Lord Morse: I do not blame all council failure on 'bad management' 

By Lord Morse | 05 January 2024

I accepted the role of interim Chair of the Office for Local Government (Oflog), almost a year ago, because I believe strongly in devolution to local government.  

I have been impressed over many years by the quality and commitment of senior officers and politicians in local authorities. And I am excited by the prospect of proving, in partnership with the sector, that a central government of any political colour should feel confident to devolve more without needing to introduce a burdensome regime of routine inspections and ratings. I want to show that a more proportionate approach to accountability and transparency – preserving the principles of a self-improving and localist system – can work. 

From the day I started, I have been clear that Oflog will succeed only if it works closely with local government to shape the new organisation together. 

I have been very grateful for the constructive engagement from a wide range of colleagues in the sector. There has been much understandable scepticism and suspicion, but I have seen, especially in recent months, increasing numbers of people begin to coalesce around broad agreement to a vision for what Oflog should do. And I think I have perceived a growing level of trust that we really mean it when we say we want to shape Oflog together. 

You can imagine, then, my feelings about some of the recent coverage of an interview I did with the Times. It portrayed me – wrongly – as arguing that any financial failure in the sector could be due only to ‘bad management’. This has, quite reasonably, annoyed and alienated colleagues in the sector. I would like to set the record straight. 

I told the Times that, in the case of every council currently subject to formal intervention from central government, the need for intervention has been primarily attributable to a failure of governance or management rather than a shortage of money. I do not think that is a controversial view. Indeed, I do not think I have spoken to anybody in the sector who disagrees that each of the recent cases has been principally caused by some failure of leadership, governance, management or organisational culture, rather than simply a lack of funds.   

The media coverage then summarised this as me simply blaming ‘bad management’. It also implied that I was commenting on the causes of possible future Section 114 notices or central government interventions – and that any new ‘bankruptcy’ could only be caused by ‘bad management’. That is absolutely not what I said, nor think. I know that issuing a Section 114 notice, which is a very serious step for a council to take, can be caused by a complex mix of a wide range of factors.  And Oflog has not taken a view on the adequacy or otherwise of levels of funding to local government. It is not our role to do so.   

I am profoundly aware of the systemic pressures on local government – not least in the areas of social care, SEND, homelessness and asylum. I take seriously the calls of warning from the Local Government Association (LGA) and other bodies about the potential consequences of those pressures. But Oflog has not been given the remit to judge the right level of funding from central government. Instead, it remains the role of the Department for Levelling Up to assess whether funding to each council is sufficient, and to be the first port of call for any authority that is seeking extra financial assistance. As is the case for most ‘watchdogs’ of public services, Oflog’s job is to monitor and support the performance of the sector, not that of central government. 

The role of Oflog is to do three things: to increase understanding about the performance of local councils; to warn when a council may be heading towards serious failure but does not realise it; and to support local government to improve by sharing best practice and expertise.   

Some colleagues in the sector have asked me whether there is any point in Oflog performing those three functions at a time when councils are distracted by the need to meet rising pressures. My answer is a resounding ‘yes’. Especially when pressures are high, we need more than ever to help local citizens and civil society to ask informed, probing questions of their councils; to help identify any councils that may be on the road to failure but have not raised the alarm; and to support local leaders to learn from each other.  

In general, in my conversations with leaders and experts across local government, I have found that the vast majority tend to agree that those three roles need to be done. Their worries are instead about whether Oflog will do these roles in the right way – for example, whether we will cast unfair judgements on the basis of data without context, or issue warnings about particular councils without sufficient evidence.  

Those worries are sensible and understandable. We are working hard to allay them. You will see the fruits of that engagement in our actions – such as, to take one small but telling example, in the warning now emblazoned on the front of the Data Explorer: ‘Data on its own does not present a complete picture. This explorer should be used to generate questions and not reach judgements.’   

I hope that this article helps to set things straight, and I look forward to continuing to work together to secure the best possible outcomes.

Lord Morse is chair of the Office for Local Government (Oflog)

comments powered by Disqus
Devolution Data Funding S114 governance DLUHC Oflog