The challenges of scrutiny at a distance

Posted on 20/01/2021 by Kate Grigg.

In this guest blog, Rebecca Atherton from Leeds City Council considers the experience of remote scrutiny and its practical challenges.

“Can you hear me – I can hear you? Are you muted? The webcast is now live.”

If 2020 had a catch phrase any of the above would seem fitting.

As we begin Lockdown 3.0 it seems timely to reflect on the challenges and achievements of recent months. This time round, we can be confident in the knowledge we have successfully delivered a remote scrutiny service in Leeds since June 2020. Unlike May 2020, we are not grappling with new online platforms or trying to train elected members from home, or wondering whether we’ll ever be able to begin a meeting without the now ubiquitous “can you hear me, I can see you” exchanges.

Even our collective vocabularies have transformed. Officers who would readily admit to being rooted in civic buildings and reams of agendas in March, now talk about webcasting, YouTube channels, playlists and Zoom rooms.

On 16 March 2020 Leeds City Council took the necessary step to cancel all planned meetings of its Scrutiny Boards. We knew that after the urgency of the initial stages of the pandemic response, there would be an important opportunity for scrutiny boards to publicly reflect on this unprecedented period and identify any lessons learned across different services.

However, as we cancelled the arrangements for March I doubt any of us predicted that in a little under 6 weeks we’d be running online meetings, trialling new platforms and training our members on online meeting etiquette. Not to mention the fact that like thousands of others we’d be doing that while juggling home schooling, caring responsibilities and other pandemic-related pressures.

Across the Council the urgency of the pandemic required officers to come together in different ways, to support one another and to work much more flexibly. Lesson one for us was that virtual meetings don’t work if a service exists in a silo. Thankfully, our response to the need to deliver remote committee meetings was very much a collective effort. 

Our scrutiny team is small – three of us manage 5 Boards, with the support of a clerk in each of the public committee sessions. To make virtual sessions work we drew on the invaluable wider support and expertise of colleagues in Digital Information, Governance and Democratic Services. 99 members were rapidly trained to access remote platforms. Multiple officers were in the background of our committee meetings helping elected members trouble shoot and ensuring any technical glitches did not affect our webcast.

We trialled our first online platform in May in private working groups, with all scrutiny board members receiving an update on the pandemic response as it related to the remit of their respective Boards. By June meetings had gone public and over the summer we moved to a new platform which improved the stability of our connections for large numbers of participants and provided greater simplicity for users.

Aside of addressing the varied technical abilities of both officers and members, we had three main practical challenges in the initial months of the remote experience.

  1. Firstly, as mentioned above, the stability of connections for large Boards with external co-opted members. This was not easily solved and our meeting platform was changed twice to improve the service. Some minor problems do persist– particularly in relation to the interaction of meeting platforms with our VPN system. However, the scale of those issues has significantly reduced.
  2. Secondly, Councillors wanted to scrutinise the impact of the pandemic on Leeds’ citizens and Council services, and to influence plans for recovery. But there was a balance to strike. The initial response to the pandemic saw a tremendous effort from a huge range of Council officers and everyone was keen to ensure we delivered an effective scrutiny service without placing extra pressure on those individuals. Boards therefore set their initial work programmes almost wholly within the context of the pandemic, exploring the impact on budgets, citizens and services, and inviting partners to share their experiences. 
  3. The third challenge was the sustainability of the staffing levels required to support remote meetings as the organisation returned to ‘business as usual.’ While remote meetings still require greater levels of support than traditional meetings, we have now adopted a rota system to enable a wide pool of staff from different teams to share responsibility for additional tasks such as webcasting, with resilience increased through Principal Scrutiny Advisors providing ‘back up’ for one another across meetings of all Boards.

Since the summer we have used Zoom to host our meetings, which are then broadcast via YouTube. Links to the broadcasts are provided, along with the agenda papers, on the ModGov meeting page.

Looking to the future meetings may be hosted remotely, be buildings-based or involve a hybrid approach. However, regardless of the direction we follow the experience of this year has proved that our service is more resilient that we had previously appreciated and can be delivered with a level of flexibility which had not previously been realised.

What is more, the delivery of meetings remotely has arguably improved public accessibility, and may provide a mechanism to support a longer term increase in diversity amongst Council members by encouraging flexible ways of working for those who cannot easily fulfil the role of Councillor while that includes a predominantly buildings based format for civic duties.

About the Author: Kate Grigg

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