The leader of West Dunbartonshire on rebuilding the council’s reputation
West Dunbartonshire Council is no stranger to Audit Scotland and the Accounts Commission. In the first round of Best Value audits, the council was the subject of the first ever Accounts Commission public hearing, and remains one of only two local authorities – the other being Aberdeen – to have gone through the process.
When Audit Scotland’s initial Best Value report was published in October 2006, it identified serious problems within the council, including low staff morale due to a “culture of bullying and harassment” and a lack of transparency surrounding the rationale behind certain council decisions. On the back of this report, the Accounts Commission arranged a two-day hearing in November that year and West Dunbartonshire Council’s dirty laundry was finally aired in public and witnesses, including Jackie Baillie MSP and John McFall MP, broke ranks to slam the cronyism and culture of bullying that existed within the Labour Party administration.
Returning to the council in early 2008 following local government elections and the establishment of a minority SNP council administration, the commission found that improvements had been made in a short space of time. However, in its latest report in July this year, the findings were not quite so positive, and it was recommended that the council seek external assistance for its problems.
In August, West Dunbartonshire faced further controversy over chief executive David McMillan’s decision to stay in post following an earlier request to leave two years before his contract was up due to being “systematically undermined by some elected members”. No explanation was given as to why McMillan had had a change of heart – the council simply stated it was “business as usual”.
This is a statement which, when asked about elected members’ relationship with the chief executive, council leader Iain Robertson repeats. Contrary to claims that McMillan is now the reluctant chief of a council that doesn’t want him, Robertson says: “There was a council meeting at the beginning of the year where all the councillors bar one voted for a motion of confidence in David McMillan. Has the council progressed under his leadership as chief executive and are we better now than we were when he took over?
I think we’ve made progress. It’s business as usual as far as I’m concerned.” Being leader of a council so marred by organisational problems both past and present and presiding over a community with members among some of the most deprived in Scotland is rather obviously never going to be an easy task. Robertson does not deny the problems of his council, but it is apparent that he is eager to move on from the parochial politics and try and make some progress for his community. Describing himself as “very much a local boy”, he was born and raised in the Dumbarton area and says that the need to help West Dunbartonshire realise its full potential is his reason for being in politics.
“We want to make West Dunbartonshire a place of choice, we want people to choose to work here, choose to live here and choose to visit. And I think that for me is probably why I’m in this,” he explains.
“The council has been the subject of quite considerable attention in the media and with the Accounts Commission and Audit Scotland and I think a lot of it is not warranted because it doesn’t give you the full picture and I think it hasn’t been as balanced as it could be because there are many exemplary areas of work within the council.
“For me, the primary objective as leader is to improve people’s perception of West Dunbartonshire to allow them to see what actually the story is behind all the headlines.” West Dunbartonshire is not out of the woods yet, but Robertson can see a positive aspect of the latest Accounts Commission report. “The key thing for me in the last findings was that, rather than having a public hearing in Clydebank, like we had in 2006, we had an informal discussion with the commission. That tells you how far we’ve come,” he says. “We’re not going to endure another day in the public spotlight as a consequence of our audit.” The council has accepted the recommendations of the most recent report from the commission and while admitting disappointment with the findings, Robertson says that they helped the council to change tack. “It was clear from this one that we hadn’t been focusing or targeting our resources on the key points the last time so what we’ve done this time is, we’ve reconfigured the improvement and efficiency working group to focus specifically on the four main areas that the commission highlighted and we’ve changed work streams to focus in on that and we’ve considerably more elected member involvement in that,” he explains.
One of the issues the Accounts Commission identified as a problem within the council in the 2006 report was a lack of transparency in decision making. Since the Labour administration was voted out in May 2007 and the minority SNP administration took the reins, the nature of minority rule has meant that council politics has had to be conducted more openly.
“We’ve had some very interesting debates over the past two and a half years on different subjects but those debates took place in the chamber, in the public eye,” Robertson says.
“There is much more openness about being a minority administration because your decisions are taken in the council chambers.
I think on balance, it’s probably more positive than negative.
“Clearly when you have a minority administration, you have to work with others, which is a good thing, however, it does add a considerable edge to the political dimension and my view would be the bigger challenges for those who are in opposition not to oppose for opposing’s sake and that as an administration, we need to put forward a clear case for our actions and we would hope that the Opposition would support them because they are good proposals.” He adds: “We get the cooperation, we’ve had to learn how to work much more closely with our opponents and I think there has to be a certain amount of negotiation in that process, which is not a common feature – or hasn’t been a common feature – in the past in West of Scotland politics where it has been predominantly one party or the other, so decisions tend to be taken and they have that mandate to do so.” Progress is also being made to combat the bullying culture within the council, Robertson says. “I don’t get many elected members complaining about their working relationships with officers of the council, not at all. The basis of a good working relationship is elected members being able to go to officers and discuss and talk about issues and that happens on a daily basis, so I’m pretty comfortable.
“There have also been changes in terms of how we communicate corporately with our staff and I think that is starting to bear fruit.
I don’t think we communicated well in the past throughout the organisation corporately and I think we’ve made considerable strides in improving that.” While so much of the coverage of West Dunbartonshire has focused on squabbling and failings, the council has been making progress in areas such as shared services. As one of the eight councils in the Clyde Valley Partnership pilot, Robertson says West Dunbartonshire is eagerly awaiting Sir John Arbuthnott’s findings on the project, which are due before the end of the year.
Also, in partnership with NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde (NHS GG&C), West Dunbartonshire is currently looking at proposals to integrate services in order to reduce management costs. Although a recent report before the council has raised concern about the health board’s ability to persuade stakeholders and the public that it can engage with them, Robertson remains positive about the venture.
“The starting point for me is ‘is it a good thing that we merge or integrate the health services and our social care that the council provides?’. For me, the answer is a clear yes.
Once you’ve agreed that this is a good thing for the people of West Dunbartonshire, then it’s about how you manage that, how you then bring the integration together, how you merge two very different organisations.” Following a visit to Vantaa council in Finland, where Robertson discovered that the council was the single point of contact for all public service delivery, he became convinced that this model could be the way forward for Scotland. “They have a much greater integration and a much more cohesive delivery to the people that they serve,” he says.
“The message I came back with was very much one that we should be looking towards further integration of the health service and our social care.” Robertson believes that there is bound to be problems in the beginning – and as a non-executive member of the NHS GG&C health board, he is aware of the differences between the two organisations. “While elected members are responsible within local government, the board structure is somewhat different in the NHS so I’m not underestimating the challenges ahead in terms of how we achieve integration but you have to focus on what the final outcome will be,” he explains.
Despite financial planning being one of the areas criticised by Audit Scotland and the Accounts Commission in the past, Robertson believes that West Dunbartonshire is “doing OK” in its preparations for the cuts facing councils. A strategic finance working group has been formed specifically to look at future challenges. “Elected member involvement in the early stage through that particular working group is critical,” Robertson says.
“We want to avoid getting into the situation where we’re receiving reports very late and having to make big financial decisions very quickly. The recognition of what we’re facing is half the battle and I think we all recognise at elected member and officer level that we are facing a difficult financial climate going forward.
“Like everyone, I’m hoping it’s not going to be as hard as the analysts are predicting but I think we need to consider the worse-case scenario.”