Thursday 14 November 2013

BMG minutes...and iPads, or I pads

A couple of interesting items have cropped up in the minutes from the latest meeting of the Business Management Group (October 3rd) released via a Freedom of Information request. The full thread of the request, which took six months, can be found here. (Also mentioned in earlier post Online Interests).

As I have explained, the BMG is a cross-party group (Plaid, Labour and independent) of senior Members and officers, but not unaffiliated Members, and Chaired by Cllr Pam Palmer. It makes 'recommendations' to the Executive Board. The minutes are not routinely published and there is nothing to vouch for their accuracy nor completeness. No officer reports were included in the response but that's probably my fault for not requesting them in the first place.

The first item of interest is a rather gloomy mention of the webcasting pilot which is coming to an end in May. With viewing figures settling down to a more realistic level, and money needing to be found for future operational and staffing costs, the future may not be looking bright, and I can think of several people who would dearly like to pull the plug.

I trust that the fact that so many more have viewed the meetings than would otherwise attended in person, and the principle of transparency, will tip the balance. It is worth remembering as well that the thorny issue of members of the public being free to film meetings is due to be reconsidered after the evaluation of the pilot.

The next item concerns the possibility of replacing councillors laptops with iPads, (or, as the minutes record, 'I pads'). A report on feasibility and cost (I reckon around £25,000) is due soon, the idea being that members could use them in the council chamber and therefore cut down on the amount of paperwork. I suppose if things get desperate they could always throw them at each other.

The budget proposals also have something to say on councillor paperwork and suggest that documents for meetings are no longer sent to members but are put in their pigeon holes on the day of the meeting. This would mean that members would be unable to study the papers, or seek the views of their constituents prior to a meeting. There is also a mention of charging for Freedom of Information requests which is something which needs keeping an eye on....

I am not sure how much the extra training would cost for some members to get to grips with an iPad. One 'veteran' councillor still handwrites official letters on ordinary, non-headed notepaper, presumably with a quill and by candlelight.

Regular readers will know that there has been a long running problem getting matters of public interest debated in the Chamber. Motions on Notice can bring an issue forward but are often rejected for no apparent reason and it was the BMG who decided that each Motion would require the support of seven seconders rather than the usual one. However, the Plaid group put forward a request to the BMG that the Standing Orders be amended to include the following;

(i) To allow for debates on matters of public interest to be debated in Council, regardless of the fact the matter was an executive function; 

(ii) That procedurally the decision as to where a Motion on Notice should be determined (e.g by Council, by a Committee, by the Executive Board or by an Executive Board Member) should be taken publicly in the Council meeting.

The minutes don't record whether this proposal found favour from other Members, only that it was 'noted', accompanied by a report from Ms Rees Jones outlining the current rules for submitting Motions on Notice. The fate of Motions on Notice seems to depend largely on the discretion of the chief executive.

Next we learn that the public are confused and foolishly believe that the role of elected councillors is to make informed decisions on our behalf. Apparently this is not the case at all and according to one of our two Assistant Chief Executives, the blurb on the Council's own website is potentially misleading (my underlining);
“The Council comprises 74 elected Councillors representing 58 Electoral Wards from a range of Political groups and they normally meet as a Council on a monthly basis. They are the decision makers and agree the Council’s policies, budget and spending priorities.”

The issue might relate the separation of Council and Executive functions, but given the officer-led way this council is run, with the ever loyal executive board, the Assistant CEO is quite right, it is misleading.

The alarming proposal 'Redefining role of Council, Executive Board and Scrutiny and contributing to the Efficiency Agenda' , already mentioned on the blogs, also appears in the minutes. As if the democratic deficit is not bad enough already, if this proposal from senior officers gets anywhere then the elected members will really become superfluous to requirements.

The suggestion, which will be discussed at a councilors' seminar, is to reduce the number of council and executive board meetings and make full council 'focus based', whatever that's supposed to mean, and to include 'presentations', similar to yesterday's BT Experience and the forthcoming lecture from the council's favourite rugby team, no doubt.

To be honest it sounds dreadful enough without the second part of the proposal which is to remove from council agendas the 'receipt of minutes of its committees', this would also include Exec Board, planning and Scrutiny minutes.
Perhaps the worst part is the use of the phrase 'efficiency agenda'. To view yet another further reduction in the ability of members to raise issues in the Chamber as a way of saving money is as perverse as it is disingenuous.
The accompanying report includes a 'suggested revised agenda'...I wonder if it looks anything like Cneifiwr's prototype?

(Direct link to minutes Oct 3rd)

With regards to webcasting Council meetings, it looks like the first one in Pembrokeshire will be screened next month (December). Councillor and blogger Jacob Williams is looking forward to the Pembs Council Christmas Panto with enthusiasm


Anonymous said...

Speaking as someone who writes computer software for a living, I would need some serious convincing of the need for council members to be issued with iPads...

Laptops are far more effective than tablet computers – there is a wider choice of software available (much of it free), freely available whole disk encryption (TrueCrypt), and people do not need to be retrained to work with unfamiliar software on an unfamiliar platform.

We also need to consider that these devices, being so portable, are also easier to steal – indeed a more tempting target... They also cost more that a basic laptop. If for some reason there is a need for tablet computing, then why not consider the many Android devices on the market – often at a fraction of the cost...

Anonymous said...

I agree with anon 21:54. How can CCC justify the cost of REPLACING councillors laptops with iPads at a time when the LA are making cuts to jobs and services? What difference a laptop has to an iPad in the reduction of paperwork is beyond me!