A radical overhaul of the way Shetland Islands Council operates is required to satisfy the Accounts Commission that the beleaguered authority is capable of dealing with the problems identified in its recent, heavily critical report, according to new chief executive Alistair Buchan.
In a paper to be discussed by members at next week’s Full Council meeting, Mr Buchan makes 15 separate and broad ranging recommendations for change, including reform of the committee system and a re-organisation of senior management.
The debate around his proposals, which he describes as “initial”, will take place against the backdrop of outspoken attacks by some councillors on convener Sandy Cluness and critical remarks by Scottish finance secretary John Swinney.
Mr Buchan says the “improvement process” should be the council’s primary focus over the next year, stressing that there are significant risks “if the council does not embrace a radical agenda for change and in doing so also addresses the findings of the Accounts Commission”.
“The overall approach I have taken to date has been to pursue as much internal and external consultation as possible within the extremely tight time constraints in which I have had to operate. Through these discussions I have identified as many areas of significant common ground as possible with a view to securing agreement around a package of measures which can act as a spearhead for change. I am confident that through these measures the council can build a sense of forward momentum which can rapidly be widened and accelerated,” he writes.
Albeit using diplomatic language, Mr Buchan is explicitly critical of the way things have been done at the council. For example, there is a “need for some urgent work on aspects of member/officer relations and being clear on respective roles and responsibilities”. Likewise, on good governance and accountability, he believes it is “necessary to instil an ethos where the proper application of these two essential factors are seen as a core part of our normal business”.
He also wants a full review of the council’s budget process, with some emphasis on how to incentivise and achive efficiency savings. A “stringent but sensible” approach to job numbers will be adopted, with reductions in numbers “by voluntary means wherever possible”. Broadly, however, the budget process will continue as set until November or December when the scale of the cuts imposed by the Scottish government on the council’s revenue support, as a result of the UK coalition government’s actions, will be known.
Mr Buchan recommends that the council:
- Formally agrees that the development and delivery of the improvement plan will be the top priority for the next 12 months;
- Approves an urgent review of the council’s committee and decision-making structures;
- Takes immediate steps to strengthen the “corporate centre” and delegates authority to him to consult with staff and unions where appropriate;
- Agrees that there will be a review of the senior management structure within the next 12 months;
- Commits to an urgent review of the budget strategy;
- Seeks an urgent report on member/official protocols and member/official relations;
- Authorises him to commission such external assistance as is required to support the improvement plan;
- Establishes a communications office within his office;
- Updates the council’s policy of jobs dispersal to modernise working arrangements and support economic development;
- Approves a programme of informal members’ seminars at least once every cycle;
- Agrees to a full and urgent “options appraisal” on the qualification of SIC accounts and the issue of grouping accounts with the Shetland Charitable Trust;
- Authorises the establishment of a “sounding board” of seven councillors to help out with the improvement process.
Meanwhile Mr Swinney is seeking a meeting with Mr Buchan and Mr Cluness to seek re-assurance that everything possible is being done to change the way the council does its business.
In a letter to the council, he said: “I was deeply concerned to read that the Accounts Commission findings set out a number of serious challenges for your council concerning leadership, vision and strategic direction, governance, financial management and accountability.
“The commission recommends that, as a matter of urgency, a comprehensive programme of improvements are put in place and I would strongly encourage your council to accept the findings in full and take immediate action to address the issues raised. Having a new interim chief executive should assist you in these efforts.”
He said it was “essential” that every councillor applied themselves “with both diligence and the expected standards of corporate leadership, governance and discipline”. “As a council, you must also ensure rigorous systems are put in place to support clear and transparent decision making and implement and sustain your financial strategy, demonstrating you can deliver services which secure best value.
“The people of Shetland have a right to expect that their council can meet its best value obligations and so be in a position to secure the best possible outcomes for them. I understand that the commission has sought a further report by the Controller of Audit in 12 months time and I would welcome your re-assurance that all involved are now clearly and resolutely focused on what needs to be done.”