Thursday, 30 July 2009

SCRUTINISING MARTIN WISE'S POOR PERFORMANCE



The Thanet Council Cabinet member with responsibility for budgets Martin Wise (pictured) is failing to get best value for taxpayers money. I have reported previously how ineffective Thanet’s Overview and Scrutiny Panel is resourced. For those unfamiliar with a Scrutiny Panel, it is like a select committee at the House of Commons. However, whereas select committees can call in witnesses and do detailed examinations and commission research, the Scrutiny Panel has well, er, none of these powers!

The idea of the Overview and Scrutiny Panel is that it provides a “check and a balance” on the power of the Thanet Council Cabinet (Executive). In order to do so it needs resources to co-ordinate its work. In other local authorities there are greater resources as the leading members welcome criticism, and see it as a constructive process. Regular readers will know that some in Thanet Council’s Cabinet resent criticism, take it personally and have great difficulty in apologising when they are in the wrong. For the latest example of the new boy fitting into this corporate culture click here.

On Tuesday night work commitments meant that I was unable to attend Overview and Scrutiny Panel. I arranged for a substitute, and sent in an amendment to the minutes. This pointed out that the work of many of the sub-committees of the Panel was struggling to be effective, due to the Cabinet’s decision to not provide any resources to co-ordinate the work of the Scrutiny Panel.

There are three points here.
Firstly the Scrutiny Panel has no administrative resources to arrange meetings, undertake research, and ensure action is followed up. Whereas, the Cabinet, and the leading Council managers quite rightly have considerable administrative staff and budgets.

Secondly officers endeavour to do their best to help the Scrutiny process, but it is not part of their duties. Therefore whenever there is any pressure on their diary, the first thing they can put off is Scrutiny, because it has such a low status and is not part of their responsibilities.

Thirdly and most importantly, there are inevitably times when an officer has a conflict between whether they take the view of Scrutiny, or that of the Executive. They spend the vast majority of their time working for the Executive, and their career will be orientated towards the Executive. It is only human that subconsciously, at times, they will favour the Executive position. There is no incentive to rock the boat or be a whistleblower. Other authorities have recognised this, and set up dedicated staff to service the Scrutiny process. That's best praactice Thanet should follow.

Large commercial organisations value Scrutiny. They employ mystery shoppers and when you buy a product there is that freephone number to call “if you are not completely satisfied”.

As I’ve written previously the Panel works on a “non-political” basis, chaired by Conservative former Deputy Leader Bob Bayford. Most Cabinet members give the panel due regard, and Roger Latchford’s latest appearance was informative. John Kirby and Simon Moores have not appeared yet, and I look forward to seeing them once they have mastered their portfolios.

Tuesday night though, saw the poorest performer of the last 2 years attend. Martin Wise has responsibility for Budgets. He takes the opportunity to appear at the Panel in a deeply political fashion. he looks to point score, and is never happier than when moving away from what he has control over in Thanet, to bemoan the national situation and berate the government.

It is called changing the subject, and with the mess of Thanet’s current finances running out of wheelie bins it is understandable that he tries this tactic. His lack of political judgment though means that he is part of the problem, not part of the solution. Thanet's Leader and Deputy Leader often voice the rhetoric of all councillors working together for the benefit of Thanet, and on some matters they walk the walk.

I have reported previously on Cllr. Sandy Ezekiel having to correct Cllr. Wise’s errors of judgment. Click here for the details. It was interesting to see the comment on this from Laurence Davies a former Conservative Leader of a London Council:

“I don't hold great regard for Cllr. Wise after his dismissive and condescending attitude to the cleansing issues of Eastcliff and Central Harbour Wards at the full Council Meeting on 23rd April. He reminds me a little of Marie Antoinette as after Cllr Campbell had raised issues of later collections of refuse from Willsons Road, and the problems with the gull population, Councillor Wise stood up and said words to the effect let the residents buy bins! Still I suppose as Willsons Road is in Ramsgate he is not interested.”

Both sides of the political spectrum are observing that Martin Wise, regrettably, is not a man to put the best interests of Thanet first by putting aside his petty partisanship when appropriate. Although not present I have consulted widely with those who were on Tuesday evening.
They report that Cllr. Wise was unhappy at any suggestion the Scrutiny process should be more effective and more resourced.

Several on the committee were unimpressed when he complained that he had missed the Margate Jazz Festival to work on his presentation on Sunday afternoon (he has a full time job and in addition, he is paid £13,100 for his Council work, when he chooses to perform his duties is his responsibility – it is a concern if he is struggling to time manage his important portfolio and leaving things to the last minute). It then became apparent that much of the work for the report had in any case been done by officers.

Better prepared and more thorough Cabinet colleagues send out detailed reports in advance. By leaving the production of his report to the last minute, Martin Wise reduced the opportunity for councillors to research and prepare questions. In my experience in politics, people do that when they are trying to cover up their mistakes. With the scathing audit report on Ramsgate Port it is clear to see why he might do this.

Martin Wise prevailed and Scrutiny will continue to be under-resourced. He will take the suggestion to provide resources away and look at it. That’s code for do nothing. A failure of local democracy. Over the last 12 years the Labour government has vastly expanded the select committee system, provided resources, and encouraged greater scrutiny. Thanet Conservatives would do well to learn from this at a time when confidence in democratic accountability is weak.

4 comments:

  1. From what i am lead to believe Cllr Wise dug himself into a hole by his own words and when challenged by another councillor,after giving a totally avoiding and inadequet answer to this members question,then had to rely on the help of his fellow tory chairman to get him 'out of jail'-when the chairman stated to the member 'thats the only answer your going to get'
    Surely it is absurd that the overview and scutiny committee is chaired by one of the ruling group-with the best will in the world if you hold a party card it must be differcult not to be totally non party political.
    In my opinion overview should at least be chaired by the opposition or like standards an appointed independent.

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  2. Anon 10.55 you are right best practice is to have an opposition Cllr chair Scrutiny, Thanet prefers a one party state style dictatorship. Having said that I have found Bob Bayford reasonable as a Chair, but I think there is only so far he can advocate because of party pressures. Compare this with Kent CC where robust challenege occurs...
    http://www.kentonline.co.uk/kentonline/news/2009/july/22/row_over_controversial_kent_tv.aspx

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  3. From what I have seen of the committee they are not capable of robust challenge. They do not read their papers, do not come prepared, and are more interested in scoring points than investigating specific issues. In fact they are weak. And the councillors point about needing officer support suggests to me just how incapable they are of defining or managing their own process. We need 21st century clued up councillors job for a 21st century job, not 19th century time servers who have no experience of today's world.

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  4. I would have to agree with the Anonymous commentator at 16:52 about prioritizing point scoring. One only has to look around the various Councillor blogspots in Thanet, and elsewhere I might add, to see that all too frequently the content is more inclined to political point scoring, sometimes on trivia or hearsay like an MP's brain cell content, than serious issues of governance.

    At the risk of repeating myself, why ever was party politics introduced into local government in the first place. Whatever happened to a group of elected pillars of the local community working in the best interests of the people they are supposed to serve, like ALL the people!

    One only has to read around the blogs of the OTT rejoicing because one party has snatched a remote ward somewhere from another, frequently taking as an indicator of national trend. No mention of the respective merits of the outgoing or incoming councillors. No, all that seems to matter is the colour of their tie. Sad, very sad!!!

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