Fringe Box



Insight: Guildford Borough Council’s ‘Incubation’

Published on: 9 May, 2024
Updated on: 13 May, 2024

By Bernard Quoroll

former local authority chief executive officer and  “independent person” at Guildford Borough Council

What do I mean “incubation”?

An egg has been laid in the form of a report going to GBC’s Corporate Governance and Standard’s Committee next week providing what may be the council’s last best chance to be reborn as an effective and responsive local authority.

See also: Council Leader Apologises Following Publication of Damning Report on GBC

Having avoided losing its town planning powers to government intervention recently, GBC, somewhat ironically, is now being recommended to create something more like its own bespoke set of commissioners to provide advice and guidance while it seeks to reinvent itself.

There will be many opportunities to comment on its progress in achieving that over the coming months and years but meanwhile, I would just like to offer a few thoughts based on my own experience.

As I have said before, the starting point for such an exercise is a sincerely felt acceptance of responsibility by the council. Without that, the intended review will quickly degenerate into a face-saving exercise.

Saying sorry is a good beginning but doing so is often the first defence of a political party cynically accustomed to fobbing off the electorate with trite and easy admissions in the hope of short memories. GBC did not arrive at this point as a result of the actions of any one political party. At different times and in different ways, all involved in running Guildford’s council (including some senior managers) have contributed to or laid the foundations for this state of affairs.

The only good news is that circumstances have introduced a new set of managers, who if they get it right, can lay the foundations for their future careers. Now is the time for all parties to get behind the programme. No ifs or buts. GBC’s own staff and of course the public deserve no less. A potential unitary county of the future might of course have a different perspective.

There are a couple of notable omissions in the report. Firstly, its sources seem to me to be mostly internal – politicians, officers and other “usual suspects”. There may not have been time to spread the net more widely and frankly the findings did not require that much investigation but the best sources of information for a local authority are typically, the public, actual and un-befriended partners and its own front line staff.

The long onward journey of improvement will need their engagement and support which will not be forthcoming without a substantial effort in transparency, communication and involvement. People do not come to work to do a bad job.

Many will already know what needs to be fixed and improving arrangements to protect whistleblowers is worthwhile but a secondary issue alongside other priorities for staff engagement. Secondly, more actions are needed in relation to transparency and engagement with the public but hopefully the new chief executive will see that as part of his leadership role.

If the recommendations are adopted wholeheartedly, GBC will have taken a good first step. Leading and working for a council which is committed to reinvention can be one of he most exhilarating and rewarding things in public service.

Doing so with the support of an experienced external team, which can at times hold your feet to the fire, can improve job satisfaction and with persistent performance build a winning organisation. GBC is far from that at the moment but adoption of the recommendations would be a good beginning and a first step in rebuilding public trust and confidence.

See other Insight articles here.

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