With an impressive career which has seen him work for councils and organisations across the country, Douglas Sinclair is local government through and through. His broad knowledge and understanding of the sector was gained as chief executive of Ross and Cromarty District Council; Central Regional Council; Fife Council and COSLA.
“If you cut my veins, there would be local government blood running through them,” he laughed.
In his current role as chairman of public spending watchdog the Accounts Commission, Sinclair’s vast experience is invaluable. Sitting down with Holyrood in the organisation’s office in George Street, Sinclair reflects on his time in the job so far. Prior to his appointment in December 2013, he had been deputy chairman of the commission for six years.
He said: “One of the highlights for me since becoming chair would be the report we did on school education, which was a first in terms of looking at the role of councils in school education. It looked at how effective councils were in trying to improve performance in schools and also the efficiency and use of resources. One of the messages there was around the role of elected members. In the councils which were most successful, the elected members were more effective in holding their officers to account.
“Another highlight, which wasn’t a commission publication, was the publication by SOLACE and COSLA of the benchmarking report. This is a really ground-breaking piece of work. The responsibility for statutory performance indicators lies with the commission and we did all the work on them but there was never a sense that the performance indicators were owned by local government, it was something done to them. SOLACE and COSLA stepped up to the mark and said they would take on responsibility for this. What they’ve produced is a framework which enables councils to drill down and look at their performance and compare that performance against similar families of councils.
“There are huge variations in performance and in cost, and I think in the long term, it’s going to be a really important piece of work, not least because of the pressures on councils. Some local variation is understandable, but not to the extent to which we’ve got. In some sense, it’s an alternative to shared services which hasn’t been a great success. If you look at the common processes and services councils provide, if you look at the ones which perform best and then say, ‘can we learn from that, can we simplify our processes so we can standardise that with the best in class’, then the beneficiary is the council tax payer.”
In the wake of the independence referendum, Sinclair has nothing but praise for the work councils did administrating the process and counting the votes.
He said: “[It was] incredible, not least because of the number of new staff who were working for the time in this situation. Local government deserved high praise, it did an outstanding job.”
Looking ahead, Sinclair said work around the integration of health and social care will be a big piece of work for the Accounts Commission.
He added: “The Government has given us the responsibility to audit the incorporated health and social care partnerships, as they’re being treated as local government bodies. That’s a huge piece of work. What they’re trying to do is merge two different cultures, the health board and the council. That has been one of the challenges, and it’s about how you build trust in those new partnerships, how you help the members on incorporated bodies understand that their responsibility is the best interest of the partnership and not to the health board or the council. There will be many similar issues [to those] that we found around community planning.
“Another interesting feature is [how] the duty of Best Value will apply to these bodies. The duty of Best Value has never applied to health boards before, COSLA [had always said] that the duty of Best Value for local government should apply to every public body. This is now an extension of that duty. That’s going to be really interesting and how we work out what the audit of the incorporated body is going to look like.
“[In the coming months] we will be releasing a piece of work on arms length organisations (ALEO), really to get a sense of the number, their turnover, what areas they are involved in, their governance, why they were set up, the role of councillors and how they combine their duty towards the ALEO with their duty to the council, that’s not an easy thing. That will be a significant piece of work. We don’t have the power to directly audit ALEOs, we can only do it through the audit of the council because when the commission was established almost 40 years, ALEOs were not in the firmament.”