The last Greater Cambridge Partnership (GCP) Executive Board meeting had an agenda pack 194 pages long. The referenced background papers comprise several thousand more pages. This is normal for council committees considering planning applications and infrastructure projects. It is also far beyond the capabilities of even the most dedicated, speed-reading councillor to absorb and make sense of all this information.
A quote from the summary of the GCP Joint Assembly meeting neatly encapsulates the predicament our decision-makers find themselves in: “The evidence presented to members provided a compelling case to do something, although it was not yet clear what that something was.”
This is after considering evidence for five years!
Academics and policy makers have developed procedures, such as the Early Assessment and Sifting Tool and Cost-Benefit Analysis, to try to remove subjective bias from decision-making. Used well, they can help, but they are complex, poorly understood and hence greatly abused.
It’s the not the job of council officers to protect the reputations of incompetent consultants. Nor should they trust a report in proportion to how much it costs. Yet they do. There are countless examples of officers ignoring, omitting, hiding or misinterpreting evidence that contradicts the established or ‘recommended’ line, or that would support ideas proposed by independent organisations or residents.
When senior officers are challenged by councillors, campaigners and concerned members of the public, they give answers that rarely satisfy and too often constitute stonewalling.
Why and how do these biases arise? Are there vested interests? Is it groupthink? Is it a lack of training and professional development of officers? Is it that officers are hiding the fact that they too are overloaded? Is it that sunk costs – and reputational risk – rule out admitting flawed assumptions or mistakes made earlier in a project’s development?
We desperately need to rebuild trust in local government. Even if restructuring were on the cards, the system, management culture and processes would still perpetuate wasteful expenditure (over £70 million of City Deal money spent with little to show for it) and perilously delay substantial responses to the climate emergency. Where do we start?
This article was first published in the Cambridge Independent on 26 February 2020.