New beginnings for scrutiny

Posted on 28/05/2020 by Kate Grigg.

Guest post from Councillor Mary Jones, Swansea Council

We are delighted to share the experience of our first remote scrutiny meeting at Swansea Council, which I chaired, and hope that if you are about to embark on yours it gives you confidence, and something useful to take away.

The last few months have been a shock to the system, but it has also presented us with an opportunity to reflect on what we do as scrutineers, and challenge us all to define, and perhaps even fight for, our place in that ‘system’.

For obvious reasons the immediate response in many Councils may have been to suspend scrutiny, as well as other committees.  Every Council has had to adapt, realign and focus efforts on helping to save lives, protect and support the most vulnerable in society, and adhere to national restrictions.

However, it is at times of emergency and upheaval in society that the value of scrutiny is even greater, and long after the emergency has passed I suspect we will be counting the cost. Scrutineers will need to be at the forefront of challenging decision-makers to improve people’s lives and deal with suffering.

Here, our last scrutiny meeting (pre-emergency) was on 17 March, what seems a very long time ago, with the future uncertain and the majority of us having to stay at home. Meetings were suspended.

Fast forward a few weeks, we held our breath and took a plunge into the murky waters…and survived! Yes, we managed to hold our FIRST EVER formal remote Scrutiny Committee on 24 April – the first in Wales I gather. It was not so scary after all!

It was pre-decision scrutiny ahead of an urgent cabinet meeting concerning the build of an emergency surge hospital in response to COVID-19. The meeting went very well and it was pleasing that the vast majority of committee members (16 of them) were able to participate. All adapted well to this new way of working, and I believe that the proceedings, questioning, debate and discussion went as well as they probably would have, had it been a meeting in the Council Chamber. In many ways, it was easier. It was certainly easier for people to join the meeting; we had the Leader of the Council, the Chief Executive and other senior officers participating. I suspect that securing physical attendance of all those who were present may have been more difficult.

The meeting was not without issues, however on reflection these were minor, to be expected, and all part of the learning; and I must admit that the experience has opened our eyes to the possibilities and benefits of remote meetings, not only now but also in the long-term future.

Having had a chance to look back at our experience here are some of the key success factors:

  • Digital Ready – the fact that the Council had already rolled out the use of MS Teams, meant we already had the tools in place and foundations laid for remote working / meetings.
  • Preparing the Ground – there was communication with all scrutiny councillors prior to the meeting to explain how Teams works, how to join the meeting, address any concerns that councillors may have and give them one to one training in using Teams. This boosted the confidence of Councillors and Officers and certainly assisted in the smooth running of the Committee.
  • Support for the Chair – successful meetings rest heavily on the chair, and remote meetings present their own challenges requiring greater concentration. Whilst it may not be necessary each time, I benefitted from being located in the council offices along with officer support (at a safe distance of course), rather than at home, so I could focus on the discussion rather than the technology, and had back up which helped me, in particular, to bring in those who wished to speak and minimise disruption to the flow of the meeting.
  • Pre-meeting – we asked everyone to join the meeting 30 minutes prior to start to enable participants to settle, resolve any technical issues, and go over any meeting ground-rules. In future an earlier pre-meeting, in order to discuss / refine questioning strategies (giving councillors more experience with remote meetings), will work best, and then a short pre-meeting immediately before the meeting just to ensure time to settle and check who is present.
  • Behaviour – it was important for everyone to be patient, disciplined, and adhere to ground-rules. For example, everyone muting their microphones unless invited to speak by the chair, using a pre-agreed method of indicating to speak (via the ‘show conversation’ facility within Teams), and avoiding interruptions.

Some challenges:

  • Bandwidth – an individual’s experience will depend on their internet connection. There may also be issues around the particular device being used and/or user settings. Some of these may well be out of the chair or officer’s control. Connection issues for some improved when they turned off their video.
  • Inclusion – without being able to see everyone on a screen (limitation with MS Teams) it would be easy to forget about the less vocal councillors and therefore important for the chair to ensure that everyone is given opportunity to actively engage and contribute.
  • Agenda Papers – councillors are used to having printed agenda papers (we’re not quite paperless yet!) and whilst it is not an insurmountable, as you can toggle between the electronic agenda and Teams, it may not be ideal particularly where the agenda papers are considerable. We may need to look at how the practice of printing and distribution of hard copy agendas, even for remote meetings, may need to continue.
  • Public Engagement – our recent meeting was convened under emergency legislation, and allowed us to meet without any public present. So, a challenge for us ahead, as we hold further meetings, is how we can best open up remote meetings to the public, whether as observers or participants.

Looking ahead we are aware of the need for scrutiny activity to be proportionate and avoid placing unreasonable burdens on the Council. Fortunately, we have the advantage of already having an agile scrutiny arrangement.

Our single committee structure, which has been in place since 2013, means that scrutiny activity can be tailored according to changing circumstances, priorities, and available time and resources, so that what we do is absolutely focussed on the right things. That might not mean ‘business as usual’ for some time, but we know that our efforts must be directed where it matters most.

You can watch Swansea’s Scrutiny Programme Committee meeting here. Further information about Swansea Scrutiny can be found here.

If you are a councillor or officer and want to take the opportunity to share your experiences of carrying out scrutiny over the course of the COVID-19 crisis, please get in touch with CfGS

About the Author: Kate Grigg

Kate works across the CfGS research programme supporting projects in local government and the corporate sector, and facilitating the combined authorities goverance network.