A Council’s Constitution – the foundation for good governance

Last week at full Council some changes to Buckinghamshire County Council’s Constitution were agreed unanimously, following detailed line-by-line scrutiny of the proposed changes by the Council’s Regulatory & Audit Committee.

The Council faces huge challenges and opportunities going forward so why does it matter whether the Council has an up-to-date Constitution?

In preparing to write this blog I searched online for articles setting out the benefits of a Council Constitution but could find little. As a local government officer it is one of those things you take for granted. Legally the Council has to have one, and generally (unless you work in my team) you can get through your whole career without having to actually read one.

Some might argue that the rules set out in the Constitution create unnecessary bureaucracy. Yet without these rules there would be little to prevent abuses of power. Decisions could be taken behind closed doors about long term contracts worth millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money and about significant service changes without any public debate and scrutiny.

Constitutions are not just for lawyers, politicians and political anoraks. They are there for everyone.

A Constitution won’t build a road or heal the sick, but it provides the foundation for ensuring that the Council’s power is used effectively in the best interests of the public.

Three key benefits of the Council’s Constitution are:

1) Safeguarding & protecting the public interest—The Council’s Constitution provides a single online source of authoritative information on the key rules of how the Council should be run. It is available for everyone to see and hold the Council to account for implementing. It can be used as tool for democracy by residents; a checklist for officers to ensure the right processes are followed and a reference source for all Councillors to ensure all decisions are taken in the public interest.

2) Improved outcomes for Buckinghamshire residents—The requirements in the Constitution for transparent decision-making help improve outcomes for residents. This is because it means that residents and local communities have the opportunity have a say before decisions are taken. It means more debate and scrutiny of issues by service users, Councillors, interested groups and taxpayers. Public debate leads to better decision-making. It provides a driver for ensuring that decision-makers fully consider all implications, risks and alternatives.

3) Better value for money—The Constitution includes rules on how Council finances and contracts are managed. Rules to ensure competition to get the best value for money as well as ensuring that there are clear lines of accountability and responsibility for how Council money is spent on behalf of Buckinghamshire residents.

 

Having an accurate and up-to-date Constitution is not a guarantee of good governance and local democracy. No document can achieve these things, only people can. Yet, it is an essential prerequisite for good governance. The rules set out in the Constitution are all designed to help ensure the principles of good governance are followed so that decision-making is democratically-led, open and accountable.

Whilst a Constitution should not be changed a whim, it should be regularly reviewed to ensure that it incorporates and reflects legislation so that it can remain the single source of authoritative advice for the organisation. That’s why it mattered that full Council agreed an updated Constitution.

 

 You can access a copy of Buckinghamshire County Council’s Constitution here: http://www.buckscc.gov.uk/about-your-council/council-structure/constitution