Friday 30 May 2014

Scrutiny ups and downs

A Wales Audit Office report published today has found that scrutiny of executive decision making in Wales is something of a mixed bag; inconsistent and patchy. Not just for members of the public who wish, for example, to scrutinise spending decisions (with all but two local authorities publishing any spending details at all, this is nigh on impossible in Wales), but for backbench councillors trying to hold the executive to account. Huw Vaughan Thomas, the Auditor General said that “Decisions need to be consistent, transparent and rigorous and greater recognition of the value of scrutiny is vital if councils are to see real benefits in securing value for money for the taxpayer.”

Also published today, by the Welsh Government, is the final version of the Wales-wide 'satisfaction' National Survey. It is quite comprehensive and detailed. For instance, we now know that a non-religious urban female feels 5% safer walking in the dark in their local area than a religious urban female. The report also repeats data which was published last year, including responses to the question 'did respondents feel  they could influence decisions affecting their local area?' For which Carmarthenshire Council scored the worst in Wales.

I'll not repeat Carmarthenshire's numerous shortcomings when it comes to scrutiny, for both the public and elected members, though, as per my previous post, keeping councillors properly and fully informed is supposed to form part of the forthcoming governance review. You may remember, for instance that the Policy & Resources scrutiny committee waited 18 months for a report on the press and media protocol, which eventually prompted an ongoing review.

Members of another scrutiny committee, were recently puzzled as to why a politically charged press release was included in the background papers for an 'update' item on cuts to public transport and bus services. The press release hadn't come from the council but it's origin was unknown and only contained the name of the author. Members queried  its origins and its inclusion, they were told it was written by;
'a prominent Welsh transport journalist who wrote for a number of newspapers and industry journals and that these comments did not reflect the view of the Council or the Authority’s officers. The Director of Technical Services assured the Committee that the press release had been included to highlight the excellent work being done by the Authority’s officers'

I don't think the Members were doubting the efforts of the authority's staff to maintain and subsidise services as best they can in the face of cuts; it was the inclusion of the article, simply because it said nice things about the council that was challenged, and therefore its purpose and relevance in the context of scrutiny. Imagine if articles from local bloggers were included for the purpose of giving a 'balanced view'? Good heavens.

As reported in the Carmarthen Journal, the council statement regarding increased and extended parking charges does little to inspire confidence that the public voice will be heard; "Traffic orders are in place for all the amendments to come into place as soon as the time for consideration of objections has passed" Objections are merely a formality, to be 'noted', and ignored.

Also on the subject of scrutiny is the matter of webcasting and it was a pity that the new Plaid group leader's recent call for public filming (recommended by a cross-party group of scrutiny councillors back in 2012) and the inclusion of scrutiny meetings in webcasting was met with a reluctant and mumbling 'promise' of a discussion by a distinctly unenthusiastic executive board. As he pointed out, this would go some way to meeting the auditor's calls, and Welsh Government drive, to improve public engagement in scrutiny, a requirement of the Local Government (Wales) Measure 2011

Lastly, some may say that blogs such as this and social media in general have their place in the scrutiny of our local authorities. Some may disagree of course. One tenacious local blog over in North Yorkshire, Real Whitby has been exposing wrong-doings relating to the county and borough council for some time.

Last year the borough council contacted the blog's Internet Service Provider in an attempt to have it shut down, without success, and this week's Private Eye reports on the latest attempt by the council to remove the thorn in it's side. Real Whitby carries the full article here. Pensioner and contributor, Nigel Ward was reported to the Department of Works and Pensions for earning money from his contributions to the blog. It turned out that the allegation had 'emanated' from the Town Hall.

The DWP investigator was entirely satisfied that Mr Ward hadn't been paid anything. The contributor has now written to the council's legal officer asking for an investigation into this attempt to smear him. As it is the same legal officer responsible for the 2013 baseless allegations to the ISP, I'm sure Mr Ward's complaint will be, erm, thoroughly investigated...

The inconsistent scrutiny of executive decisions is probably not so much a structural issue, but a cultural problem. The technology is now there to assist the process, widening the meaning and scope of scrutiny as never before, and as soon as the general default position changes from 'defensiveness' to 'openness', we may finally get somewhere.
And can I just add, whilst I'm on the subject of scrutiny, that proposals to charge for Freedom of Information requests would be a backward step and should be abandoned forthwith.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

"that proposals to charge for Freedom of Information requests would be a backward step"

Surely if your having to pay for the information, it suggests no freedom at all, the rich have access the poor do not it woudl also need its title adjusting:
"Information obtained by Payment"