The Council has published its design for the new committee system.  Unfortunately, the design seems to have ignored quite a lot of the work done by, and the evidence submitted to, the Governance Committee over the last few months. The report announcing the design was written by Gillian Duckworth, Director of Legal & Governance, rather than the Governance Committee itself.

The design was published for the latest Governance Committee meeting on the 25th of January. It’s Our City raised the following questions at the meeting (read for us by a council officer):

1. The work developing design principles for a new committee system took place over four months including some intensive work with stakeholders and members of the public – who gave their time willingly to contribute. It is not clear how the committee system structure report relates to, aligns with, or puts the principles (and their implicit outcomes) into practice. In some cases what is being proposed seems to be in active tension with, or in opposition to, the principles. What was the point of all that work and citizen/stakeholder input? I recognise that the report covers a limited number of core issues at this stage but isn’t this part of the governance problem – stated council commitments with little real meaning, and no actual demonstrable impact or influence via engagement and consultation?

2. Eight main committees are proposed (plus a significant finance sub-committee). What makes Sheffield an exception and ‘extreme outlier’ on this, especially in the face of evidence received and statutory guidance. And, from the Wirral, where a very recent External Assurance Review by the government’s DLUHC is requiring a reduction in their number of main committees (a reduction not from 8, but 7 committees). Being an extreme outlier with 8 main committees would also be an explicit and conscious decision to very likely increase both bureaucracy and resource load (and that would also go against the design principles). How is this justifiable in the current circumstances, and what do you think voters will think if this is the decision?

3. The proposal appears to be to exclude some or a few elected councillors from playing a full role on at least one of the main committees. This would, of course, be more than bad faith following the community campaign and referendum. I am sure citizens and communities would be very active in ensuring relevant ward voters were aware if any of their councillors were not representing them in a main committee decision-making role – or if particular parties were against all their councillors sitting on a main committee. At one point the proposal seems to be driven by the maths rather than the imperative for change, core purpose, principle, or intended outcome. This approach seems highly inadvisable when it’s clear some other councils have 13, 15 and even 17 on committees and are operating effectively. Will the committee carefully rethink and reject this proposal?

4. The paper also appears to be inching more and more in the direction of giving a range of additional powers to the ‘overarching’ Strategy and Resources Committee.. For example, suggested additional powers to make urgent decisions, suggested additional powers to do external ‘scrutiny’ tasks when these could and should be integrated into main committee work. The necessary shift in thinking away from strong leader governance does not appear quite to have been made, despite the pretty unanimous warnings on this point given in evidence in the inquiry sessions, and in consultations. Does the Governance Committee agree with the expert John Cade from INLOGOV (who you heard from) that it would be a “betrayal” to somehow try to recreate a Cabinet function? (Conversely, can the committee not see the value of a Strategy and Resources committee that is more strategic, connecting things up, overseeing the budget as a whole and so on, as has been presented in evidence to you?)

5. Section 13 on Post-Decision Scrutiny (especially paras 13.1, 13.2 and 13.3) is problematic. It also contains inaccuracies and significant omissions that amount to inaccuracies. For example:
– Sentence 1 could just as easily say the emphasis is on collaboration and the potential for consensual decision-making.
– Sentence 2 is inaccurate – it was always possible to have different parties in Cabinet, it is just that Sheffield ruling groups have chosen not to do this (as some other councils do). (Indeed this choice is what has contributed to such a big democratic deficit in Sheffield, which was the main reason for the petition and referendum).
– Paras 13.2 and 13.3 are also highly problematic and they omit a fundamental purpose of scrutiny – to amplify the voices of the public and stakeholders.
Please can this section of the report be at least corrected, and amended? However I would prefer it be fully reviewed and rewritten as it fails to understand the significance of the shift to “good decision-making” in a modern committee system and how this incorporates many of the functions and good work of scrutiny.

6. The report omits any mention of stakeholder input (as above, vital if one wants to ensure that the strengths of scrutiny are built in, and also vital for good decision-making (but also essential for inclusive and improving democratic practices). There are simple, extremely resource-lite, and efficient, participatory mechanisms that would be very easy to embed at the outset of new governance arrangements to ensure that a range of different stakeholders are heard directly in relevant Policy Committees, and as a very solid starting point/baseline position. Will the committee ensure that the new arrangements and constitution embed such a baseline for direct stakeholder involvement into main committees?

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