Tuesday, 22 July 2014

Getting Engaged...

No sooner had Caebrwyn sent her rather lengthy contribution to the WLGA governance review panel (full of helpful suggestions) than an interesting item pops up for the next meeting of the Policy and Resources Scrutiny Committee; a report on the review of the 'Council's Engagement Mechanisms'. Not the most 'engaging' of titles, but never mind.

Last year a national survey found that Carmarthenshire residents felt least able to influence decisions out of the whole of  Wales. A cross-party group of councillors has, since last May, been looking at this very issue and the whole matter of public engagement, consultation and the role of elected members. Half way through this process things became slightly more pressing with the scandals surrounding the Wales Audit Office reports.

As an aside, asking the opinion of the public (lesson one; they should never use the awful word 'stakeholders'), will become even more important this Autumn as the budget approaches. The revised figures following the Welsh Government's warning that cuts will be even deeper than first thought mean that instead of around £30m cuts in Carmarthenshire, this figure will be roughly £46m over the next three years, it could be more.

The handful of 'efficiencies' which were put on the backburner in February; closing children's respite centres, abolishing lollipop persons, ending free transport for 6th formers, etc all make a very early reappearance at next Monday's Executive Board meeting. According to the financial report, some 'free thinking' will be required and 'alternative delivery models' considered. Quite how that will pan out we'll have to wait and see, mass outsourcing? The 'partner' evangelicals in charge of Social Care? Who knows.

Anyway, back to the report (which can be read in full here, badly formatted as usual), once you've got through the jargon there are a few interesting points...not least of which is to improve the formatting of online documents... (Stop press 8pm - the document has now been replaced and is in pdf format...they're learning..)

The report has taken over a year to complete and in my view barely scratches the surface, Caebrwyn's missive to the 'Panel', 4000 words written in two days goes a lot further in practical (and reasonable) terms to address many of the same points. Maybe a key part of improving public engagement would have been to ask the public in the first place..

Anyway, as I said, the report doesn't go far enough but it seems the council is beginning to realise the benefits of using social media to directly communicate with residents and actually listen to their views. Perhaps from now on we'll see less of this (concerning the current consultation over the price hike in sports pitch fees);

And more "Thanks for your views! We'll pass your opinions/ideas onto the relevant person".

Moving on, the report also looked at officer communication with elected members, and vice versa. This has been an enormous problem and has created a feeling that backbench councillors are kept in the dark over executive decisions. Sadly there are many that are quite happy to remain in the dark but that's a matter for the next election.
According to this graphic included in the report though, some clearly think there's room for improvement;

As may become apparent after the WLGA review, all the good intentions in the world will fail to bear the desired fruit if those in charge are resistant to change and prefer to rule the roost by their own rules and agenda. How can elected members gain the proper information and become fully informed if, for example, they get sanctioned for asking too many questions

One area which was looked at was the preliminary get-togethers prior to official Executive Board meetings. You may recall that the Appointed Auditor was not impressed with this particular element of Carmarthenshire decision making in one of his reports;

“There is no formal record of this pre-meeting which does raise concerns over the openness and transparency of the decision-making process”

An hour long chat before a fifteen minute 'official' meeting is not the way to do things. The report falls short in acknowledging that many decisions are made behind closed doors and prefers to call it a 'perception' and that there is a 'lack of understanding' amongst elected members of the purpose in such informal meetings. 

As I've said in my essay to the Panel, informal preparatory discussion has its place perhaps but should never reduce the official, public meeting to a pat-on-the-back rubber stamping exercise, which is what executive board meetings in Carmarthenshire are.

Another interesting point is the call-in procedure for Scrutiny meetings.
At present, if an executive decision is deemed by Scrutiny Members to have been unlawful, outside its powers, financially suspect or shows failure to consult, then the Members have all of three days to call it in and ask the chief officer to convene a meeting. 

Three days might be very convenient for the executive board but it's a ridiculously short time for Members - according to the report a review of the call-in procedure could be on the cards.

It is a little known fact that the public can also have their say at scrutiny meetings. The section of the council's constitution concerning Scrutiny Committees fails to mention the word 'public' once. The report mentions that 'members of the public rarely attend Scrutiny Committee meetings to provide evidence'. Hands up if you knew you could?  No wonder it's a rare occurrence.

So, let's hope that all these reviews - Governance, Public Engagement, Scrutiny, Press and Media Protocol, Email usage, Member/Officer Protocol etc etc....are not simply cosmetic.... 

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