We often hear about governance in the context of corporate governance: the rules, practices and procedures that inform how a corporation, firm or business operates. However, governance also applies to local authorities and governments.
Local authorities and governments are appointed to take care of a district by problem-solving, making decisions and driving improvements – this could be a county council in a city, a municipality or even a school district. The scale of such authorities may surprise you; in the USA, for example, there are around 85,000 units of local government.
Whether corporate or local, the relevant governance rules are often informed by local laws and bylaws. Some organisations (and local governments) may also use parliamentary procedures, such as Robert’s Rules of Order, as a guide for the practices that make up their governance guidelines.
In this article, we’ll answer the question “What is good local governance?” and give you a whole host of information and tips on improving your local governance procedures. Let’s begin…
What is good local governance?
Now we have more of an idea of what governance is, let’s look at what good local governance is. Here’s what it should include:
- Efficient use of time, energy and resources
- Fair and thoughtful decision-making
- Good inclusion of the public and members of the local community
- Forward-thinking, innovative and effective members
- Accountability and responsibility to the public
These are the pinnacles to aim for because they address the public’s needs while doing the best for the district they serve. The more local governments behave in this way, the more they will be respected, legitimised and welcomed by the public.
The four pillars of good local governance
So, how do we put this into action? Here are four pillars of good local governance to strive for.
1. Values, ethics and purpose
For a local government to work effectively and efficiently, it’s important to have shared values, ethics and purpose. While this should be decided by those appointing the local government, it’s critical that anyone holding a position within the local government acts in accordance with this pillar. Inclusion and diversity are also important and one of the best ways to ensure multiple opinions and voices are heard, but there must be an agreed-upon purpose that everyone works towards.
2. Working together towards a common goal
Similarly to the first point, a shared common goal keeps all members on track and focused on the ultimate outcome of their government. This also ensures that everyone is working together cohesively and that no one is (hopefully!) working in the interests of another party or for their own benefit. Off-track conversations, debates and discussions can quickly be pulled back by asking: “Does this bring us closer to our goal as an organisation or further from it?”.
3. Transformational leadership
Great leadership is at the core of an effective local government. Your chairperson and other leaders will have plenty of distinctive roles and responsibilities, such as being the public spokesperson for the organisation, running meetings, being a public-facing link between the government and the public and ensuring good conduct at all times. However, there is more to leading a local government than the mere obligations of the role.
- Intellectual stimulation – challenging the status quo, encouraging creativity and new ways of working
- Individualised consideration – offering support to each member to make sure they are comfortable sharing their ideas and contributions
- Inspirational motivation – articulating a clear vision and motivating others to fulfil these goals
- Idealised influence – a role model for others, garnering trust and respect
4. Informed and ethical decision-making
To create good local governance, it’s important that decisions (and votes!) are made with all the data and information available. Voting based on whims, instincts or best guesses may lead to incorrect or inaccurate decisions.
Using a tool such as an online board portal to run meetings can support the storage and distribution of such information. It also makes sure everyone has access and can make the best decisions possible.
Principles of good governance
According to the Council of Europe, there are 12 principles of good governance – these apply to organisations and governments equally. At a local level, they were endorsed and established by the Council of Europe in 2008 to address a variety of issues.
Read on to discover the 12 principles of good democratic governance.
The first principle is responsiveness. Put simply, this means that objectives, rules and meeting procedures are put in place but can be adapted to the legitimate needs and expectations of citizens. Beyond that, public services should be delivered and responses should be given to complaints and enquiries within a “reasonable” time frame. It is worth noting here that the definition of “reasonable time frame” may vary between organisations.
2. Efficiency and effectiveness
While both words mean that the end goal was met successfully, efficiency refers more to speed and good use of resources to reach the objective. Effectiveness, however, is simply about reaching the end goal and doesn’t necessarily mean the optimal use of resources, such as time, money and effort, to get there.
3. Adequate financial management
One of the more prominent principles that can make or break successful governance is financial management. Similar to other types of organisations, any funding that comes into the government or is spent by the government often needs significant justification, administration and excellent management. Often, there is a “responsible financial officer” in place for a local government, much like there is a CFO for corporate boards.
Although adequate financial management sounds almost optional, in some countries such as the UK, The Local Government Act 1972 (Sec 151) states that “every local authority shall make arrangements for the proper administration of their financial affairs…”. In this case, governments are legally required to administrate all relevant affairs and financial reporting properly. As such, a regular audit process needs to be in place to ensure fair assessments and improvements can be suggested with financial control.
4. Openness and transparency
As local governments are responsible to the public, openness, transparency and accountability are all critical to good local governance. Public access is required for all information unless it is classified as confidential or is otherwise required by law to remain confidential. Information on everything from decisions, implementation of policies, voting results and results of project implementation should all be reported and available to the public. This allows constituents to be engaged with the decisions made.
As above, accountability is critical for the same reasons, by individual members and the group as a whole. Good local governance requires an astute awareness of the public nature of decisions made and for all members to perform in the public’s best interests. Without this level of accountability, transparency and openness, decisions may be made by members of local government with personal or commercial gains in mind.
6. Fair conduct of elections, representations and participation
Local elections need to be conducted freely, fairly and without fraud. The citizens should be involved in the process, with voices in decision-making equal between men and women, the less privileged and the most vulnerable. Finally, decisions should be taken according to “the will of the many”, without ignoring the rights and interests of the few or the minority.
7. Ethical conduct
The good of the public should be placed before the individual interests of those participating in local governance. There should also be controls to prevent corruption, and all potential and real conflicts of interest should be declared and action taken as appropriate.
8. Sustainability and long-term orientation
Earlier in the article, we mentioned the importance of thinking ahead and future-proofing all of your plans. Effective local governance should meet today’s needs while considering the needs of future generations – no decisions should be made that could harm future generations. This includes considering environmental, structural, financial, economic and social factors that may have an impact in the long term. Similarly, a deep understanding of any cultural, social or historical complexities involved needs to be considered throughout.
9. Innovation and openness to change
In the same vein as point eight, innovation is critical to effective, sustainable and long-term governance. A commitment to innovation, an openness to change and new ways of working, should be led from the top down by the chairperson and be aligned with the rest of the members of the organisation.
10. Rule of law
This one is obvious but arguably the most important! All local government activities need to adopt and abide by the applicable laws, bylaws, regulations and rules.
As much as the local government is able to have an influence, human rights must be protected, respected and implemented at all times. All forms of discrimination should be combated, particularly within the local government itself. A focus on access to essential services, participation of disadvantaged members of the community and cultural diversity should be promoted and encouraged at all times. To ensure this, it’s important that it is reflected when recruiting the organisation’s members.
12. Capacity and competence
The competence of each member of the local government should be maintained, scrutinised and strengthened as necessary using practical methods and procedures. This ensures that all members are as prepared as possible, which is in the best interests of the public.
What are the positive effects of good local governance?
There are plenty of desirable effects of good local governance. These include:
- Strengthening connections with local communities
- Fostering a sense of community, local identity and pride
- More opportunities for citizens to get involved in how things are run
- Better public resources and public services
- Citizens influence how public funds are spent
- Community groups are better supported
- Decreased demand for social services
- Timely contact between the public and local government
- More trust in public officials and local government activities
- Higher levels of employment
- Potential for more funding
- A stronger local economy with benefits to local businesses
What are the challenges faced by local governments?
Some of the most common challenges that local governments encounter include:
- Slow changes due to bureaucracy
- Slow adoption of new technology, infrastructure or processes
- Insufficient or incompetent staffing and/or leadership
- Spending cuts and resourcing cuts (often due to central government funding)
- Meeting goals and targets efficiently without access to the resources required
- Increasing costs due to inflation and other external factors
- Low levels of life satisfaction among citizens
- Higher demand from local communities due to the growth of the global economy and other external factors
What are the major goals of a local government system?
The ultimate goal of a local government is to help a district improve and achieve its goals. Tasks may include raising funding, allocating resources and delivering vital services to its community and citizens.
We hope that this guide has helped you answer the question “What is good local governance?”. If you’re part of a local government, follow the 12 principles of good local governance above to reach excellence.
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