Scrutiny during the pandemic: Monmouthshire Council
In this guest blog, Robert McGowan, Policy and Scrutiny Officer at Monmouthshire Council, writes for us on practical experiences in carrying out vital scrutiny work on a topic of local importance during 2020.
In March, when the first lockdown began, scrutiny came to an immediate halt. Given the organisation’s existing policy of flexible and home working, the change to home working was probably less jarring for us than for staff in other organisations, but at this initial stage, the lack of any substantial work to do, and the general feeling of uncertainty, left us needing reassurance and a dose of normality. We and our policy colleagues therefore instituted daily team meetings, to keep morale high and anxiety low. As they were very effective in this regard, we kept them going even as our team members were redeployed; in our case, as scrutiny manager and officer, into the Contact Centre and the business grants team, respectively. The former involved phoning vulnerable and elderly constituents to check if they needed anything, and were feeling safe, while the latter consisted of reaching out to companies eligible for a business grant that either had not responded to the council’s initial communications, or for which there were no contact details (or, indeed, substantial business information of any kind.)
As this work progressed, we began to hold unofficial meetings with the members of our Select committees. Just as we officers needed meetings to resume for our wellbeing, so did Members. In fact, it was possibly more important for them, as some of them were shielding, and many live out in the countryside, so were feeling somewhat isolated. Everyone found these meetings beneficial, and they gave members the opportunity to familiarise themselves with the functionality of Teams, which had taken over from Skype as our official software for communications by this point. Although the meetings were not official, members naturally discussed the concerns that they had for their constituents, particularly relating to how the lockdown was affecting them. Formal meetings eventually resumed in July, and these concerns began to be addressed.
Official meetings presented new challenges. First, there was the matter of familiarising ourselves with Teams, in this context: meetings were either recorded and placed on YouTube afterwards for the public, or live-streamed. The latter is preferable, but we ran into difficulties when trying to include external speakers; in these instances, we default to recording and subsequent publication. In the case of live streaming, we learned quickly how to manage the stream – what we have dubbed ‘live editing’ – in which the person seen by the public on screen can be changed according to who is speaking. The particular concerns in this instance are ensuring that members have their cameras turned on in time, overcoming the natural delay in the system, and trying to keep ahead of who is likely to speak next. Some members still struggle a little with Teams, and a handful have therefore expressed a wish to return to the chamber. Needless to say, this has not been granted, but we have borne in mind that some members struggle with their I.T. generally, which includes their internet connections – online meetings can be quite frustrating for them, as a result.
The biggest scrutiny challenge that we have faced since the pandemic started was in holding a Select committee to consider changes to waste provision in the county. In particular, it was proposed that the recycling and waste facility in the town of Usk be closed, and to introduce green wheelie bins across the county for garden waste, replacing the current hessian bags. Both subjects elicited passionate responses from the public and members. In order to address these, we took two extra steps in the scrutiny process: first, we held a members’ seminar several weeks before the committee convened (in fact, it was two committees combined for this topic), and second, ahead of the meeting we sought public consultation in the form of letters (sent via Usk Town Council), emails and video messages. In addition, a member of Usk Town Council was invited to speak on its behalf during the Public Open Forum, in order for the committee to hear the Town Council’s concerns fully and directly.
Given the restrictions from Covid, this seemingly simple process brought further challenges. The members’ seminar was fairly straightforward, as it was conducted in the manner of a normal meeting, so we used Teams accordingly. The Select committee was another matter, however. Because the town council member was from outside the organisation, she could not join the livestream, but because of the contentious nature of the topics, we felt that we should stream the meeting live, rather than record and upload it to the internet later. The solution we achieved entailed the member coming to County Hall in person and addressing the committee as if she were part of the organisation, by joining our Policy and Governance manager in a separate office, and using his login details. Of course, the two kept their distance across the room.
Next, we addressed the responses by letter and email from the people of Usk. As many of the points raised tended to fall under the same headings – or were the exact same points expressed in almost identical language – we grouped the responses under themes and the main points, in order to feed them back to the committee. Interestingly, however, a great number of the responses were from people outside the town, the county, and even the country; this was noted during the meeting, to give full context to the members. Four video messages that exemplified the public’s concerns on both topics were edited together and played for the committee. One of our officers had uploaded these to a private feed on YouTube, and when the time came, shared his screen with the committee and pressed play (hosting the videos externally meant that more than one officer could access them, and from any device, as a failsafe.) As the smooth running of this meeting was deemed especially important, various officers were in the chamber, in case they needed to help with anything, or there were any technical problems. Ironically, this actually created a problem in that even sitting apart according to social distancing guidelines, the officers’ laptops all participating in the same livestream in (fairly) close proximity caused terrible feedback; the meeting was therefore delayed a few moments at its outset while the officers re-positioned themselves as far apart in the chamber as possible.
The biggest challenge of the meeting concerned the committee’s vote on the report’s recommendations; specifically, ensuring that the public understood that votes by scrutiny committees are advisory, and have no definite bearing on Cabinet’s eventual decision. Given the attendance and testimony from one of their members, it was especially important for the town council to understand well in advance of the meeting that this would be the case, but also for the people of the town, and the press. Unfortunately, despite all of our best efforts, various parties were still under the impression following the meeting that the committee’s vote was binding, so we were very careful with the wording of subsequent documents and communications on the matter.
Nevertheless, we were very happy with the process. We feel that we did everything we could to ensure that members were fully informed on the topic, that the public and local council were as engaged in the process as they could be, and that, overall, scrutiny of the recommendations was as rigorous as possible.
During this period, we have learned many lessons that will serve us well in the future. Despite the challenges from Covid-19, we have ensured transparency, accountability and public engagement in our scrutiny process.
If you would like to write for us about your own scrutiny experiences over the course of this year, please contact Ed Hammond at firstname.lastname@example.org.