The ‘golden triangle’ provides governance oversight and grip

By Kath O'Dwyer | 05 October 2023

I have been working in and around local government for almost 40 years and the work of councils has never been more challenging with ever-rising demand for many of our services, and the deepening complexity of the cases we now deal with, accentuated by tighter and tighter resources in real terms.

The introduction of Integrated Care Systems (ICSs) has added a new layer of intricacy in coordinating and delivering services across traditional boundaries. Additionally, councils are grappling with issues like climate change mitigation, persistent housing shortages, and the need to digitally transform the way we operate. The ongoing decentralisation of powers and responsibilities places further demands on councils on too.

The focus on these areas have us looking outside more than ever before, as we collaborate and form partnerships across the public sector we must not lose sight of our responsibility for maintaining a sound system of internal control.  

In recent times we have seen government intervene in a handful of councils. While financial failure has often been the trigger, a key recurring theme to come out of the reports and interventions is the breakdown of local leadership and effective governance. 

This is why Solace, along with others, is working closely with the Local Government Association (LGA) to update its new assurance framework for local government as it starts to map out the elements that provide assurance on performance and help improve the “checks and balances” in the system. Solace President Matt Prosser has previously said he wants to see a reshaped improvement support offer that reflects the changing context that we continue to operate in and helps the sector understand how all these elements of support fit together.  

We will be discussing this crucial topic at the forthcoming Solace Summit in Birmingham on 17-19 October where we have a closed improvement and assurance framework session for Chief Executives, Deputy Chief Executives, Section 151 Officers and Monitoring Officers.

Good governance is essential if councils are to be effective in providing services and supporting local people. As budgets get tighter and as we embrace new arrangements for service delivery via a range of partnerships we need to ensure that we don’t throw away the rule book and that as local leaders we continue to create the conditions for robust risk management and ensure that we continue to properly understand, discuss, and weigh up the benefits and risks of our proposed actions. The best defence against this is relationships within the “Golden Triangle” of statutory officers; the chief executive, the MO and the S151 officer.

The synergy between these officers forms a robust framework that helps maintain a balance of power, legal adherence, and financial prudence which is why it is crucial to ensure that the golden triangle is at the heart of decision-making - strengthened in entirety, rather than in part.  

In practice, this means that while not always reporting directly to the chief executive, there should be, at minimum, a regular three-way meeting between the triad of statutory officers to discuss things such as governance, assurance, budgets, and organisational decision making, with a particular focus on financial health. While traditional direct line reporting isn’t always in place, alternative arrangements can promote collaboration, regular communication, and strong governance standards. These arrangements, often rooted in practical reasons, can coexist with other effective relationships that uphold decision-making integrity. 

Here in St Helens Council, we ensure that the three Executive Directors, the MO and the S151 are all members of the Executive Management Board and have sight and input into all council decisions as they progress through the process. Although the Executive Director Corporate Services line manages the Director of Finance (S151) and the Director of Legal and Governance (MO), I ensure that as Chief Executive I have regular 1:1s with each of my statutory officers, including the S151 and MO as well as 1:1s with my DASS, DCS and DPH. I also meet monthly with the MO and S151 together so that we have a regular space as a three to consider and discuss the governance of the organisation as a whole. This provides the oversight and grip that I believe is required to ensure the effective governance of an increasingly complex organisation.

Given the challenges I outlined at the start of this article, none of which are going to go away any time soon, it’s more important than ever that we do the bread-and-butter basics right and do them well. Leadership is being rigorous about upholding rules, and instilling a robust governance culture locally is key to balancing the books and avoiding your authority succumbing to national scrutiny.

Kath O’Dwyer, Solace spokesperson for Leadership & Learning, and Chief Executive, St Helen’s BC

The Solace Summit will take place at the Hilton Birmingham Metropole on 17-19 October 2023. For more information and to book your tickets visit the Solace Summit website.

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Finance Solace Improvement LGA Intervention governance ICSs leadership