A councillor is calling for an open debate about the way the council is run and advocating a series of reforms that he believes will make it a much more effective organisation.
Lerwick South member Jonathan Wills has circulated a discussion paper to fellow members of the SIC audit and scrutiny committee and officials which he hopes will prompt discussion and positive change.
Among the suggestions he makes is restructuring the current system of council super-departments such as education and social care and infrastructure into a series of smaller and more manageable series of departments, each with its own council committee to ensure better democratic oversight.
Dr Wills said he acknowledged that many things in the council were done extremely well, and that there were many talented and conscientious staff. However, he added: “We have to start by looking at what isn’t working as well as it might.”
Dr Wills, a persistent critic of the council leadership under convener Sandy Cluness and outgoing chief executive Morgan Goodlad, says in the paper: “The political leadership of the council appears to consult much more with senior officials than with senior elected colleagues.
“For example, there seem to be no regular meetings of office-bearers to discuss the issues of the day, the week or even the month, and to come up with proposals for dealing with problems such as the looming financial crisis. In other words, we have no effective political management team to challenge, monitor and direct the executive team of paid managers and directors.
“No-one is suggesting that decisions should be taken in private by a cabal – decisions can only be taken by properly constituted meetings – but the political executive ought to be keeping a much closer eye on things. What seems to me to be happening instead is that this function is carried out informally by the convenor and chief executive in almost daily conclave, with little involvement of other senior office bearers.
“This is one of the worst features of our ‘non-political’ system in this council. It is surely not necessary to split into party groups or factions in order to have a functioning political executive.”
Dr Wills says democratic organisation is virtually non-existent, allowing a powerful chief executive and/or convener to dominate the council’s agenda and exclude most councillors from serious involvement in policy formulation.
“What seems to be happening is what is known in the trade as ‘chaos management’ where everything is in a constant state of flux and no-one except [those at] the centre knows exactly what’s going on.”
He says it is difficult to place unpopular or unfashionable ideas on the agenda, “creating a façade of official unanimity so that quite serious policy disagreements between senior officials and the executive are not aired at committee as they should be, thus limiting the range, quality and frankness of the advice available to councillors”.
He says the “remarkable mismatch” between the list of projects on the capital programme and the funds available to pay for them was the result of poor political leadership, a reluctance to take unpopular decisions and the “astonishing” decision last year to do away with the points system for evaluating projects and listing them in order of priority.
Dr Wills also rounds on the amount of corporate jargon that finds its way into council papers and the glaring lack of clear English in use, sometimes by senior managers.
“There have also been some fairly embarrassing grammatical and syntactical deficiencies at the highest level. This does not always impede understanding and communication (because we usually know what they really mean) but it does make the council look silly. We have a right to expect fluent literacy in senior management.”
He says the bad press the council gets is largley its own fault.
“I can honestly say I don’t detect any systematic bias [in the local media] against the council. Their job is to report news and sometimes news is what we don’t want to get out. A bad press is almost always the result of our incompetence – either getting things so badly wrong that the media are bound to portray the council in a bad light or being so useless at communications that even our achievements are ignored or sidelined.”
He continues: “What concerns me is our dull-witted, lumbering, amateurish response to a crisis. Some council political leaders need to sharpen up their performance in newspaper interviews, radio appearances and online (where we hardly exist).”
Dr Wills cites the recent report by financial watchdog Audit Scotland which criticised councillors for failing to keep spending under firm control. The report was leaked to The Shetland Times and only circulated to the councillors to whom it was addressed after a report on it appeared on this newspaper’s front page.
“How embarrassing was that for members? How do we explain it to constituents? How do we look?
Did someone think if we hid it for long enough it would just go away?
“Why wasn’t the council leadership out front immediately, saying: ‘Look, this report we’ve just received is bad. Yes, it’s very bad. That’s why we’re going to do something about it – and here’s what the convenor will be proposing to the next council meeting.’ Yes, I know that scenario sounds bizarre. And that’s the problem. Our media relations are not very good.”