Monday, 21 January 2019

Peer Pressure

With all the flak which has been flying around recently, I thought it would be useful to set out my thoughts about the progress made by the Broads Authority following 2017’s peer review.

The Local Government Association peer review was “requested” in 2017 by the Broads Authority as a result of pressure from various quarters for the Authority to improve its stakeholder engagement and governance arrangements.

The resultant report had some positive and negative things to say, and made a number of recommendations. The strongest criticism related to communication and stakeholder engagement:
“Currently there is limited informal space for suggestions and constructive challenge which leaves some partners with the view that their input is not required until the final version is produced. They then feel it is very difficult to comment on something that has been signed off. This perception needs to be changed so that the Broads Authority is viewed as an organisation that values the contributions and views of all partners.”
This is not a new recommendation, in fact the previous peer review in 2011 made similar comments.

Other suggestions included putting more effort into understanding business and community needs, a better focus on the Authority’s relationships with other local authorities - including regular meetings, a member development programme and skills audit, and a more transparent process for committee appointments. It further noted the view from some stakeholders that the Broads Authority “was not open and transparent or accountable enough in how it spent public money”, and suggested that “there is a complex piece of work around stakeholder engagement that needs to be carried out.”

This report was produced in December 2017 - some 14 months ago. I attended an independently-facilitated meeting in January 2018 to discuss the report, with a view to considering and finding ways of implementing the recommendations. I don’t think I would be breaching any confidences by saying that it was an extremely productive and useful meeting, where a lot of listening happened, and everyone left with a feeling that here was a new beginning and an opportunity to put our differences behind us.

Unfortunately, the follow up meeting could best be characterised as an attempt by the then-Chair to re-assert her authority. The peer review might have made 7 recommendations, she said, but they were not all of equal importance. It wasn’t necessary to engage in the kind of collaborative process agreed by the previous meeting - all that was needed was for members to commit to a common purpose, and everything else would fall into place. Of course, nobody would disagree with the idea of a common purpose, so it went through on the nod and that was pretty much the last anyone heard of the peer review report.

The proposed “inclusive” workshops and meetings to implement the other recommendations were subsequently abandoned, and instead members agreed to establish a “Chairs Group” to provide “pastoral support” for the Chair. Just a few months later, this group has became the de-facto cabinet of the Broads Authority, and is already making decisions on behalf of the members - which it is simply not empowered to do, and neither can it be. As we are often told - the Authority is the members. It is the members who must make the decisions, not some executive committee.

Of course, it’s little surprise that the Chairs Group would emerge as a cabinet committee, because it was also (controversially) agreed to reduce the number of Broads Authority meetings from 6 to 4 a year. This was primarily a cost-cutting exercise, but the net effect is that it is now arguably impossible for the Authority to conduct its business efficiently and to make decisions in a timely manner, when meetings are so infrequent. Certainly, it’s hard to see how any of this contributes to the kind of better governance and improved member engagement envisaged by the peer review team.

Even more controversially, the Authority’s first (and only) step towards better engagement with stakeholders was to abolish the official stakeholder engagement group, the Broads Forum. This was a shocking piece of connivance, in which the Authority first ignored requests by Forum members to have the peer review findings included on their agenda, before summarily disbanding the group without notice when members arrived at that meeting. The forum was replaced with a twice yearly meeting to discuss a single issue decided months in advance by the Authority. Is this their idea of “a complex piece of work around stakeholder engagement”?

As to improved engagement with local authorities, to the best of my knowledge the only additional engagement with local authorities in the last year has been visits by the Chairman and Vice Chairman to various council leaders, asking them to remove their appointed members and replace them with councillors “more likely to observe collective responsibility”! And, when one of those members had the nerve to put her name forward as a candidate for Chairman of the Authority - under the new “transparent” arrangements for committee appointments - she was roundly criticised for being divisive, and those who supported her have been marginalised or removed.

Far from engaging in more inclusive and collaborative working, the Authority has adopted a siege mentality, where it continues to remove dissenting voices by any means possible. My own experience is well documented, but I now understand that other experienced and respected voices are about to “disappear” from the navigation committee, and other members have had their positions threatened for failure to “toe the line”.

There’s no clearer statement of intent than the Authority’s recent submission to the Glover Review of National Parks, which not only proposed absorbing swathes of Norfolk & Suffolk into the BA’s executive area, but also recommended the wholesale removal of all councillors and any other member with any semblance of democratic accountability - and did so without the knowledge or consent of the members. In doing so, they have managed to enrage MPs and council leaders right across the political spectrum, which is really quite an achievement. You have to wonder what they possibly thought they would have to gain from such an outrageous eleventh hour proposal.

In my next article, I will reproduce my own submission to the Glover Review, which I hope will be seen as a positive and constructive attempt to propose ways of building a better, more transparent and accountable, Broads Authority.