Councillors at Thanet District Council have approved the recommendations of its Independent Monitoring Officer (IMO), which include a review of the constitution and a restructuring of the Corporate Management Team (CMT), in an attempt to fix longstanding governance issues the IMO said had resulted in "organisational malaise" and division at the local authority.
In a Lessons Learnt Paper, which was discussed by councillors in an extraordinary meeting last week (19 May), the IMO, Quentin Baker, said the council's problems stemmed from a "schism" that had developed between CMT members.
Councillors at the local authority agreed to the following recommendations:
- Review the council's constitution.
- Restructure Thanet's Senior Management Team.
- Development Work for Member Officer Relationships.
- Coaching/Mentoring Programme for the CEO and Directors. The CEO should enter into a formal coaching or mentoring arrangement, and the CMT should undertake team-building exercises.
- Introduction of a Regular Staff Survey and other staff feedback forums.
- Review of the HR resource within the council to ensure that it is sufficient to meet the local authority's needs in respect of HR casework and organisational development.
- Undertake an independent review/audit of the Berth 4/5 project at Port of Ramsgate from its inception to the present day to identify the causes for delay and cost overruns that have beset the project, including the project governance.
- Establish an Independent Assurance/Assistance Panel.
The schism highlighted in the review was between the Chief Executive (Madeline Homer), Corporate Director of Communities (Gavin Waite), and Director of Governance & Monitoring Officer (Tim Howes) on one side and the Deputy Chief Executive & S.151 Officer (Tim Willis) on the other.
The discord from 2019 to 2021 saw numerous grievances, whistleblowing complaints, and disciplinary action take place at the council. On two occasions, disciplinary proceedings were launched against members of the CMT, one of which resulted in the dismissal of the Monitoring Officer. The costs associated with handling the matters are now in excess of £730,000.
Mr Baker, Director of Law & Governance at Hertfordshire County Council, was appointed in December 2021 as the IMO following an earlier report by the council's external auditors that identified "key deficiencies" in governance processes at the local authority.
In his review, Mr Baker drew attention to observations made in previous investigations that identified a level of animosity between the four senior officers "which materially impaired their ability to make rational, dispassionate business decisions in the best interests of TDC".
Several factors appeared to have been behind the rift including the emergence of a "close personal relationship" between Madeline Homer and Gavin Waite.
"[The relationship] was for some time during 2018-19 the source of much gossip and speculation both amongst staff within the authority and more widely on the internet, which is likely to have impacted upon the dynamic of the small CMT," Mr Baker said.
A robust and transparent arrangement must be in place so as to mitigate the risk that others will perceive favouritism when senior officers are in such a relationship, according to Mr Baker – however, he said that the steps taken in the case at Thanet were "insufficient".
According to the review, the handling of grievances and whistle-blower complaints also proved to be a point of contention amongst CMT members, and there were tensions over decisions regarding the management of a major council project.
As a result of the CMT dysfunction, the relationship between the Chief Executive and the Council Leader was damaged and "could be best characterised as lacking trust and mutual respect", the review observed. It added that the relationship between the CMT and councillors was also damaged.
The review said that instead of transparency between the CMT and councillors, information had been "tightly controlled, often on the basis of commercial confidentiality and the perceived risks of information being leaked by councillors".
One example of this included an investigation report into a whistle-blower complaint regarding the handling of a grievance brought by an officer. The report contained information highly critical of the process used and decisions taken by officers but was not brought to the attention of the relevant councillors. The review added that there was no formal record of the reasons for withholding the information.
With each recommendation, Mr Baker made additional points. Under the task of reviewing the council's constitution, Mr Baker recommended that the process should involve a review of the member officer protocol to ensure, clarify and reinforce the need for sharing of information between officers and councillors in the work of the authority.
He also called for a review of the scheme of delegation to ensure it is clear and includes appropriate conditions requiring the engagement of councillors in strategic and high-risk decisions.
As part of the overarching review of the constitution, an employment committee should also be established, and a review of the arrangements for handling whistle-blower complaints to ensure a robust confidential system for handling them should take place, he added.
Turning to the recommendation to restructure the Senior Management Team, Mr Baker advised the structure should be changed to create at least one additional Corporate Director role to include responsibility for HR.
In addition, he called for the council to review the existing arrangements in place to manage the potential conflict of interest arising from the close personal relationship between the CEO and Director of Operations. "The arrangements should be demonstrably transparent to provide assurance that relevant decision making is handled independently," he noted.
Furthermore, Mr Baker said the restructuring should include the development of a wider management group or forum to promote levels of transparency and communication between all tiers.
Under the recommendation to pursue development work for member-officer relationships, Mr Baker suggested involving the Local Government Association or another body in the team-building work.
He said the chosen body should focus mainly "on officers understanding the responsibilities of [councillors] for the overall running of the council and their public facing role".
In addition, the review called for the responsiveness on information requests from councillors to officers to be improved and mechanisms to be created to ensure key information about council decisions affecting local wards gets to the relevant councillors.
All councillors should also be briefed on all reports produced in the context of the CMT dispute, Mr Baker recommended.
An implementation plan for the recommendations states that significant progress must be achieved within 2-3 months, with final project completion by June 2022 and implementation thereafter.