Public Services Management: Council adjusts its grip on policy to keep pace in an age of change: The head of Kirklees region tells Paul Gosling how his reshaped executive has shifted priorities

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WHEN John Harman took over as leader of Kirklees Metropolitan Council, an artificial creation overseeing Huddersfield, Batley, Dewsbury and some very attractive countryside, it was a traditional authority. Today, however, Kirklees stands as an alternative model of council, both in style and function - one that may be copied widely.

Among the radical changes in Mr Harman's eight years as leader are the creation of an executive board to separate policy development from everyday management, and the establishment of so- called scrutiny commissions (dubbed 'quango watches' by the Labour party).

'The intention was to create a local authority which was capable of responding to rapid change - that you can't necessarily foresee. We were convinced that a traditional authority couldn't respond except in a very defensive way,' he said.

Mr Harman emphasises that Kirklees has retained its public sector values, while introducing new management methods. 'In 1988 we completely changed the way the authority was managed at a strategic level. We created a chief executive, and an executive board of five others who are charged with the corporate management of the council as a whole, as the primary interface on strategic matters between the controlling group - and members as a whole - and the organisation of the council.

'One of the great inhibitors on local government's ability to react to changes of circumstance has been its departmentalism. It is not alone in that - central government is horrifically departmentalised. A lot of people's energy is absorbed in internal politics - by which department's interests are served by which policy.

'We reduced the operational arms of the council to where we have 30-odd heads of service. Each service can be anything from the public relations, marketing and information service, which is very small, to education, which is enormous. Those operational units are run by managers of the authority, but above that is the executive board. We stripped out three levels of management and replaced it by two, so we did save a bob or two at the same time.'

The heads of service report to committees of councillors, who give instructions on operational matters. The executive directors chair operational board meetings of service heads, to co-ordinate policy in overlapping areas of interest. Each executive director has responsibility in a particular policy area for its corporate implementation - but has no operational responsibilities.

'It was based on some of the corporate management models of the private sector - but not slavishly, because there is bad and good management in the private sector as well. We tried to flatten out hierarchies in management.

'Local government has been much too military in its chain of command. We wanted to create a system in which ideas could flow more freely from top to bottom and bottom to top.'

After five years of this system, Mr Harman says that he is trying to systematically assess its effectiveness, although he is convinced the council is now better run and more responsive. Recent qualitative research backs his view, suggesting that team work is stronger and services more innovative. However, in Mr Harman's view, the process of change is a 10-year project, and final judgement must be reserved.

The councillors' own policy board, consisting of the most senior councillors, is now better able to direct the authority. While this has advantages in creating a more coherent organisation, it does also mean that back-bench councillors need to redefine their role. A second round of reorganisation has been addressing both this factor and the removal of other responsibilities by legislation, often transferred to quangos.

'We are not setting ourselves up just to shoot quangos, though it's quite good fun and not to be underestimated. But what we are trying to do is to represent and give voice to the local communities. If anyone is undertaking public works in the area, with public money, then the public expects you to have some grip on it.'

To do this Kirklees has established its scrutiny commissions. 'We don't say to those serving on the quangos, 'You are bloody evil Tory-placed people.' We say, 'You are probably doing as good a job as you can in the circumstances.' But we are the elected people here, and no one else has got that legitimacy. We have the moral authority of having been elected.'

Government departments are co-operating fully, and only Yorkshire Water has declined to be involved, he said.

'The main purpose was to allow us to pursue a matter of local political interest over a period of time. It is doubtful whether you get much more in terms of content from doing a scrutiny commission than you do if you just commissioned a research paper on it. But what you do get is the ability of people to talk to each other, for instance our councillors and the representatives of other bodies.

'Members are directing the way items are discussed, on the public's behalf. The proceedings are open, and get a fair bit of public coverage. And you get a substantial report at the end of it. That report has extra authority, not because it contains something you didn't already know - though it might do - but because it is a report of members having considered something at some length.'

The first scrutiny commission considered low pay in Kirklees and what the council could do about it. The conclusions of the commission were perhaps not surprising - to support agencies working with the low paid, to encourage inward investment from businesses that pay higher wages, and to persuade the local Training and Enterprise Council to train workers to increase their earnings potential - but they were none the less keenly discussed at a full meeting of the council.

The commissions are also giving councillors a badly needed fresh sense of purpose, said Mr Harman.

'Members, including people who were antagonistic to the change, who were very much wedded to the traditional ways of working of local authorities - have said to me that this is the most interesting thing they have done. And some of them have been on councils for 30 years.'

(Photograph omitted)