New councillors in Scotland lack the skills to make the financial decisions that are necessary in a climate of local government austerity. Training is vital if we are to ensure the best outcomes for residents and citizens
There are more than 1200 of them in Scotland. A recent report tells us that they will spend a staggering £40,000 every minute of every day of every year. A further recent report tells us that they are likely to need training on their way to spending £21bn of Scotland’s public money each year.
Who are we talking about? It’s our new councillors, elected on 3 May to Scotland’s 32 local authorities. With the 2012 local elections now complete and with the new councillors busy in the process of forming administrations to lead councils over the next five years, a realisation is setting in about just how little we equip our elected leaders for the financial job in hand. Put simply, there is no need for any proof of any form of financial skills before we allow our councillors to take decisions to enable them to spend our money on local government services.
The coming harsh reality for Scotland’s elected members is that they will soon find out that the skills needed for a successful election will differ greatly from what will be needed to effectively govern our local authorities. It seems that we will let our politicians loose with public money (our money) yet without adequate public investment in them to ensure that they are suitably equipped.
It was Audit Scotland that recently expressed concern on elected member training and development generally, concluding that this is a key area for newly elected members and that they will have to get up to speed quickly in a changing environment. The matter was considered so important that Audit Scotland went on to set out a specific checklist on how to develop and train new and returning members.
This struck a chord with CIPFA where we have long promoted a financial competency framework for all those engaged in scrutinising or managing public money. Our view is clear. Elected members have to be at the core of effective financial management in our councils. We have identified the standards, skills and competencies for council leaders, members with specialist finance roles and those who share collective responsibility.
But in these modern times, isn’t there some formal framework that guides the development of our local politicians? Perhaps of some comfort, the answer is ‘yes’ in that there is a formal development framework developed and administered by the Improvement Service in Scotland. That comfort is severely diluted however with the realisation that financial management does not feature at all as part of elected member development requirements. So it’s left then to local arrangements about what financial training and development will be provided to our elected members.
But it’s worth being reflective rather than critical about the ongoing failure to recognise and invest in training and development for our politicians. The skills with which they debate with each other and are used to persuade voters to part with their vote become redundant when faced with their first set of council papers. At that point they are expected to govern and to scrutinise. Perhaps given the failure to recognise their needs it is understandable if members have only limited understanding of the complex financial data provided to them no matter how it is explained or presented.
With the scale of expenditure undertaken each year it seems only reasonable that we invest and equip our elected members with the core financial skills and understanding that they need. By the time you’ve read this article around £100,000 of your money will have been spent. Financial training anyone?
Don Peebles is policy and technical manager at CIPFA in Scotland