Councillors will meet on Monday to consider radical changes to the SIC’s political management, including a new committee structure and the introduction of separate political and civic leadership roles.
It is part of a wide-ranging “improvement plan” being driven by chief executive Alistair Buchan in response to last year’s Accounts Commission report, which identified a range of shortcomings within the SIC including a lack of commanding leadership.
He said the initial aim was to provide political stability ahead of local authority elections in May 2012, when present convener Sandy Cluness is due to retire after almost a decade in the position. Ultimately Mr Buchan foresees the possibility of public bodies in Shetland working more closely together and perhaps sharing some back-office functions.
Two different packages are being put before members, both of which would see the political leadership role split into distinct functions, convener and leader/vice-convener. One possibility is for Mr Cluness to remain as civic head, with a new political leader. One possible candidate for the latter role is recently-resigned services committee chairman Gussie Angus.
The convener would continue to chair council meetings, undertake ambassadorial, civic and ceremonial functions on the community’s behalf and act as the “conscience of the council”. The leader/vice-convener would be expected to provide strong political leadership and direction and to represent the SIC at political level on the Scottish mainland.
As has long been expected, the SIC’s two large committees – infrastructure and services – are to be divvied up into more manageable workloads. Mr Buchan will also spend the coming weeks looking at how to restructure the local authority’s senior management team.
If councillors opt for the first model being put forward by Mr Buchan, a powerful “executive” team of 11 councillors will be created and given wide responsibility for all decision-making not constitutionally delegated to the Full Council.
The executive would be supported by four “service planning forums” under the following areas: community, health and well-being; children, families and learning; economy and development; environment.
Mr Buchan’s report states: “What is envisaged is a body operating in an open and inclusive and whenever possible consensual way. This means all councillors having equal access to information and the ability to influence.
“So the model envisages all members not just entitled but encouraged to attend executive meetings and ask questions and make contributions to the debate with the executive itself taking account of that input in its decision taking.”
A subtly different second model would see an executive committee created with less far-reaching powers, with four committees created under the same headings as above. Under either model, the committees/forums would comprise 11 councillors – one from each electoral ward, a chair, a vice-chair and two members appointed to reflect skill and expertise in the relevant area.
Mr Buchan, who has roped in the assistance of consultant Nigel Stewart – formerly a director with Argyll and Bute Council – said the changes would not cost the SIC any more money and may even create some modest efficiency savings.
The chief executive told The Shetland Times: “The way in which the council carries out its decisions shouldn’t be the thing that’s in the spotlight. The focus should be on the major policy decisions that it takes.
“But we’re anxious that we all work for the good of the council as a whole. This isn’t simply about changing committee structures, it’s about driving change for the organisation as a whole. If we make changes at a top level that sends a signal to the whole of the council.
“All major decisions will continue to be taken by the Full Council. Nigel met with every single councillor and there was an appetite for a smaller group of councillors who would act as the leadership and take responsibility for the overall picture. It would be very much normal practice [within a local authority] for there to be a group of members charged with the responsibility of coordinating and leading the organisation.”