delivering infrastructure that will help our economy - so if we have to reign in our ambitions because the Government don't give us the full City Deal, we will have to slow down infrastructure development and, in turn, slow down economic growth. This will have a negative impact on treasury receipts, so Government will be doing themselves-down as well as Cambridgeshire. But as a County Council we have to protect County Council finances.
In my view the biggest concern in the review is around the decision to move the Council's political structure from a cabinet to a committee system. Some of the concerns include; whether the real cost to the organisation have been measured; the fact that it will have an impact on our very important working with outside bodies; and that the committee structure is one that makes it difficult to make the tough decisions that are needed in the next few years. They also highlghted that members are not aware of the way the committee system will swing the balance of decision making and transfer power away from the Councillors that the voters have elected and towards the officers that the Council employs. When questioned further about these concerns the review team responded by saying that the council faces two options, to effectively grind to a halt under the committee system, or to significantly increase the level of delegation to officers.
There are some serious questions to be asked of the opposition groups in Cambridgeshire as a result of this aspect of the review. There is no doubt that the decision to move to a committee system was a power grab following the election earlier this year (which resulted in the Council going into no overall control). The Conservatives were very willing to commit to a wider review of Governance arrangements - but the power grab won. Let's be clear, the structure that got Cambridgeshire County Council into the 'Premier League' is the Cabinet system (and that is not just about the Cabinet itself but also the powerful role of scrutiny and opposition in holding Cabinet to account (which will be lost). The report also says that it is important that the Council gets the big decisions right in order to stay in the Premier League - be in no doubt that the move to a committee system is one such decision. The last time Cambridgeshire County Council had committees our Social Services Department were in crisis and subject to Government intervention. The question is - are you the electorate willing to risk Cambridgeshire's position in the Premier League because of a power grab, or would you have preferred a wider, more measured, review of governance as a result of a change in political balance?
Anyone outside of Cambridgeshire who talks with any authority about the committee system will tell you that one inevitable consequence is that decision making will slow down (in fact a senior Government Minister told me that we should add six weeks onto the timetable for any decision). That is not just a time issue - that six weeks will be added on because our officers are further tied up in processes; consider that alongside the comment in the review about our 'very very lean' management structure. The cost of the committee system is not just about how much Councillor time is involved, but also about unnecessarily tieing up our already stretched managers.
UPDATE: I have been told off this morning for not including the comments in the review about Leadership. So I will finish with a few comments about myself and Leadership in the report - which I am quite flattered by and I hope Mark Lloyd, our Chief Exec is too:
"Martin is the Leader for our time"
"The leader has a strong vision and commit ent to the future prosperity of the county"
"The leader is respected andseento have a consensual approach that is right for the time"
"Respect for the Chief Executive and his senior team by members, staff and partners"
"Mark is a real public service leader"
UPDATE 2: the presentation can be found here: http://www.cambridgeshire.gov.uk/council/peerreview.htm