Published:

Cllr Robert Ward represents Selsdon and Addington Village Ward on Croydon Council.

A study by management guru, Jim Collins, concluded that you start off on the path to greatness by confronting the brutal facts of the organisation. The facts about Croydon Council are as brutal as it gets. There is a bookshelf full of reports, still being added to, following the Section 114 Notice, effectively declaring its bankruptcy. From the Non-statutory Review the Council is:

“Unfamiliar with taking and implementing difficult financial decisions and as a consequence it has engendered a culture of poor budget management and poor financial control.”

The Council’s failings were attributed to “poor leadership and poor management over a number of years.” The Report in the Public Interest euphemistically cited a “collective corporate blindness.”

To declare an interest, I was for the last three years, and am, the opposition Scrutiny lead. My response to the bankruptcy, like that of Council employees and Croydon residents, was anger and disbelief that the situation was so bad. My feelings had an extra edge because throughout the last three years I believed the Council was dysfunctional. I made those views known, but at the end of the day I did not take the crucial step of voting to refer decisions back for reconsideration.

As has emerged since the issuing of the Section 114 Notice, reality was worse than I had imagined. Dipping again into management-speak, if successful project management produces “no surprises”, each report on the Council’s failure has regularly produced not just surprises, but jaw droppers. The organisation appears to have had few business processes and did not take seriously those it had.

The mess was covered up by delay, obfuscation, and secrecy. That is a toxic mix, but on top of that, the Regina Road scandal revealed that far from being delivered a service, the council’s housing tenants were treated with contempt. Getting out of this mess is not going to be quick or easy, because it is not about easily fixable issues, it is about culture.

I dislike the use of ‘culture’ to describe a failing organisation. It puts a veneer of respectability around what is really a set of very bad habits. Contempt for customers, failure to follow proper processes, misleading those who try to find out what is going on, should not be dignified as ‘culture’. Whatever you call it, this is not something that can be changed quickly. To quote another management guru, culture eats strategy for lunch.

We now have the clarity of hindsight. The stock phrase is that we must learn lessons so that this never happens again. My personal view is that we need to re-think the approach to scrutiny, which is often expressed as that of a ‘critical friend’. That sounds very comfortable, but what do you do if your friend is an alcoholic? How long do you put up with denial or the faux outrage of “how dare you suggest I’ve been drinking”? How often do you give them the benefit of the doubt before calling the cops as they drive off, again, in an inebriated state?

For the moment may I offer fellow councillors three diagnostic tests.

Test 1 – The Freedom of Iinformation test

Quick and easy, put in a couple of Freedom of Information requests; I recommend using whatdotheyknow.com. Ask for simple things that every Council should have. Make sure you know what one looks like. If it comes back immediately, which it should, then you are in good shape. If nothing happens, or you get a document that is not a valid response then you have two indications – your FoI process does not work, and the council may not have a policy that it should have. Start to worry.

Test 2 – The complaints process test

Follow a few legitimate complaints. Complexity and delay are the failing council’s weapon of choice. A high proportion of residents, and councillors, can be relied upon to give up their complaint in the face of failure to respond and muddle. If you do not see a working complaints process, worry more.

Test 3 – The show-me test

Pick a matter of some importance, say, a significant decision on service delivery. The Council report will claim data gathering, analysis and evaluation of options, but typically show none of this. The options presented are typically what the council wants to do and the status quo, predetermined as inadequate. Ask for the analysis. Research what good looks like. I recommend the six elements of decision quality. If you are refused or get an inadequate response (including ‘commerciality’ or lack of officer time), start to worry a lot.

If your Council fails all three of these tests, my recommendation is that if you are in opposition, start voting against the administration; if you are in power, start losing sleep.