Cllr Ian McCord is the Leader of South Northamptonshire Council.
Recently I laid before South Northamptonshire Council (SNC) a set of resolutions to abolish it. Despite no fault on our part, the districts and boroughs are collateral damage from the financial meltdown of Northamptonshire County Council. SNC passed resolutions to submit to the Secretary of State a proposal for two new unitary councils in Northamptonshire. We are clear that such a plan does not solve the financial issues at NCC. Unitary councils will get £12m a year ongoing savings, but that is a just a contribution to the £70 million to £100 million a year problem. All seven districts and the county council met this week to discuss the plan, it was agreed by the seven Conservative ones with Labour controlled Corby voting to retain the socialist outpost serving their naked political self-interest.
The failure of NCC has been blamed on lack of funding, mismanagement, poor decision-making, or ineffective scrutiny. While these may have contributed to the omnishambles, I believe that groupthink was also to blame. This same cause has been attributed to other disastrous courses of action: the Bay of Pigs invasion, Challenger space shuttle disaster, and the Nazi invasion of Russia, are a few examples.
Research on groupthink identifies eight symptoms of groupthink – and from my observations I can spot most, if not all here.
Political groups are susceptible to groupthink, there is a desire to have group harmony and all being Conservative, we share a common set of values and beliefs – but a lack of challenge and lack of critical thinking can lead to disastrous outcomes as NCC is finding out.
Max Caller, the author of the Best Value report on NCC, recently said that when he went to NCC the leadership welcomed him initially. They all wanted to prove to him that the issue was government underfunding and set about showing him reams of data. His conclusion was that they were misinterpreting the data and did not pick up on what it was really telling them, namely that they were not any worse off than any other council and they had not effectively managed the situation.
The leadership had controlled the council for a long time and at each election increased the number of Conservative seats; it boasted proudly that Northants had the lowest council tax of any shire county in England. When a group has had success Illusions of invulnerability may develop, creating excessive optimism and encouraging risk taking. NCC’s Next Generation idea was excessively optimistic and a very risky way to try to close the gap in their finances. Finances that were supported by budgets with savings targets that had no realistic chance of being delivered.
I listened to many county councillors in leadership positions telling me how they had to do what they were doing just to save money, even though they knew it was crazy in the long term, like removing preventative services. This unquestioned belief in the morality of the group, causing members to ignore the consequences of their actions is another key symptom of groupthink.
Groupthink leads to closed-mindedness which appears in rationalising warnings that might challenge the group’s assumptions and stereotyping those who are opposed to the group as weak or stupid. With NCC both these were clearly present. When the Local Government Association gave their verdict at a Peer Review that NCC was sleepwalking to disaster it was dismissed – those involved saying they did not recognise the picture the LGA were painting. Two successive years KPMG gave an adverse value for money opinion on the accounts, but this to did not cause any behaviour change, all rationalised as no big deal. I was given reassurance that all was well, the plans were all sound and anyone, (me) who did not understand or see that was clearly too stupid to understand or too interested in watching it fail to take a positive view.
Groupthink also leads to enormous pressure to conform to the group view. Individuals self-censor themselves from doubting ideas that deviate from the apparent group consensus. As Conservative districts we had a lot of pressure not to have blue on blue attacks, for the supposed good of the party we were all guilty of not speaking out.
Without any dissent, Illusions of unanimity among group members are created where silence is viewed as agreement. I am aware of a senior NCC member who said to a colleague who was uneasy at a decision – “you were in the room when the decision was made therefore you agreed with it”. Direct pressure to conform to the group view is a key symptom. I was at a meeting with a former NCC leader, and other Conservative district leaders where we were described as ‘opponents’, and asked to remain silent at our meetings; strangely a reciprocal agreement was not forthcoming.
The final symptom of groupthink are mindguards, self-appointed members who shield the group from dissenting information. This was where the scrutiny process failed as they crossed from critical friends to being cheerleaders for the executive. A scrutiny chairman who admonishes Conservative councillors because they asked challenging questions by telling them they are not there to do the job of the Labour Party had become a mindguard. The switch from check and balance to uncritical supporter has cost the council and the party dear.
There are many lessons to be learned from the meltdown of NCC, but as Conservatives we should take care to ensure that groupthink does not take a grip. This for me is the biggest learning of the NCC problems and one that all groups and group leaders should learn from.