what you get here

This is not a blog which expresses instant opinions on current events. It rather uses incidents, books (old and new), links and papers as jumping-off points for some reflections about our social endeavours.
So old posts are as good as new! And lots of useful links!

Saturday, October 17, 2009

part V - more open and creative policy-making

I have written an extensive paper about the innovative work I was involved in from 1975-1990 in the Region trying to make its policies, structures and staff more sensitive to the needs and aspirations of those who lived in its poorer areas. It is paper 5 of “key papers” of my website. Here I just want to focus on the structural aspects of our work – how we tried to get officials, councillors and community activists working more productively with one another to solve problems.
This entry talks about our member-officer groups -the next entry looks at how we tried to "make a difference" in the poorer areas.
At the end of Strathclyde Region's first year of existence in 1976, a major weekend seminar of all the councillors and the new Directors was held to review the experience of the new systems of decision-making. The exhilarating experience a few of us had had of working together across the boundaries of political and professional roles first to set up the new Departments and second on the deprivation strategy was something we wanted to keep. And other councillors wanted that involvement too.
Our answer was "member-officer groups" (Young 1981). These were working groups of about 15 people (equal number of officials and councillors) given the responsibility to investigate a service or problem area - and to produce, within 12-18 months, an analysis and recommendations for action. Initially social service topics were selected - youth services, mental handicap, pre-school services and the elderly - since the inspiration, on the officer side, was very much from one of the senior Social Work officials.

The member-officer groups broke from the conventions of municipal decision-making in various ways -
· officials and members were treated as equals
· noone was assumed to have a monopoly of truth : by virtue of ideological or professional status
· the officers nominated to the groups were generally not from Headquarters - but from the field
· evidence was invited from staff and the outside world, in many cases from clients themselves
· the represented a political statement that certain issues had been neglected in the past
· the process invited external bodies (eg voluntary organisations) to give evidence
· the reports were written in frank terms : and concerned more with how existing resources were being used than with demands for more money.
· the reports were seen as the start of a process - rather than the end - with monitoring groups established once decisions had been made.

The achievements of the groups can be measured in such terms as -
· the acceptance, and implementation, of most of the reports : after all, the composition and the openness of the process generates its own momentum of understanding and commitment !
· the subsequent career development of many of their chairmen
· the value given to critical inquiry - instead of traditional party-bickering and over-simplification.
· the quality of relations between the councillors : and with the officials

With this new way of working, we had done two things. First discovered a mechanism for continuing the momentum of innovation which was the feature of the Council's first year. Now more people had the chance to apply their energies and skills in the search for improvement.
We had, however, done more - we had stumbled on far more fruitful ways of structuring local government than the traditional one (the Committee system) which focuses on one "Service" - eg Education which defines the world in terms of the client group: of one professional group and is producer-led. And whose deliberations are very sterile - as the various actors play their allotted roles (expert, leader, oppositionist, fool etc).

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