The perceptions and performance of streamlined committees for FOSIG
The Fourth Option Special Interest Group (FOSIG) represents the interests of a group of district councils who opted for a streamlined committee system as opposed to a mayor/ leader cabinet (executive) arrangement in the reorganisation of local government after the 2000 Local Government Act.
The Tavistock Institute was commissioned to investigate the perceptions and the performance of these authorities in light of the streamlining and compare them with larger district councils with executive arrangements to see if the committee system is more engaged with the public. Our findings from empirical evidence showed that Fourth Option Authorities (FOAs) are matching the performance of larger district councils in BVPI overall satisfaction with councils, the general BVPI indicators, the CPA scores and use of financial resources indicators. As public satisfaction was high for FOAs the study then went on to see what factors may be causing this by interviewing a sample of the 20 highest ranking FOAs. The results showed that ‘streamlined committees did not hinder performance but there is also no evidence to suggest it improves it. The interviews concluded that the balance of political power (parties), rural geography, use of scrutiny and the actions of individuals (leadership) were making significant changes. The recommendations to FOSIG were to produce more evidence of FOAs using public participation in decision making, disseminating best practice examples/pilots and increased creative use of scrutiny committees. The Tavistock Institute reported these findings to the FOSIG AGM in June 2007.
Fourth Option Authorities (FOAs) are district councils with populations below 85,000 that chose to maintain a streamlined committee system (also termed alternative arrangements) as opposed to the elected mayor/cabinet executive model after the Local Government Act 2004. The latter model is intended to bring local government closer to people, but FOSIG believe that their system of elected members into committees is closer to local issues and provides fairer representation.
The Fourth Option Special Interest Group (FOSIG) commissioned the Tavistock Institute to conduct an applied research project into the perceptions and performance of FOAs in England. FOSIG was concerned that while the recent Local Government White Paper states that the government will not change the position of Fourth Option authorities, they will be under increasing pressure to change in light of the proposed reorganisation in some two tier areas.The work was to inform the development of a strategy to respond to the White Paper and gain a better understanding of the way Fourth Option Authorities (FOA) contribute to more devolved and engaged communities.
The methods for this project were two fold; firstly desk research was requested for perceptions and performance information on FOAs. This involved the initial analysis of the reports from the Evaluation of Local Government team. This was then followed by the comparison of Corporate Performance Assessments (CPA) 2003/04, the Best Value Performance Indicators (BVPI) on satisfaction 2006/07, Use of resources indicator 2006 and local election turnout 2003/04 of 54 FOAs to 184 district councils that operate the mayor/cabinet systems. Based on the results of the first phase the project secondly went on to interview the Chief Executives of the top 20 FOAs in BVPI satisfaction 2006/07 to see why they were achieving good levels of public approval. The length of the project was four weeks in June 2007.
The performance data revealed that of the 238 district councils in England, the 54 FOAs were performing as well as councils which operated mayor/cabinet executive political arrangements. This was most evident in the averages for BVPI satisfaction and Use of Resources data for FOAs. It also suggested good levels of public satisfaction and engagement with local issues in quite sparsely populated communities. These findings led the institute to conduct interviews with the Chief Executives of FOAs to gage their perceptions. The results showed that apart from political structure effective managerial and political leadership, the increased reduction of committees and the imaginative application of scrutiny greatly impact FOA performance.The findings show FOAs can justifiably argue for the continued use of streamlined committees but the creation of unitary councils, pressures from the spending review and need to improve two tier working mean – the status quo is not an option. FOAs will have to collaborate with neighbouring councils and there needs to be more evidence of such practice along with some thought as to whether the Fourth Option model hinders this.Key recommendations to FOSIG from the research were firstly, to share good practice and test refinements to the structure and secondly creatively use the scrutiny process to demonstrate the use of a traditional (committee) system in a modern setting.