- – first of a continuing series of “In My View” articles by NIGEL WARD
Who holds a Stake in the Stakeholders’ Steering Groups?
IN THE PUBLIC INTEREST
“All politics is local” – according to former US Speaker of the House Tip O’NEILL; meaning that a politician’s success is dependent on his (or her) ability to influence the immediate issues of his constituents.
Perhaps it should depend on the ability of his constituents to influence him.
Alas, few constituents have a clear grasp of how the chain of influence operates, or how to pull it in favour of their local needs and desires.
The business of Local Government is to provide amenities and services to the populace. In the Whitby area, the largest responsibility rests with North Yorkshire County Council (Education, Health, Highways etc), followed by Scarborough Borough Council (Planning, Environmental Services, Tourism etc), and, finally, Whitby Town (Parish) Council (Allotments).
SBC’s Mission Statement (Article 1.03 of the Constitution) states:
“Our Mission is: ‘to enhance the quality of life for those living in, working in, or visiting the Borough, by providing value for money services, consulting people and putting them first’.”
Like all Councils, SBC has a statutory duty to consult the public and factor public opinion into the decision-making process.
Increasingly, these consultations are conducted under the auspices of so-called “Stakeholders’ Steering Groups”.
The curious thing is that these Stakeholders’ Steering Groups are very difficult to scrutinise. They are formed and administered by Officers of SBC, who define the Terms of Reference and appoint members according to their own lights. Meetings are held in inaccessible locations at awkward times of the day; Agendas and Minutes are not published.
Richard INESON has made a detailed study of the many Stakeholders’ Steering Groups in the Whitby area. I will leave it to him to tell the tale. For the moment, suffice it to say that it has taken dozens of FOIA requests to discover that:
- · Members’ names have been withheld under a spurious application of the Data Protection Act 1998.
- · Notice of Meetings has not been publicised.
- · Agendas and Minutes have not been publicised.
It is clear that the nature, function and legal status of these Groups are a matter of some considerable secrecy. Is that not passing strange, considering that their alleged purpose is to solicit the input of the public?
So who does hold a stake in the Stakeholders’ Steering Groups?
The Stakeholders’ Steering Groups are invariably designed and conducted by SBC Officers. The membership is appointed – not elected. Members may be Councillors, Officers, third sector representatives, other public services (Police, Fire, Health Services, etc), trade lobby groups and representatives from special interest groups (sports clubs, hobby associations, etc).
The Meetings take place on SBC premises (or premises hired by SBC) and are provided with clerical services (Minuting, copying, postage etc) by SBC – paid for from the public purse. And yet, the public are neither informed, invited nor admitted.
The influence exerted by Stakeholders’ Steering Groups on the decision-making process is, in theory, only persuasive – they can recommend, but they do not decide. But it is very clear that Officers have great freedom in selecting compliant members whose input will be welcome – and, conversely, leaving out likely sources of objection or contention. There are pre-existent objectives. And there are plenty of politically savvy self-interest operators who are well-versed in manipulating the process.
It is in the nature of politics that individuals gravitate towards those with whom they share common opinion and common purpose. The danger lurks in the possibility of cliques making alliances for their own ends and counter to the public interest – and of doing so on a serial basis.
Enter, the usual suspects.
Richard’s work demonstrates that this is commonplace within the Borough.
We have been promised a new era of ‘transparency and accountability’.
In my view, the admittance of press and public to Stakeholders’ Steering Groups – and, indeed, all meetings at which influence is brought to bear on decisions that effect public life and public expenditure – is absolutely fundamental to a truly democratic society.
That is my opinion.
“For too long those in power made decisions behind closed doors, released information behind a veil of jargon and denied people the power to hold them to account. This coalition is driving a wrecking ball through that culture – and it’s called transparency.” – [David Cameron. Sept 2010]