Under the spotlight – Dudley Council’s Covid-19 scrutiny process
In this guest blog, Kevin O’Keefe and Steve Griffiths (respectively Dudley Council’s Chief Executive and Democratic Services Manager) explain the council’s approach to scrutiny during the pandemic.
At the start of lockdown in March, the Council recognised the key importance of maintaining proper levels of openness, transparency, democratic oversight and scrutiny during the Pandemic. This is particularly important given our ‘no overall control’ situation. There was a firm commitment from both of our group leaders to embrace scrutiny on a cross party basis.
The Council moved very quickly to establish a thorough and effective scrutiny process to provide support, assurance and to make recommendations on improvements around the borough’s response to the Coronavirus Pandemic.
Setting up a scrutiny process in the middle of a pandemic might seem like a strange thing to do. A few eyebrows may have been raised by extremely busy officers when we announced this cross-party exercise.
But what better time to learn and implement that learning, than while this national crisis is ongoing? We could wait until the pandemic is over, but we want to do our absolute utmost to help our residents and partners now. Scrutiny helps us do this.
A series of dedicated meetings of our Health and Adult Social Care Scrutiny Committee were held between June and November to assess the system-wide response to Covid-19.
We’ve looked at access to PPE and how we addressed the significant issue of lack of supplies nationally – by pooling our purchase (and vetting) power with our fellow Black Country Authorities, how our emergency planning team responded – in pretty good form as we’d run through an intensive pandemic training exercise earlier in 2019 and already implemented improvements, most notably in communicating across organisations and out to our communities, which in turn fed into an analysis of our Covid-19 communication strategy and the importance of keeping the public informed which has proven to be robust and effective with 70% of residents agreeing or strongly agreeing that the council keeps residents informed about its services.
We also looked at the impact on children’s services which thankfully was very much business as usual, quickly embracing and using virtual ways of communicating to carry on with essential work such as social work visits, adoption processes and safeguarding reviews, with many positive responses from service users who found the approach less intimidating and we saw an actual increase in engagement with young people, keen to use this new technology.
We’ve addressed the impact on housing services, on highway, household waste and recycling, licensing, enforcement, street cleansing, safe management of parks and green spaces and more. We’ve scrutinised our work with partners like the ambulance service, community and voluntary sector, the business community and the police, who we met with twice a week to ensure that we were supporting each other’s work in areas such as domestic abuse, exploitation, scams and anti-social behaviour.
Our meeting in early November looked at the financial implications to the authority, the impact of Covid-19 on specific communities including the BAME communities, deprived communities, those already financially struggling on benefits or low incomes and those with existing long term health issues. We’ve also looked at how our democratic services team has adapted to Covid-19, proving the council’s constitution as ‘fit for purpose’ and making use of delegated decisions and hosting council meetings online, opening them up to the press and members of the public.
The Chair of the Scrutiny Committee suggested kick starting the process way back in May and all parties enthusiastically agreed to this approach. By putting all Covid-19 related activity under one scrutiny committee, as opposed to having various scrutiny committees working on different elements, we have ensured we get the most out of the process.
I am really proud of what we’ve achieved. We’ve shown that you can learn, even in the midst of a crisis, and by taking this unusual approach we can actually help to plan and make the best informed decisions for our residents.
A report on recommendations and outcomes arising from the scrutiny process has been endorsed by the Cabinet and will go to Full Council on 30th November, 2020.
NOTE: This blog was updated on 25/11/20 to correct a minor typo.