So…how do we make decisions?

Before getting started here – large thanks to Anthony Zacharzewski from DemSoc for putting me right on a number of things – all mistakes still existing are clearly my own….

One of the things I like most about working through the blog is that a piece can start off as one thing and become something quite different. I thought this post was going to be something fairly straightforward documenting decision making processes in Local Government. Through writing it I realised that there is not a lot to write in terms of formal processes – we elect people and they make decisions. What makes this complex is the Political manoeuvring both from politicians and (with a small P) officers in order to get to the point of making decisions. With this in mind its hardly surprising that the public don’t feel part of the process.

So it turns out that this is all really an extension of the post I did on co-production last week and is really an outline one for a series of interviews I now want to do over the next couple of months with decision makers of all kinds in order to describe the special balance that exists between politicians and officers in most councils. Its an attempt to fill in the detail of what I mean when I talk about wanting to connect the informal civic participation of the social web with ‘formal democratic decision making processes’. This is really picking up on the detail of the ‘formal democratic’ from my catagorisation model as well as responding to some of the issues that will arise from the virtual town hall pilot at Kirklees (Decision Making 2.0) as we actually start to combine political and consultative processes.

These interviews should help describe the requirements for a decision making space from the point of view of officers and members with the work I am doing at the pilot site describing similar views from citizens.

Its also interesting to reflect on these issues as someone who has spent much of the last 8 years trying to get decisions out of councils (I deliberately don’t talk about positive decisions – after 6 years of talking to one Council we just wanted any decision at that point!!!). Because of the democratic impact of the decision to webcast council meetings over at Public-i we have spent a lot of time bouncing with greater or lesser degrees of productiveness between the bureaucratic and political decision making processes of local government and it gives an insight into how a decision that is often perceived as both political and risky is managed (or avoided) through the system.

But in the grand theory of everything this of course links to what I was writing about last week – how do we manage power and how does that power manifest itself into a decision. I don’t want to go over old ground and talk about the relationship between officers and politicians as I am still happy with my post on formal civic behaviours but I do want to return to one passage in that post:

We talk about lack of trust in the representatives from the public – surely its understandable that the officers often share that lack of trust? After all they are the public as well! There are some brilliant councillors out there – both online and offline – but there are few that are able to form an effective working relationship with officers and too few officers who have the skills to help them do this. But until we acknowledge the elephant in the room and start to innovate with members rather than in parallel with them then we are not going to be able to effect radical change to the way in which we work. But we cannot make any changes without treating elected representatives as politicians and accepting this as part of their decision making context and stop being afraid of it.

Because the hard fact is that decisions are taken by members and that consultation processes should exist in order to inform those decisions – and yet they don’t.

We can use and will use technology to improve the consultation process and to build in more transparency and openness but unless we also find ways to let the public set the agenda and the context, and unless we embrace the fact that decision making in a democratic process is political then we are really talking about sticking plasters and triage rather than the more radical surgery that will be needed in order to really change the relationship between the citizen and state and to create new ways of making decisions.

The essence of this is the fact that we need to embrace the fact that decision making within Councils is political – and there is no point in trying to sanitise this out of the process.

In terms of the decision making process I work from a fairly simple decision making model which doesn’t reference the political context:

  1. Set the agenda – what’s the decision about?
  2. Set the context – What do we need to take into account when making the decision?
  3. Deliberate the options – How do we weigh off our options within this context
  4. Make the decision – How do we make a decision that takes into account the context, the options and the opinions of the people who will be effected.

This is initially in parallel with models that have been defined within the eParticipation literature and I would particularly reference Ann MacIntosh’s work in “Characterizing E-Participation in Policy-Making” which uses the following:

  1. Agenda setting: establishing the need for a policy or a change in policy and defining what the problem to be addressed is.
  2. Analysis: defining the challenges and opportunities associated with an agenda item more clearly in order to produce a draft policy document. This can include: gathering evidence and knowledge from a range of sources including citizens and civil society organizations; understanding the context, including the political context for the agenda item; developing a range of options.
  3. Creating the policy: ensuring a good workable policy document. This involves a variety of mechanisms which can include: formal consultation, risk analysis, undertaking pilot studies, and designing the implementation plan.
  4. Implementing the policy: this can involve the development of legislation, regulation, guidance, and a delivery plan.
  5. Monitoring the policy: this can involve evaluation and review of the policy in action, research evidence and views of users. Here there is the possibility to loop back to stage one.

However as you can see I diverge after the analysis phase where I suggest a deliberative process rather than the creation of a policy. My criticism of MacIntosh’s model here is that it does not include the formative act of taking a decision – instead if moves from creation of the policy to its implementation without that decision making point. This is the basis of a larger criticism of much of the e Participation literature in that it supports the comfortable lie that consultation and engagement can happen in parallel with the political process and as having meaning in and of themselves rather than being characterised as a support function to political decision making.

What do I mean by decision?

In this instance I am talking about making a judgement on an action or path which will require the use of Council resources to implement or the creation of a policy which will subsequently affect future actions.  As I am talking about decisions being made by ‘The Council’ then this relates to decisions that are devolved to Local Government rather than being subject to national legislation.

Local Government – what exactly are you talking about?

Local Government – Councils – describes the tier of government that is elected regionally rather than nationally and which is responsible for running much of the infrastructure of the Country as well as delivering services such as social support, housing and education. Council’s can take one of 4 formats; County, District, Metropolitan or Unitary – with the Greater London Authority being something else entirely as is the City of London. Below this there is also a network of Parish Council’s with very limited and localised powers which I will pick up on later.

The important thing to remember is that it is the Council that has the power – but often that power is used to delegate the power to a committee – thus making it in many case powerless – make sense yet?

But the complexity is actually in the relationship between the Council and the Leader / Cabinet as following the Local Government Act 2000 the Committee system was abolished and Council’s required to follow one of these forms of executive process:

  • Leader and cabinet executive
  • Mayor and cabinet executive
  • Alternative arrangement

There was a fourth format, Mayor and council manager executive, which was repealed by the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Act 2007. With the exception of a few specified ‘alternative arrangements’ most Councils’ run either a Mayor or Leader system alongside their Cabinet. The Local Government Act 2006 (which Councils’ are in process of transitioning to) amended “Leader and Cabinet” to “Executive Leader and Cabinet” which further changed the balance here as executive functions are defined in law and given to the leader as an individual rather than being delegated. This splits the Council’s powers with the idea of providing more leadership and the potential for balance as the Full Council and Leader are not able to exercise each others powers. This might all change again soon as the Government has proposed bringing the old committee system back which once again has the Full Council delegating to committees but we shall have to wait and see on this.

So – where are the decisions are made? Mmmm… definitive answer here…..because either power is only delegated to the Cabinet or the spilt between Executive and Full Council powers means that neither can take dramatic action without the support of the other. In other cases, for example Participatory Budgeting, power may be delegated to other groups – however the actual power continues to rest with the Full Council – ie all of the elected representatives. The impact of this is the fact that the political strength of the Leader / Cabinet, ie how well it can reflect or manage the will of the full council, dictates the scope of its decision making power. What it does do is emphasis the fact that these decisions are driven by politics.

But what about community governance?

But that of course is not the whole story as there are a number of neighbourhood level boards, committees and other gatherings that need to be taken into account. A 2008 paper from Joseph Rowntree Foundation called “Designing citizen-centred governance” provided an overview of the governance structures in Birmingham. The list below is a subset of the full list in the paper:

  • Birmingham City Council
  • 10 District committees
  • 40 Ward committees
  • 70 Birmingham neighbourhood forums
  • 20 Community networks
  • 2 New Deal for Communities

Other parts of government are in a similar position with Birmingham having:

  • 3 NHS primary care trusts
  • 10 District strategic partnerships
  • 2 NHS foundation trusts
  • West Midlands Police
  • Community safety partnership

and of course we also have the Birmingham Strategic Partnership. Birmingham is in no way untypical but with this volume of structures it is not surprising that decision making becomes opaque and the lack of trust that we see manifested in the democratic deficit starts to impact. And this is not the end of it – Anthony also points out, for example, the existence of shared NHS/Council bodies such as Joint Commissioning Boards, “which have even murkier arrangements because they are half responsible to health minister and half to councillors.” Decision making is as a result complex and one of your first difficulties is in finding out who is making the decision.

But if we are talking about any group below the level of Full Council the question is what power do these neighbourhood groups really have? A Young Foundation report “Communities in the Big Society: shaping, managing,running” says:

“Parish councils are the only bodies operating at neighbourhood level that currently have statutory power to directly control and fund a range of basic community services. They are empowered to raise funds through local council tax precepts and to commission or provide a range of local services such as footpaths, streetlighting, bus shelters, playing fields, sports facilities, allotments and community buildings. In some cases they also support the delivery of other services such as village shops, ICT training, play services and social support for the elderly by providing partial funding, community buildings, or access to volunteers.”

This question of funds is a critical one as this gives Parish’s (or Town Council’s) a distinctly different profile when compared with other neighbourhood formats and could be a critical difference as we start to see decisions and responsibilities being devolved as part of a co-productive relationship between citizen and government.

New forms of governance and devolution have been experimented with, for example New Deal Communities or Neighbourhood Management Partnerships but neither of these have the statutory powers of the Parish Council – though they may have other advantages in terms of specific reach or access to particular funding streams. Again Anthony pointed out to me that Parish’s are now about to be created in urban areas with the alternative name neighbourhood or community council and that if they meet the Quality Parish standards they are able to exercise the “wellbeing power” which gives them some degree of latitude to act beyond the Parish’s normal remit “to secure the economic and social wellbeing of the area”. What makes up a quality Parish is probably up for debate – but some semblance of democracy rather than droit de seigneur seems to be the heart of the matter.

Consult, engage or decide?

But getting back to the original question of how Council’s take decisions – Its difficult to talk about how decisions are taken without also looking at the dynamic between consultation and decision making. The consultation function is ostensibly there to provide additional depth to the decision making process by ensuring that the decision makers have a clear understanding of the nature of the issue under debate and the views of those citizens most effected by the outcomes. In some cases additional consultation is mandated by Central Government and in other cases it is there as a decision support tool. My observation – and this is something that I want to qualify through the interviews I am running – is that consultation is often used to subvert the democratic process, either by officers who want to demonstrate the problems with the member’s strategy or by politicians who don’t have the political strength to get decisions through the process. The final reason for running consultation processes of course the need to persuade the public that a decision is the right one – communication dressed up as consultation.

But how does this effect decision making? Well – hardly at all – and that is a major issue for the public who have a not unreasonable expectation that having been asked their opinion it will be taken into account when a decision is made. Very little formative research – i.e. research that asks people to shape or create rather than critique ideas – is undertaken by Council’s with the focus being put on asking people to give specific feedback on specific issues. If you reflect on why this might be you may conclude that there is an expectation that formative work is carried out by the elected representatives. But this is not a sound conclusion when taken in conjunction with a democratic deficit which demonstrates at best a weak mandate for decision making by Members.

So what seems at the outset to be fairly simple with powers clearly resting with either Council or Leader/Cabinet is far more complex and inherently political in that what the public might perceive as a decision – for example “lets build a new shopping centre” – actually has to take a journey between different committees and functions as it moves through the decision making process. My decision making model looks hopelessly simplistic as the political debate might seek to shift both the context and the options before the Council actually takes that decision. Decision making is in fact iterative rather than linear and if we want to be more transparent in the decision making process then we need to consider what this means – and that’s another post I think.

And if this is not complex enough – one thing that is rarely taken into consideration is how the professional knowledge and personal inclinations of officers also impacts on this process – and the way in which Consultation has grown up as a parallel power base within many organisations demonstrates this. The question is how to return consultation to the decision support role and to embrace the fact that the decision making process is political. Co-production – equal sharing of power – requires this but we will still need decision support and this is potentially even more difficult when you are dealing with a wider group of people who are almost certainly less rather than more statistically literate and able to interpret the results of consultation processes. There is a link here to the effect of open data which I want to draw out in a different post – perhaps alongside something on transparency.


Democratic decisions are taken when the decision makers are transparently representative of the citizens who the decision effects. This power of representation may be ceded to other groups but unless it is formally and legally passed on then the responsibility lies with the representatives. There are strong arguments for improving this democratic function at a neighbourhood level (if we can meet Quality Parish standards!!) and going beyond the budget setting process to more formal governance and representation however this is not yet happening on a wide spread basis no matter what the Big Society rhetoric of the current government might say. This further devolution would sit well with the hyperlocal activity that we see online and reflect the fact that this micro units are possible in a network society.

Ultimately decisions are taken where the power is – for democracy the problem comes when there is a lack of strong political leadership and where what leadership we have has a weak mandate from the public in terms of low voter turnout. We have a crisis of political leadership at a local level in the UK in that we struggle to find people to stand – let alone have the opportunity to have a competitive race for the post in many areas. The Councillor Census 2008 showed:

  • Only 30.8% of Councillors are women (and that’s an increase!)
  • 96.6% of councillors are white
  • The average age of councillors has increased from 55 years in 1997 to 59 years in 2008, and the proportion under 45 has fallen from 18.4% to 13.1% over the same period.

This does not reflect well on a representative democracy. The crisis in democratic participation means that the critical question about devolving democratic powers to a more local level may not be whether this is more democratic but whether or it will allow us to recruit more participants. Currently most people who exercise their democratic rights at a local level tend to do this in direct response to National politics – who else is expecting the Liberal Democrats to get a liberal kicking at the next Local Government elections that has nothing to do with their performance within local government? Democracy functions through participation – we may pontificate about the problems with devolving responsibility to the Parish (or equivalent) level but if this is where we can get people to participate then this may answer our most pressing issue.

However I don’t believe that this devolution is enough – what may then be needed are new forms of representation – for example using specialists or mixed length terms in order to reflect the flexibility and fluidity of the community at the same time as looking to strengthen representation at a neighbourhood level where the burden of time needed to fulfil a role will be much less and where the act of representing your community will have a more direct impact than in representing a larger group of people. We also need more iterative decision making processes that allow for the ongoing negotiation and context and proposal against the initial agenda setting process so that people can have an actual impact within the event horizon of their more flexible participation.

Understanding how we make decisions is also part of this – showing people where they can have an effect and then inviting them to participate in that process in a way that makes sense to them.

  1. Paul Johnston

    November 11, 2010 at 6:53 pm

    Wow, Catherine, what a post 🙂 As you will have gathered, I am trying to promote transparent policy making at a central government level where it is certainly no easier! I will try to send you a recent unpublished paper I have done on this and then maybe we can chat. Paul

    • curiouscatherine

      November 11, 2010 at 9:03 pm

      Thank you Paul! Would love to read your paper – assume you have my email address? If not then DM me and I’ll send it over. C

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