A scrutiny team’s perspective on the impact of lockdown and experiences of restarting
In the latest in our series from scrutiny practitioners reflecting on their experiences during the pandemic, Merton’s scrutiny team provide some insights on how they have changed the way they work in response to 2020’s very challenging circumstances.
When lockdown was announced, our first priority was to transfer the function to an online platform. We chose to host our council meetings via Zoom due to its compatibility with our existing systems. Democratic services colleagues were facing similar issues therefore lots of knowledge sharing took place to enable us to get up to speed within a short space of time.
Scrutiny Councillors were very keen to resume as soon as possible after lockdown which clearly demonstrated the value placed on the function. They saw scrutiny as an effective tool to support the response to the pandemic and as a conduit to report concerns of local residents to frontline services.
As a result of this enthusiasm, Merton were amongst the first scrutiny teams to reconvene and we held our first online meetings in May. We commenced with our overarching scrutiny Commission who met monthly over the summer and all scrutiny panels began again in September.
Technical issues dominated initially! We immediately needed to help our councillors gain confidence in using zoom and support partners to join meetings where their IT systems were incompatible with ours. Yes we did face the nightmare of the internet crashing during a meeting, which left us at the mercy of forces beyond our control. Perhaps it can be likened to an unexpected fire alarm or a technical issue at the civic centre, but in this scenario it felt like there were fewer options to rectify the situation. Colleagues were offline for about ten minutes and thankfully their absence wasn’t missed on that occasion. We learnt that it is important to put contingencies’ in place for this as best you can and now we always have an alternative officer on hand to present should they be required.
Although COVID-19 issues initially dominated all the agendas, the panels also resumed their focus on other big issues in the borough, particularly around the environment and housing.
There were a range of resource implications within our new virtual arrangements.
The biggest impact for us was the extra people needed to facilitate online committees. At the beginning we required two scrutiny officers to attend every meeting to deal with councillors technical queries as well as support the smooth running of the meeting. As confidence has grown, we now only need both officers for the first thirty minutes.
Councillors agreed to a streamlined scrutiny function with lighter agendas focussed on essentials. Officers presenting at scrutiny were given the option of providing verbal updates, in recognition of their increased workloads and competing priorities due to the pandemic. This year we are running three task groups rather than the usual four.
Some Scrutiny officer’s we have spoken to feel Zoom has had a detrimental impact on the quality of meetings. They point to the rapport, greater sense of team work and atmosphere created by the physical space which perhaps translates into confidence and enhances questioning skills. Others feel that meetings are the same in an online setting. We all agree that councillors came with a wealth of knowledge and intelligence gathered from their local communities about COVID. They understood the impact within different sections of their wards and what was needed to support them during this difficult time.
We had some concerns about the impact of participation of residents at virtual meetings but our live stream views suggest that participation has increased! We remain mindful though that it is possible that some previous attendees may have been excluded from access to the technology.
There are mixed views amongst councillors about how scrutiny should be conducted in future and whether it should remain online or return to physical meetings. Whilst many decisions are out of our control, it is clear that the function will need to be flexible and able to adapt to the new environment.
The scrutiny team at Merton see this as a time to innovate and embrace new technologies. Therefore we are looking at on-line voting, more use of infographics, expanding our social media reach and revamping our website. There is a renewed desire to ensure our work programmes tackle issues that matter to local people and are driven by a focus on outcomes.
CfGS is keen to continue to showcase scrutineers’ experiences and thoughts on recent months. If you’d be interested in sharing your views this way, please get in touch.