Viewpoint: Only change can regain public trust

Following the tragedy of the Grenfell Tower fire the response of the Council – Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea – was roundly condemned. The Council commissioned CfPS to undertake research and provide recommendations as to how it could improve its governance. Jacqui McKinlay explains why a focus on the culture of the Council was central to the subsequent report.

Over the autumn and winter, the Centre for Public Scrutiny led an independent governance study for the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea. Our intention was to help the Council take the first step towards meaningful governance change – and a renewed relationship with local people.

We made our recommendations to the Council in March and they can be downloaded at here.

Central to our approach was a focus on culture – mindset, behaviours and values. RBKC is facing a situation unique in recent local government history – a level of distrust from certain parts of the local community that makes “conventional” public engagement very difficult.

With the Council now engaged in fundamental change (alongside the continuing operational response to the fire, not to mention the ongoing public inquiry) we thought it was right to approach this challenge from first principles.

We set out a number of basic principles for good governance and decision-making that underpinned the rest of our work. These principles talked about the way that people with decision-making power needed to act – connecting with residents, focusing on what matters, acting with integrity, being clearly accountable, and working as a team, amongst others.

These were not generic principles, slotted into a local context. They derive directly from the conversations that we had with local people, with council officers, with councillors, with local charities and local partners. They reflect a positive vision of the change that needs to happen.

But they do not sit in isolation. Where many council “statements of values” fall down is in setting out very high level behaviours and principles, but doing little to translate those values into practice. We were determined that our recommendations would provide a way for the principles we set out to have some real force. So, we felt that a borough-wide conversation about the strategic direction of the authority was needed – not as a talking shop or a way to kick complex problems down the road, but to reflect the centrally important role of the public in the change the council needs to make.

This is difficult stuff. Changes in behaviour and attitude do not happen overnight, and while we are determined to support the council to move forward, thinking about the future is especially difficult when the events of a year ago are still so raw. But we hope and expect that our principles will begin to gain traction, both within and outside the council. We also hope that other councils can look at what RBKC are doing at the moment to change, and think about their own relationship with local people.

Jacqui McKinlay is Chief Executive of the Centre for Public Scrutiny (CfPS).

LGiU will publish a briefing for our members on 14th June, looking at lessons for councils one year on from Grenfell.

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