Features: February 14th, 2003

Improving Local Government in the 21st Century

Deborah Benady interviews Steve Bundred the new head of the Improvement and Development Agency Originally published in Modern Members magazine, and reproduced by permission of the IDeA

What made you apply for the post of executive director of the IDeA?

After 11 in years in Camden, seven as chief executive, I felt I’d taken the council quite a long way. When I first went to Camden it was an authority that was constantly beset by financial crises, was lacking in ambition and was justifiably poorly regarded by its peers in local and central government and by the general public. Now it’s one of the excellent comprehensive performance assessment (CPA) authorities and last year it was joint council of the year with Blackburn with Darwen.

I learned a lot during that time about culture change and performance improvement in local authorities and wanted to apply that knowledge on a wider national stage. I’m also a great fan of what the IDeA does.

The IDeA has come a long way in a short time. It has a reputation for creativity and it has developed a number of really powerful products – peer review and the Leadership Academy are perhaps among the most important.

What do you see as the challenges for local government over the next few years?

The main challenge is to demonstrate the relevance of local democracy to issues that are important nationally as well as locally, such as crime prevention, social exclusion, educational attainment and the liveability agenda. The best of local government has done this very successfully.

But we’re about to see, with the debate around children’s services after the Climbié case, yet another view from central government that local government cannot be trusted to deal with, in this case, child protection – and that a national body may need to be created instead.

The IDeA can support local authorities in demonstrating that local democracy makes a difference and is worth investing in. It can help them prove that local government is the solution to many of the clear national problems central governments of all political persuasions have grappled with unsuccessfully for many years.

What is your view of the CPA process?

My general view is that it’s not perfect but it’s good enough. The process serves its purpose but any system that crudely categorises all local authorities in one of five boxes is obviously going to be imperfect to some extent. The main problem I have with CPA is not with the assessment but with what comes next. There was little by way of consultation over post-CPA improvement planning and I’m still not convinced that the Audit Commission and the government have got that process right.

Potentially, I think CPA can be very good for local government because of its emphasis on the whole authority and the importance of the political processes. The tendency in central government over recent years has been to see local authorities as a basket of services that can equally well be provided by any old quango – with the key issues being purely managerial and local politicians entirely irrelevant.

What are the implications for weaker councils?

It will be important for local government to respond to the needs of weaker councils. But we mustn’t focus on them exclusively. Most local authorities are rated somewhere in the middle and all councils, no matter where they are, should want to improve. No politician, chief executive or officer wants to be associated with an authority that is going backwards. The IDeA therefore needs to remain relevant to the totality of local authorities while still providing intensive support to those who are in the most severe difficulties.

What are the implications for excellent councils? Will CPA make a difference to them?

Let’s hope the debate that’s taken place over the last year about how CPA would actually function will now be replicated over the coming year in discussion of how new freedoms and flexibilities can be made available and how they might operate in practice. So far the freedoms and flexibilities that have been made available to authorities in the excellent and good categories have been welcome but modest. They should be available more widely in my view.

But, in addition, I hope there will be opportunities for the excellent authorities to look at ways in which they might push the boundaries of local government forward, rather than simply seeking to do existing things with less interference from central government.

What do you see as the role of political leadership in ensuring improvement and excellence in local councils?

Looking round at the authorities that performed badly in the CPA, what’s typical of many of them is a breakdown in relationships between officers and members, or issues around the calibre of politicians and the political culture that exists in those authorities. One of the things that distinguishes local authorities from other bodies is the dual nature of the leadership function. In order to be successful, you’ve got to have the political and managerial leaderships working to a single purpose.

The characteristics of good political leadership are firstly ambition – good political leaders are very clear about what they are trying to achieve. They are visionary and they are ambitious. Secondly they are consistent in the messages they send out to the organisation – the priorities don’t keep changing. Thirdly they bring to the authority an understanding of locality and an ability to engage with different sections of their community. They articulate the views and interests of their community in ways it’s impossible for officers to do.

Fourthly, they work with officers in a way that generates mutual respect. They are challenging but they don’t attempt to micromanage. Those sorts of characteristics are observable in some politicians, and I believe they can be developed in others.

How can political leadership be improved?

The corollary of a politicians’ depth of understanding about their locality is that they are often very unaware of what happens outside that locality. Senior officers tend to move around so they know things don’t have to be done a certain way. Politicians don’t necessarily have that understanding. One of the things the IDeA does through the Leadership Academy and peer review is to encourage politicians to look at how other authorities do things, to be a bit more questioning about whether the way in which their own authority approaches a problem is the right way.

What are your ambitions for the IDeA?

I want to take the agency on to the next stage. Mel Usher and his team have done a fantastic job here. They have distinguished the agency from its predecessor body and created a dynamic, powerful brand that is well known within local government. The task now is to move the agency on, making sure it commands the same respect in central government and is perceived as being relevant to authorities of all types. I want it to continue to be innovative and creative but also to be focused and rigorous in its approach. It must have a clear and powerful message about what it is that makes an authority excellent and how continuous performance improvement can be driven in authorities of all kinds.