Friday, 7 September 2012

Community Planning?

Last week on Twitter I got into a bit of a conversation about this story about a school proposal being stopped by unelected clergy. As a former Committee Clerk for the City of Edinburgh Council (look at the names on reports for the Community Services Scrutiny Panel in 2005) I happened to know that under an old quirk of education legislation, any council committee in Scotland dealing with education issues has to have religious representatives on it. If I recall correctly Edinburgh has three – Church of Scotland, Roman Catholic and "other denominations". The people I was chatting with were very (and rightly) aggrieved that these unelected people could make important decisions. My response was they should be more concerned about accountability in Community Planning Partnerships than in these cases.

To which the response was:
The following week I was in another twitter conversation and again I mentioned Community Planning. This time it was confused for land-use planning and I had to try and explain the difference in 140 characters. The exact same thing happened when I rang Renfrewshire Council when I started my PhD fieldwork in 2007 - the local authority switchboard put me through to the planning department when I asked for the Community Planning Section (and this was not the first time this had happened).

A little while ago I popped in a FOI request to Edinburgh Council and got the following request for clarification back:

"A little while ago neighbourhood activities in the Leith and Leith Walk ward areas became the responsibility of the City Centre neighbourhood office which was re-titled ‘City Centre and Leith.’ Responsibility for neighbourhood activities in ... Street are therefore with the City Centre and Leith office."

So, even me who studies Community Planning for my research got the details of my local Communtiy Planning arrangements wrong. Reassuringly, this backs up my finding from my doctoral research that no one has a clue about Community Planning.

The question is – does it really matter? At a local authority level a Community Planning Partnership is quite remote. It's mainly about making sure that strategically the key bodies covering any local authority area are vaguely aligned to the same objective – the Health Board, local transport partnership, Fire and Rescue Service, Police and “community”. The sort of business that goes on at these CPP boards is so dry that I imagine most people in the community wouldn’t want to be involved in anyway. They would be very happy to leave it to their elected members – most CPPs are chaired by the Leader of the Council. However, if we accept that CPPs do have a “leadership” role and are accountable to communities through their constituent partners, then I really don’t think they should be called “Community” Planning Partnerships but just “Strategic Service Planning Partnership” (or even Local Strategic Partnerships as they were in England).

But in the academic literature, the accountability of these partnerships has been a major question (see the work of Helen Sullivan(£) and Chris Skelcher(£) in particular), and just saying that they are strategic and include community representation does not answer these critiques. And what is more, under the proposals of the Christie Commission and the review of Community Planning, CPPs are going to become more important in service design and delivery. The creation of the single national Police service and Fire and Rescue Service will probably also increase their role. I’ve not read it, but I also imagine the proposals for further integration of health and social care also mean that the role of CPPs will increase. 

When I used to work at the Scottish Government and would sometimes ponder these problems of accountability in CPPs a response quite commonly was “it doesn’t matter so long as we’re meeting outcomes”. Now, for those of you who don’t know about this, basically all public services in Scotland have to meet 16 national outcomes, and I wrote about my reservations with it here. My particular concern which relates to this issue of accountability I’m discussing here is this point about “what matters is outcomes” – we can kill all first born children, but if that means we’re a more equal society, then so be it.

Another issue around accountability which came up in my doctoral research and I have just drafted an article about is that these partnerships, which are predominantly made up of the senior managers of constitutive organisations, do present themselves as the “community”. They are therefore the accountable body to themselves because they are in partnership with the “community”. This is the case even though these managers would happily admit that they wouldn’t attend similar partnerships as the “community” in their own towns, because like everyone else they can’t be bothered; and that they openly acknowledged that they spoke “Council speak” that no one else understood.

In sum then, I don’t think the complicated webs of accountability for CPPs are enough. I also don’t think accountability to outcomes is enough at all. This is merely a performance and efficiency measure when there is a lot more to be accountable for. That most people when you discuss “Community Planning” either don’t know what you mean or presume you’re talking about land-use planning should be very concerning as their role in managing and delivering services grows. And this is not just a need to a pointless information campaign to tell people about what’s going on (who would want to know, anyway). For me the lack of engagement in Community Planning belies a problem at the heart of the process – it tries to make very political decisions (with a big P and little p) be managerial, non-ideological and easy. These decisions are political and if CPPs do begin to take on a bigger role they do need to be scrutinised in public a lot more, have formal rules around their function placed in legislation and also openly challenged on the decisions they make. Just because a decision might “meet outcomes” does not make it right.


  1. Hey. Good post. Community Planning is a bit of mystery to most people. There is a big push on it for us. As a Council we've been doing a lot of consultation training recently and there is now this new Committee for Neighbourhood Partnerships being setup. This Committee and the new legal challenges to consultations in England I think will mean we are far more accountable than before.

    We have a lot of work to do to engage more people in the process, and I think socmed and this new training we have been doing will assist, but its also worth noting that there is a lot of data collected on our services through the "informal audit processes" ie complaints. This data is also utilised when designing services to.

  2. Thanks for your comment Graham. I don't want to do a disservice to the amount of work people like yourselves put in - one of the things that definitely came out of my PhD was that when Council officers said they wanted to engage with the communities, they really did.

    However, I still don't think the institutional context of community planning does lend itself to community engagement. Unfortunately there is very little that can be done about that by people such as yourself. Unfortunately, apart from revolution (or massive structural change in local government) there's not much I can suggest either!