Saturday 22 August 2015

Asking a Public Question...

It has been almost a year since I last wrote about Public Question Time at full council meetings, or the lack thereof. This week's Herald has also tried to offer words of encouragement to curious members of the public who might want to pose a question. 

The last time a member of the public put forward a question was in 2005, (and there were none for several years before that). A gentleman enquired about the the council's promotion of local sustainable food sources. It was all far too much and when it became evident that the questioner did not live nor work in the county, the constitution was hastily amended to prevent 'outsiders' from asking any more.

As you can imagine, public questions have never been encouraged, nor welcomed but the facility to do so has always been in the constitution. It was only after the WLGA review that it now finally, but reluctantly, appears as an agenda item.

The WLGA recommended that public questions be 'promoted' but of course that hasn't happened. And no questions have been asked.

The bastion of defence for County Hall is the palaver a member of public has to go through to ask. There is nothing obvious on the council's new website such as 'click here to submit a question to full council' which might take you to a page of simple instructions and an online form.
Good grief no.

I typed 'ask a public question' into the search box and this brought up numerous results from 'public toilets' to, inexplicably, 'Cooling towers/Evaporation condensers', but not 'public questions'.

The Herald reports that its own efforts to pose a question led them stumbling, eventually, to the Democratic Services Unit who offered them a few alternative email addresses in the hope that one of them might work. It doesn't bode well.

Currently, the actual details can only be found in the Constitution, Part 4 (1); Standing Orders Part A, CPR 10.1 to 10.10. (See what I mean? So here's a link) and your question must go to the chief executive.

Finding the instructions could be said to be the easy part. You then have to get your burning question onto the agenda. Your written question (by post or 'electronic' mail, with your name and address included of course) must land on the Chief Executive's desk seven working days before the meeting.

He can then decide to accept, or reject the question if he deems it frivolous, defamatory or offensive. (This is the person who was offended by enquiries about publicly funded officers' expenses...) It also has to be related to council business and not have been raised at a meeting in the past six months.

You must also direct it to the correct Executive councillor who holds the appropriate portfolio relative to your question. (everyone knows't they?) and not relate to possible confidential/exempt information.

If you are fortunate enough to be aware of every issue raised in council meetings over the past six months, and the chief executive has decided it is a) bland enough to be asked in front of webcams and the press, b) easily replied with the requisite spin, then we can move on to stage two.

So it's on the agenda. As all council meetings are held during the day, a day off work might be required if you want to put your question in person. If that is the case then you just hope that the councillor responding to your question is actually there that day and not conveniently indisposed...if not you will receive an answer in writing several weeks later...

If you can't be there then the Chair can read your question out, or choose not to, it's up to him, and the chief executive.

With seven days notice of your question, senior officers have plenty of time to write the councillors' 'reply' which means that your one Supplementary Question (follow-up) is all important, and obviously can't be posed if you're not there. This can also be rejected if it is considered 'frivolous' etc (see above).

If you've managed to get this far, let's hope you get a straight and informative answer; whether you're there or not. That, of course, is highly unlikely.

Still, don't let me put you off...If you want to ask something go ahead and take it from there. If it is rejected it still has to be logged in a book (available for public inspection during a full moon when there's an R in the month) with the reason for rejection.

Until such time as the council gets round becoming the 'most transparent in Wales', simplifies and promotes public questions on it's website, and offices and libraries...and preferably takes the vetting process out of the hands of that one person, the email address you need to send you question to is; or or by post to;
Mark James, Chief Executive, County Hall, Carmarthen, SA31 1JP.

The next two full council meetings are on the 9th September and the 14th October. Get asking!


Anonymous said...

The WGLA peer review states:
“The Council however could do more to engage and promote public questions,with a dedicated form on the Council website, simplified submissions procedure and a standing item on the Council agenda, irrespective of whether any questions are received or not.”

The presentation to Council by the Cross Party Constitutional Review Working Group on 17th June chose to totally ignore the recommendations for the form and simplified submissions procedure.

You would have thought that a council striving to be the most open and transparent in Wales would not only have a dedicated page prominent on its website but would also publish all questions received and the reasons when a question is rejected.

Redhead said...

Put in an anodyne public question and ask a different one when you get to the meeting!

MuppetMan said...

I don't even think "Have you noticed how blue the sky is this afternoon" would escape the Dark Lord once he noticed Jacqui's name at the bottom of it.

Anonymous said...

A few months ago I emailed my county councillor asking a straightforward question as to how he voted on a motion - I have yet to receive a reply. Seems some councillors don’t have much of an appetite to answer questions however they are put.