Transparent, but not Invisible

The ‘selectorate’ – the great-and-good appointed to oversee public functions on  our behalf – needs reform.  Paul Coleshill puts forward some suggestions to improve transparency.

In Who Owns Scotland Andy Wightman set out in clear and shocking terms how much of Scotland is owned by how few people, and how this has been so for generations. While some of the great land owners are no longer nominally individuals but corporate entities, these are effectively controlled in many cases by family-placed trustees. Scotland; a few hundred of the great and good owning territory occupied by over five million people.

Amending feudal land law and providing some community buy-back rights with a claim on government resources was a step towards change by the coalition over the first two Scottish governments. However the governance of Scotland has been, and to a large extent still is, ‘owned’ by a few of the great and the good. For more than fifty years, who the home grown Great-and-Good’ were was decided by the Labour party. Since the creation of the Scottish parliament some of that has changed. At a Scottish level this has been as a result of a more proportionally elected chamber, and subsequently as a result of proportionality in local government which Labour was forced to accept.
Sadly, ‘feudal’ thinking about government in Scotland, that the Great-and-the-Good (here branded GGs) shall rule unelected and therefore by patronage, has not fundamentally changed. The ‘natural habitat’ of the GGs, that pool from which they are selected, now more readily includes some of the SNP. A change of personnel after so long is probably beneficial for its own sake, but those concerned with social democracy should be keen to see change not only in the name on the box of privileged access but also in the structure of the governance of privilege.

It is fully accepted here that there is a balance to be struck between popular accountability and populism. Despite the inherent biases in our system of legal appointment, many in the UK would argue against directly electing senior judges. A balance needs to be struck between high levels of technical expertise and electoral accountability; however there is a problem in civil society when so many important organisations are ‘overseen’ by appointees.

Sadly, ‘feudal’ thinking about government in Scotland, that the Great-and-the-Good shall rule unelected and therefore by patronage, has not fundamentally changed

The difference between an officer appointed to either the civil service or local government, and those that head many structures that intermesh and control Scotland is that for the civil service/council position the criteria for selection and the process of appointment is regulated by rules applied to all posts of the same level by (in most cases) independent officers of the state. The rules of selection are relatively easy to understand and – in principle – to amend.

The problem is not necessarily one of absolute ability. Many of the GGs might be appropriate people were the “jobs” actually to be advertised and the posts filled by application to (say) a quality HR department, but they have no claim to democratic legitimacy, and no necessary claim to technical competence. In practice – with a mixture of the usual suspects and patronage – a cadre of people who have done ‘this sort of thing before’ is built up and drawn from.

Then there are the non-jobs. These are devised in order to provide an apparently worthy income for people it would otherwise be inconvenient to have hanging around. Individuals are thus added to boards who cannot, or do not, and are often not expected to, effectively oversee. They add to the number but not the weight. The sheer number of individuals on boards is sometimes used as a proxy for representation – given the process of selection and the incentives provided to selectors to choose quiescent or ‘reasonable’ people – this ‘citizen jury’ claim is false.

We need grass roots up empowerment; people must be motivated to take part

At a Scotland-wide level, on these sorts of Non-Departmental Public Body (NDPB), a very few people chose the heads, the board, the chief executive. To take one example, there is a charity (Glasgow Life) which now controls the museums and many of the halls and swimming pools that Glasgow City Council once ran. It also defines library delivery, sport provision and music opportunity in Glasgow. It negotiates with the Council about the services it provides in return for the cash the local authority will pay. It gets a tax advantage for not being a local government organisation. One of the central problems with all of this is that few Glaswegians will easily understand or in any way affect either its structure or its controlling membership. On the CSG board (in August 2010) sat: six councillors plus: The Rt Hon George Reid, The Rt Hon Lord Macfarlane of Bearsden KT, Sir Angus Grossart, Mel Young, and Dr Bridget McConnell.

Now all of these are fine people (some are titled people) but none were elected to these important jobs. Even the councillors were not elected as directors. It needs remembering that directors of boards or trustees of charities have different responsibilities and accountabilities in law to those required of elected councillors. Glasgow Life is perhaps the most diverse and visible of the non-Glasgow Council bodies that run Glasgow Council functions; however another – CORDIA – runs the most vital care services in the city but even with five councillors on the board it is not a part of the Council. Nor is there an enforced political balance on ALEO councillor appointments, which given that commercial confidentiality can prohibit oversight, reduces transparency to fog.

What should be the democratic response? There are several actions which might be taken and attitudes which could be changed:

Cut or Amalgamate
The first of these is always attempted by incoming administrations – question whether we need this number of bodies and attempt to cut and/or amalgamate or bring the job back to a general elected body. A bonfire of the ALOs/Qangos has been promised for as long as anyone can remember. Some come, some go, but it will take a self denying ordinance on the part of central government to forgo and (for the minister) the – faint possibility – of government policy actually being delivered by the appointees, or at least the action headline.

No ‘contracting out’
To make any of this stick at both local and national level – a general principle of the non commutation of powers should be adopted – and only breached exceptionally. If people are elected to bodies with wide powers and responsibilities it should in general not be possible to ‘sub-contract’ those powers to a body with non elected decision makers whose work cannot be directly controlled or overseen by the parent body.

Level playing field
There is no Scottish wide public policy reason for the existence of the majority of local government ALEOs. The understandable local reason is to circumvent tax- or capital-raising rules applied to the parent body, and to enable extra councillor remuneration. If a Council could raise capital against well-audited commercial activity, and set a visible remuneration level for senior councillors, and above all get absurd tax penalties dealt with – there would be little incentive to set up local ALEOs. Prudential borrowing properly conceived, the right number of allowed senior councillor posts and scrapping nationally collected business rates applied to local government owned property and/or getting charity tax status for activities otherwise deemed ‘charitable’ by the relevant body, would balance incentives.

Open/Transparent/Fairly shared
There is a depressing sameness to the individuals asked to sit on boards. This is true of the private sector and commercial companies. It should not be true of public bodies. There should be an aim to widen the ‘pool’ from which members are drawn, and to train this wider ‘selectorate’ to assist representation and wider civil society. One small but practical way to achieve this might be to place a limit on multiple membership of these sorts of body and also on serial membership. In addition, each member of the board should be required to submit an individual report evaluating how they have contributed to the workings and aims of the board in the last year to be added to a corporate report. Whatever structure the professional (largely unelected) organisations take – all meetings should be open, all decisions challengeable, possibly by structured appeal to the originating body – council or government department. The secrecy of “commercial confidentiality” should not be applied to their internal affairs, and should be kept to a (legally challengeable) minimum when dealing with private individuals or private companies.

Local – Elected
If there is – what has been termed – a democratic deficit, why not directly elect people to these sorts of boards? Unfortunately a direct election to a high level board is not usually a viable solution for a number of reasons, mainly because few want to take part in the types of board on offer and few bother to vote for them. They might reasonably suspect they would have no very profound input and the time and trouble to become informed enough to contribute to one of these bodies tends to favour those who either worked in the controlled area for a living or have been on one of these sorts of body before. The non professionals, whilst nominally in charge might discover that they are not expected to contribute but rather to supinely agree to the professional advice.

We need grass roots up empowerment; people must be motivated to take part. If the change happens relatively quickly some people are keen to take “decisions that directly change their immediate surroundings”. Westminster-appointed bodies need to cede power and resources to Holyrood and they in turn to local councils and they in turn to geographically small but general local bodies. One solution to the lack of general electoral interest in getting elected to arms length bodies would be to attempt to reformulate the basis of their existence (and operation) from topic specific (largely theoretical) control over a wide geographical area to general control of a local area. In a sense this reinvents very local councils; local burghs or community councils with powers. They could then operate the way most people would want community planning to work – with representatives actually chosen by the community in a transparent way.

With geographically small but generally competent bodies there are problems of scale. The more local an organisation the more there is replication and a need for costly communication with other similar bodies sharing physical or functional boundaries. These are real problems, but co-ops of shared institutional resources are working right now. Joint police/ fire boards, joint buying entities, joint pension fund arrangements, and community resource centres are all examples – admittedly not without their own problems.

The GGs will tell us that there is no need for all this fuss – that they have ever had the best interests of the rest of us at heart. Those who appoint and dismiss the current crop of committee people will tell us that all is ultimately under their control and the theoretical control (or at least oversight) of elected individuals. So all is (ultimately) democratic or (at the very least) legitimate.

If we believe them absolutely – we need do nothing. If we rather think that there is a massive disenfranchisement at the core of appointed government, then a “bonfire of the (Qango/Aleo/NDPB)s” appears necessary but (it has been argued here) is not a sufficient solution. History shows they rise again. A change in the mind set of governance is needed. Perhaps we should set up a NDPB to oversee the change?