The Key Ideas

#18 Democratise regional authorities by making them open, accessible and accountable to the media and citizens

There must be serious consideration given to the way regional councils (the current local authorities) operate. Until the 1990s these councils were comparatively open and transparent and largely operated on a committee structure. This committee system made most of the decisions and were open to the public and to the media. But throughout the 1990s, councils were driven towards a form of 'cabinet government' where a small executive working with unelected officials carried out most of the decision-making in private with little or no transparency. This was followed by the proliferation of 'arms length executive organisations' (ALEOs): semi-private companies which run public services but outside the democratic system. Council executives can then appoint their own boards (often paid, usually appointing their own councillors to these paid posts on top of their council salaries) and the whole process can be run almost completely outside of real democratic oversight. This means of working in local authorities is fundamentally wrong. It has led to many citizens concluding that 'it doesn't make any difference—the council will do what it wants anyway and no-one can stop them'. Very often, the citizens are right.

Regional government must return to an open, democratic committee system for decision-making. ALEOs must not be permitted in any area which can be considered core council business, and a process of being able to challenge the set up of ALEOs should be available. Councils must meet regularly and in public. Major decisions should not be arrived at outside of the public committee and council structure.

One of the biggest problems in local authorities is lack of proper scrutiny. Scotland's local newspapers have struggled along with most of the print media. Few can cover local government in the detail they once could, and many local papers would not survive without advertising income from the local authority, meaning they are less likely to criticise council activities.

There are a few possible responses to this. One is to support local journalism through financial support from central government. Another would be to support local citizen journalism. Another would be the (compulsory if need be) use of the techniques of participatory democracy discussed below. At the very least, the low level of trust in local authorities is such that serious consideration should be given to setting up 'citizen forums'. In effect, these would be a committee of citizens which would meet to monitor decisions made by the council to ensure good practice is used and that the views of citizens are being properly sought and subsequently not ignored.