My KCC Election Manifesto & Video

Sunday, 27 October 2013

Thanet Council Shake Up at the Top

One thing which is emerging from the Transeuropa and Pleasurama scandals is the Council's lack of robust financial  due diligence of the external companies it works with. Time after time financial due diligence has not been done, or done in such a perfunctory manner as to render it useless. There is also a tendency to take  what external organisations  have to say at face value and not seek independent verification. This is why projects have been massively delayed, assets destroyed and damaged and public money lost or wasted.

The  other thing is of course secrecy. Despite the  claims  of Council  leader Clive Hart that the Council is open and transparent the  truth is TDC  has a culture of secrecy reminiscent of the Cold War Soviet Politbureau.  Virtually every document  I have asked for about Transeuropa, for example, has been refused by the Council's Monitoring Officer and Head of Regulatory Services, Harvey Patterson  for what I believe to be extremely spurious reasons.

Much more sinister is the way in which  senior council officers and their political bosses in the Cabinet manipulate the Council's constitution  to keep important issues secret from back bench councillors and the public. The secret  Transeuropa  £3.4 million debt is a prime example of this undemocratic culture which seems to be gripping the Council. Its often been said that without openness and transparency, and an ability to learn from mistakes,  bad practice and corruption thrive. Shame Thanet Council has ignored this advice!

There is no doubt about it, a lack of financial due diligence, a regime of secrecy and what some staff have described to me as,  institutional bullying by bosses and politicians, have turned Thanet District Council into a thoroughly dysfunctional organisation which has brought itself into massive public disrepute.

So what's the solution?  Well  the election of councillors who are committed to openness and transparency in 2015 who will transform the Council into an accountable and listening organisation would be a good start. But in the meantime there needs to be some major changes in the  management structure  at TDC.

First of all why is the Council's Chief Executive, Sue McGonigal also moonlighting as  the Chief Financial Officer? Holding down 2 jobs sometimes means that instead of doing one job well, two jobs are done badly, which might explain some of the issues I have raised about financial due diligence and secrecy.

Also one person holding down the 2 most senior jobs at the Council  makes that person far too powerful and undermines the checks and balances which must be there to prevent one person dominating an organisation. Last but not least, being in charge of the Council's finances and also it strategic development can be a recipe for conflicts of interests which might possibly harm the Council. This is why most Council's do not combine the  posts of Chief Executive and Head of Finance.

Interestingly, CIPFA (Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy) the well respected organisation which speaks on behalf of  Council Finance bosses said in their publication "The Role of the Chief Financial Officer in Local Government that

"There is a growing trend for CFOs to hold a range of different responsibilities beyond finance, including managing other services or leading change programmes. Whilst these can develop the individual as a corporate manager, authorities must not let the CFO’s core financial responsibilities be compromised through creating too wide a portfolio. Dilution and/or overload in the role of the CFO can result in poor financial outcomes for the authority. Setting out the core CFO responsibilities in this Statement is intended to allow local authorities and their CFOs to assess their job descriptions to ensure that their core finance responsibilities can be properly performed".

Next there needs to be a careful examination of the role of the Council's Monitoring Officer and Head of Regulatory Services. The Monitoring Officer is charged with ensuring that the Council's decision making processes comply  with its Constitution and the law of the land.

Sadly evidence suggests especially with regard to TransEuropa and issues about openness, transparency and accountability, that the Council's constitutional rules are  not always properly applied and that legal requirements are not always observed. I have raised my concerns  with the District Auditor, the Chief Executive  and the Local Government Association  and will continue to complain about and  expose abuse of process whenever I encounter it.

I also think that the current set up in which the Monitoring Officer is also  the Head of Regulatory Services is wrong . Just like the case of the Chief Executive, we have the possibility of 2 jobs being done badly rather than one being done well, which could again explain why  TDCs constitutional  and legal framework might sometimes not be the highest priority. In fact I would go so far as saying that the role of Monitoring Officer is so important that the post holder should do nothing else. Thanet being a relatively small Council means that the post could be part-time or perhaps shared with a neighbouring Council.

So there we have it. To improve Thanet's record on the effective monitoring of external organisations and improving its record on openness, transparency and accountability we need an urgent review of the role  and functions of the Chief Executive and the Monitoring Officer. Radical changes and a more focused approach at  the top might well percolate down the ranks and make TDC an organisation fit for purpose which commands more respect than it does at the moment.

One final thought, even if these changes happen I do not personally believe that TDC is sustainable in the long run. There needs to be a debate about reviewing local government in East Kent which, in my view, might mean the setting up of an East Kent Coast Unitary Council independent of KCC. But that's for another time.  

5 comments:

  1. For over a year the Tory members took every opportunity to call me a liar when I told the world that the chief exec would be trousering massive amounts of money (over £200,000, plus another £50k for sticking around and helping the new exec and a two paid grade bump for final salary pension) until the accounts were published. With that sort of resistance how can any reasonable review take place?

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  2. You state "The election of councillors who are committed to openness and transparency in 2015 who will transform the Council into an accountable and listening organisation would be a good start". Where pray are you going to find these individuals? All that will happen is the same people will be re-selected by the local Labour and Conservative administrations and the status quo will continue.

    The answer is in your penultimate sentence. A Unitary Authority. But not for 'another time' as you say. Now.

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  3. I am pleased to see that you mentioned "Law of the Land" with respect to the duties of Harvey Patterson. As you know I have serious concerns about his understanding of, and compliance with, the Crime and Disorder Act 1998 and the Terrorism Act 2000 et seq.

    Rick

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  4. More good work councillor Driver. This level of incompetence at TDC is scandalous and the public are being abused yet again.

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  5. Quite right, the current secrecy and failure grew from the seed that was planted in the autumn of 2010 when the elected members negligently rubber stamped a re-organisation of the Council's executive that put the personal interests of the departing Chief Executive Samuel and current Chief Executive McGonigal way above everything else.

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