Dear Members of the Overview and Scrutiny Management Committee,
We would like to comment on the report ‘Reviewing Decision Making in Sheffield City Council’, to be discussed at the Overview and Scrutiny Management Committee (O&SMC) on 17th October. This open letter will also be publicly available on the It’s Our City! website.
The bold text emphasises the main points for quick reading of changes needed; subsequent paragraphs offer notes of concern, evidence and guidance.
This letter responds to the report to the O&SMC. It raises issues with how the council is taking forward their legal obligation after the success of Sheffield People’s Petition, and the apparent intention to silence and exclude local people and communities from direct discussion on, and shaping forward, of SCC governance. This letter seeks to (re)gain a focus on what is expected and required within the now extremely limited timeframe the council has given itself. It raises questions about the process and highlights the existence of helpful, established experiences, and the ready availability of trustworthy resources.
There are grave concerns about the direction the process is going to achieve meaningful change for better local democratic governance. Further, issues of confidence have not been acknowledged nor addressed. For example, six councillor resignations from Cabinet or Cabinet-related roles citing a commitment to greater local democratic governance does not suggest others in the ruling group are best placed to embrace this agenda. Likewise, the systematic refusal to engage in proper discussion on the governance question with Sheffield communities over a long period of time.
The quality of democratic local governance is key. Every council involved in (actual or potential) governance model change aspires to, and cites, (various aspects of) democratic renewal as an underpinning rationale. From close to 20,000 conversations with Sheffield voters and communities we know these aspirations are expressed as (but not limited to) multiple issues about representation, about participation and partnership, about the impact of party politics, about transparency, listening and communication/’consultation’, and about inequalities – and with widespread disillusionment and cynicism. These are all issues that can be addressed directly and positively (and even benchmarked) in a forward-thinking modern committee system design.
1. The council/committee needs to clearly articulate the ways in which the local electorate will shape SCC governance plans and the development of the modern committee alternative.
As an absolute minimum, there should be an open and encouraging invitation to Sheffield residents and groups to make written representation to the Overview and Scrutiny Management Committee about their views on the ‘strong leader’ governance model, and the design principles they wish to see embedded in a modern committee system option. This means the insertion of an additional bullet at 2.5: “any local voter or group who, by open invitation, wishes to make written representation (that could also lead to the committee inviting a contribution orally)”.
We would also normally expect significant and focused stakeholder exercises with local voters and communities (as happens elsewhere), especially in a city the size, complexity and diversity of Sheffield. How is this to be undertaken?
It is not clear how the views of the electorate are central to the governance task of the committee, nor why they are not already at the heart of council planning. The current proposals appear to minimise, erase and/or deflect legitimate public comment on specific governance model related issues. They appear a continuation of the 14-month refusal by the ruling group to engage with Sheffield voters in any meaningful discussion about the ‘strong leader’ model and its alternatives.
Yet, the only reason why this committee is discussing a review of SCC decision-making is the committed activities and actions of Sheffield voters and communities. Despite widespread calls for a change of governance model (including Opposition and local CLP motions), it is precisely and solely the statutory force of Sheffield People’s Petition, signed by 26.5k individuals, that has finally compelled the current ruling group to address council governance.
The report outlines two processes. Firstly, a ‘governance task’ will hear evidence from experts, other councils, members and senior officers, and local stakeholder organisations. Secondly, a “big conversation” is proposed (1.9 and 1.10). The Cabinet member states (Cabinet, 9th October) that he does not want the committee governance task “contaminated” by the “big conversation”. Offensive as this language appears, it has now also become clear that the “big conversation” is, in fact, not about informing and hearing directly from local voters and communities about Sheffield’s ‘strong leader’ governance model, and about what design principles people want to see embedded in the modern committee alternative. The “big conversation” as proposed and advertised, which may nonetheless be important for other purposes, is a distraction from the focus on governance, and the legally required task to develop and publish a modern committee governance alternative by March 11th.
To actually support the governance task in hand, an SCC “big conversation” could, of course, have built upon nearly twenty thousand governance conversations across all communities and wards, yet no curiosity to date about what local voters and communities want to say? The very idea that, for well over a year, communities and residents (whether they signed the petition or not) have been investigating, discussing and becoming informed about SCC governance and the alternatives, and that this is now to be side-lined or erased is, frankly, insulting.
Given the irrelevance of the “big conversation” then, to gathering and collating the views of the Sheffield electorate on governance models and design principles for a modern committee alternative, how will the
committee incorporate the views of the electorate? We do not know of any authority undertaking a governance review and/or considering changing to a committee system that has not undertaken dedicated and significant stakeholder work with local voters and communities. In addition, many councils adopt an open invitation approach as part of their methodology e.g. Croydon.
2. In line with national good practice scrutiny guidance, the committee should demonstrate active commitment to seeking out positive challenge in requesting evidence. This, rather than invite a predominance of ‘in-paradigm’ and/or technical ‘experts’ and/or those with party political or other investments in the status quo (that only leads to self-confirmatory outcomes). In addition, given the centrality of local democracy to potential governance change, the committee should ensure this is a key focus for evidence-gathering (and perhaps to help identify benchmarks for change).
Several local examples immediately spring to mind (that might also enhance a community focus) with
considerable direct experience of SCC governance approaches and who the committee might seek to invite
e.g. Friends of Birley Spa, STAG, Joined Up Heritage, Extinction Rebellion, ACORN, and many others. However,
ensuring representation of the diversity of Sheffield is also an absolute must.
3. The report lacks sufficient clarity, focus and detail.
The overall pathway and associated process through to publication of the alternative modern committee system governance option needs to be more clearly identified; this is the core context and legal imperative for the committee’s work. The committee’s work should be tightly focused, and clearly identified and located within that pathway.
Any notion of a governance review (or mini-governance review) should be abandoned; this is
entirely unviable in ten weeks.
It is unclear whether the intention is the committee undertake some sort of governance review (as well as or) instead of designing a modern committee system. Surely the priority now has to be, specifically, the legal obligation to design a modern committee system governance alternative for the purposes of the referendum, and to publish this by March 11th.
Does the report address the following:
– What is the pathway to publication of the modern committee alternative governance model?
– What is the specific role of the committee in this process? Will there be further consultation on any
– What are the specific activities and timeline?
– Does it have the bulk of its time available for this task; what is realistic, indeed, possible, in the time
– What resources are in place (budgetary/human) – or sought – to support the committee’s work?
– What background work has already been undertaken? What further desk research is needed?
– Will the committee issue accessible progress reports e.g. suitable for social media?
SCC has set itself a near-impossible task if it seeks to undertake quality work. We know of no council that has
taken less than a year to undertake a governance review, nor attempt design of a modern committee system
in such a short period – let alone in a city the size and complexity of Sheffield. In addition SCC has no
‘governance narrative’ – no one appears able to remember when (or if ever) the authority last conducted a full
governance review. This means that governance issues are ‘piled high’. But the option of a governance review
is long gone. Whilst it is arguably the ‘wrong way round’, the legal requirement to design and publish a
modern committee system is the priority.
(We would certainly welcome the committee recommending a full governance review – as many councils
undertake at regular intervals, with multiple elements – and there is inherent risk in the continuing absence of
this. But this has to be a later priority.)
4. The core objectives (in the above context) might be to:
a) Investigate modern committee systems as an alternative form of governance.
b) Lead/Coordinate the identification/collation of Sheffield design principles for a modern
committee system (and perhaps associated benchmarks) for recommendation.
(NB this does not complete the process of designing the system but, as stated, it is unclear what the
overall pathway and processes to completion are given the limited ten weeks available).
This is a tighter focus than in the report.
At the time of the July full council debate we thought councillors would be generally better informed (than
seemed apparent) about governance models and, specifically, the possibilities for modern committee systems
to enhance local democratic governance. It appeared background work was not in place or had not been
shared; and national governance experts (CfPS) were not involved despite the imminence of petition
submission. We are not aware of any subsequent, dedicated exploration of modern committee systems
undertaken by councillors or officers; and it is this governance system alternative that has to be published by
5. Realistically, the committee could look in detail at three (or four) councils operating modern
committee systems to present to the committee, or to visit. The purpose would be to find out
about specific motivations for change, processes adopted, design principles identified, how these
were operationalised, and results (particularly in relation to improvements in local democracy).
SCC has simply not given itself enough time for a high quality or more comprehensive piece of work to be
undertaken. Whilst the above smacks of an ‘off the shelf’ approach, it is the fastest way we know that might
bring people up to speed. Authorities that come to mind are Brighton and Hove, the London Borough of
Sutton, and Cheshire East. The latter is a large unitary which has the complication of being also widely parish
councilled, useful to Sheffield perhaps. The national governance lead at the Centre for Public Scrutiny (Ed
Hammond) is, however, best placed to suggest suitable comparator authorities that SCC might learn from.
Officers will likely have detailed reading lists (we can also provide suggestions if wanted).
6. The committee should commit to a range of reading, including basic policy and good practice reports (on governance change), relevant detailed council reports from elsewhere, contextual reading on governance and local democracy (with the aspiration to be at the forefront of thinking and practice about democratic local governance).
7. The committee should fully utilise the national expertise of the Centre for Public Scrutiny to
support its work (and perhaps draw in others to support too). Funding for council governance
work is available.
The committee could immediately request they co-opt the national lead on governance at CfPS to the
committee for the duration of its work (or, indeed, other appropriate co-optees). Or, CfPS could actually be
undertaking ‘chunks’ of significant supporting work. For example, we know of no authority in designing a
modern committee system that has not conducted full stakeholder exercises with all elected members, with
senior officers, and with a wide range of partners and stakeholder/community/voter groups.
Evidence gathering is no substitute for the above work. In Sheffield, however, it does not appear this work will
be undertaken and this, again, has implications for adequacy. Sheffield deserves better.
As we have previously pointed out, it appears that funding may be available via the LGA; it is not clear whether
Sheffield has applied for it.
8. Is the O&SMC the appropriate group to conduct the identified governance task?
Croydon, for example, is in the middle of a 14-month governance review. Interestingly, the group undertaking
the work is led by an appointed independent chair with a further independent member, so no one political
party can dominate numerically. Cheshire East have established a dedicated Constitutional Committee who
are taking 12 months overseeing the design of a new committee system. (They are fortunate enough to be
building on extensive previous work it has undertaken on its own governance and have engaged national
We are not confident that sufficient thought and care will have been given to the best way SCC approach this
work, nor to the methodology applied. Given significant implications of potential governance model change
e.g. legal and constitutional, (potential) financial, management and administrative, cultural etc and the time
constraints SCC has placed on itself, we are concerned at potential high risks, including those associated with
poor quality work that will not result in positive, tangible change.
We are suggesting overall that the work of the committee needs to remain clearly and closely aligned with
the legal imperative for SCC to publish a coherent modern committee system for the purpose of the citywide
referendum. Greater clarity needs to be brought to the committee’s work, with a narrower more
purposeful approach than appears to be suggested, and for improvements in democratic local governance.
This should lead to more productive evidence gathering. National expertise should be alongside, supporting
the committee’s work. As the prime movers for governance model change, local voters and communities
must not be erased nor marginalised and their influence should be clear and apparent in the process and
outputs/outcomes; the ruling group must, finally, engage.
We also request the committee consider the times at which it meets. It’s Our City! have a significant interest,
as do many members of the public, but many have demanding jobs and other responsibilities too; please
consider timings and accessible venues for meetings.
We want to give notice that the relevant members of It’s Our City! might be available in late November and we
politely request early notification and perhaps a couple of options in any invitation to talk to the committee.
Finally, we would like to remind committee members that, in law, no council resources can be used to
promote one or other governance alternative that will be voted on in the Sheffield referendum.
Coordinating Group Chair, It’s Our City!