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DEMOCRATIC SERVICES COMMITTEE

 

Minutes of a meeting held on 8th October, 2014.

 

Present:  Councillor C.P. Franks (Chairman); Councillors J. Drysdale, Mrs. A.J. Moore, G. Roberts, R.L. Traherne, E. Williams and M.R. Wilson.

 

 

495     APOLOGIES FOR ABSENCE –

 

These were received from Councillor J.W. Thomas (Vice-Chairman); Councillors R.J. Bertin and Ms. B.E. Brooks.

 

 

496     MINUTES – 

 

RESOLVED – T H A T the minutes of the meeting held on 16th July, 2014 be approved as a correct record.

 

 

497     DECLARATIONS OF INTEREST –

 

No declarations were received.

 

 

498     MEMBERS’ ICT UPDATE (HSICT) –

 

All Members had been afforded the opportunity of a replacement or upgraded laptop to allow the running of the Windows 7 operating system, where this had been requested.  Some Members had elected not to use the Council-provided equipment.

 

The Council’s Wide Area Network supplier had gone into administration and a replacement supplier to provide support and maintenance for the network was being sought.

 

The new Computer Room in the Civic Offices was nearing completion.  The movement of servers and other hardware to the new location would then begin, but would need to be done out of normal office hours to minimise disruption to the user community.  There would, however, be some short periods of time when Members might not be able to access e-mails when that system was moved, but advance warning would be given of any possible disruption.

 

The Head of Strategic ICT demonstrated the StaffNet GIS system, which had the facility to show any calls or incidents within ward boundaries, which could be very useful information to Members when dealing with their constituents.

 

An update on the availability of the free public access solution was provided to Members.  This was now available in all of the main Council Offices and was being rolled out to libraries.  Other Council buildings such as Ty Jenner were likely to have this facility in the next year.

 

As far as webcasting was concerned, a meeting of the Planning Committee had been used as an initial “dry runâ€.  A number of Members had attended a feedback session and it had been agreed to replicate that exercise at the two meetings of the Committee in October. 

 

As alluded to at the last meeting, the possible introduction of a Case Management System for Members had been raised.   The Chairman of the Committee had held initial discussions with the Head of Democratic Services and officers from the ICT and Business Improvement Sections.  Those discussions would now be expanded to include a group of Members who had expressed an interest in exploring the possible introduction / potential benefits / interest levels amongst Members generally of such a facility.

 

RESOLVED – T H A T the report be noted.

 

 

499     'USING INFORMATION TECHNOLOGY AT THE VALE OF GLAMORGAN COUNCIL': DRAFT MEMBERS’ GUIDE (HSICT) –

 

As agreed at the last meeting of the Committee, an updated draft Guide had been circulated for Members’ consideration.  The Head of Strategic ICT outlined some of the changes, which included Section 12.3 – 'Councillors must not use Council IT equipment for non-Council activities' this represented a major change from the previous Guide, which did not prohibit such use.  However, the Head of Strategic ICT stated that, obviously, it would eventually be a matter for Members themselves to determine when the final Guide was submitted for consideration / approval by Cabinet.

 

During the discussion, Members alluded to various ways in which they managed their Council and non-Council electronic correspondence.  Reference was made to understanding the issues surrounding security, but also the need to be cautious regarding potential over regulation.  However, in general terms, the Committee acknowledged the rationale behind this particular section of the draft Guide. 

 

Arising from the discussion, there was an acknowledgement that the draft Guide could be amended to include additional information regarding methods by which Members might most effectively store / manage electronic information. 

 

RESOLVED –

 

(1)       T H A T the draft Guide be circulated to all Members of the Council, who would be asked to submit any comments to the Head of Strategic ICT.

 

(2)       T H A T the Head of Strategic ICT submit an updated draft ICT Guide to Cabinet.

 

           

500     'GOOD SCRUTINY?  GOOD QUESTION!' – AUDITOR GENERAL FOR WALES IMPROVEMENT STUDY: SCRUTINY IN LOCAL GOVERNMENT (HDS) –

 

In 2012, the Auditor General committed to the Wales Audit Office (WAO) undertaking an All-Wales Scrutiny Improvement Study.  As part of the Council’s participation in that Study, a group of Officers and Members undertook a self-evaluation of the Council’s existing scrutiny arrangements, took part in peer review exercises and attended workshops.  As part of the peer review exercise, two meetings of the Council’s Scrutiny Committees were observed by a group from Neath and Port Talbot Council and the Council’s own Peer Review Group observed Scrutiny Committee proceedings at Swansea Council.

 

The WAO Outcome Report from the above Study was only issued on 29th May of this year and was initially reported to the Democratic Services Committee on 16th July 2014.  The report was also being submitted to the Scrutiny Committee Chairmen and Vice-Chairmen Group on 7th October 2014. 

 

The Auditor General for Wales recognised the need for improved scrutiny arrangements and the need to focus on issues of transparency and openness to challenge.   These improvements were considered necessary to ensure that scrutiny played a fully effective role in the good governance of local authorities in Wales.  For these reasons, in 2012, the Auditor General committed to undertake an Improvement Study to explore how scrutiny could improve in Councils in Wales.

 

The approach to this Study was described as "innovative" and differed from the traditional audit approach by involving facilitation of ‘real-time’ peer review, learning and improvement in scrutiny over a period of just over a year.  The aim of the Study was to help Councils achieve lasting improvements in scrutiny.  WAO staff worked with Councils to provide an opportunity for those involved in scrutiny to identify where improvements to their own arrangements might be required, and to share knowledge and experience with others to find solutions.

 

The Study enabled Councils to evaluate their own performance, share knowledge, develop skills, build and strengthen relationships, and identify new opportunities for working together with other Councils and partners.  To support shared learning, Peer Learning and Evaluation Teams at each council, comprising scrutiny members and officers, took part.

 

The Study helped to shape the proposed Key Characteristics of Effective Overview and Scrutiny that the Welsh Local Government Association and partners had initially crafted from existing good practice guidance.  Since the completion of the Study, an agreed set of 'outcomes and characteristics for effective local government overview and scrutiny’ had been developed by the Wales Scrutiny Officers Network, supported by the Centre for Public Scrutiny (CfPS). 

 

The nine specific recommendations of the Auditor General were set out on page 7 of the report and, as indicated, each would need to be considered by a combination (as appropriate) of Councils, Welsh Government, the Welsh Local Government Association, the WAO and other regulators such as CSSIW and Estyn.

 

The report, by its very nature, was generic and reflected practices and procedures observed by the various Peer Review Groups throughout Wales (each of which was accompanied by a representative from the WAO) and the WAO itself.  Many of the areas touched upon in the report did not form part of the nine specific recommendations but, nevertheless, needed to be considered in the light of the Council's existing scrutiny processes and the overall background to the report.  In doing so, Members were asked to note that the Peer Review Group from Neath and Port Talbot which visited the Vale of Glamorgan Council, was complimentary in its assessment of what they observed.

 

Consideration of the report as a whole would need to give particular regard to areas such as:

  • obviously, the nine specific recommendations of the Auditor General
  • an analysis of the Council's existing scrutiny arrangements in relation to the above recommendations
  • the requirement under the Local Government (Wales) Measure 2011 that Councils must introduce processes to enable the views of the public to be brought to the attention of Scrutiny Committees in respect of business under consideration
  • a general need to seek to develop/improve public awareness of, and participation in, the scrutiny process.

The above list was by no means exhaustive.

 

As indicated above, the WAO Study Report was submitted to this Committee in July of this year.  It was agreed that officers would draw up an Action Plan designed to set out the Council's proposed response and way forward in respect of the nine specific recommendations emanating from the Study.  In addition to the nine recommendations themselves, Members were asked to bear in mind some of the key 'messages' contained in the Study report and summarised below (allowing for the fact that the comments were generic in nature):

  • Scrutiny practice was improving, but the impact that Scrutiny was having was not always clearly evident
  • whilst the majority of Councils considered that there was a supportive environment for Scrutiny, some lack of clarity of roles and responsibilities could limit the effectiveness with which Scrutiny held the Executive to account
  • better planning, more effective chairing and improvements to the range, quality and use of information were required to improve Scrutiny across Councils in Wales
  • in general, Council Scrutiny was not always fully aligned with other Council improvement processes, nor built on external audit, inspection and review
  • more effective engagement with the public and partners would improve Scrutiny and increase public accountability.

"Scrutiny practice was improving, but the impact that Scrutiny is having is not always clearly evident"

 

The WAO concluded that, whilst improvements had been made, there was scope for further improvement amongst Councils generally to ensure that information presented to Scrutiny Committees was consistent, relevant, up to date and timely.  There was also an emphasis in the report on the fact that improvements to Scrutiny practice needed to be judged against the outcomes that resulted from its activities.  In addition to not always being evident, the report referred to the impact of Scrutiny Committee as being 'rarely captured'.  The report suggested some practical measures (paragraph 24) that Councils could put in place to encourage Scrutiny Committees to have a clear focus on outcomes.  The importance of Scrutiny Committee Members making clear the reasons why they had requested reports was referred to.  Similarly, there was reference to the need for officers who suggested items for consideration by a Scrutiny Committee being asked to ensure that there was a clear rationale for doing so. 

 

In recognising the challenging task of developing more robust measures capable of demonstrating the impact of Scrutiny, (as alluded to above) a set of core characteristics and outcomes had been developed by the Wales Scrutiny Officers' Network, supported by the Centre for Public Scrutiny.  These were set out in the Study Report.

 

"Whilst the majority of Councils consider that there is a supportive environment for Scrutiny, some lack of clarity of roles and responsibilities can limit the effectiveness with which Scrutiny holds the Executive to account"

 

The majority of Councils believed the relationship between Overview and Scrutiny Committees, the Executive and senior officers was supporting effective Scrutiny. 

 

Some of the 'positive aspects' noted in the report included:

  • the development of pre-decision Scrutiny
  • Cabinet Members and senior officers making direct referrals of issues and decisions to Scrutiny Committees
  • Cabinet Members and senior officers taking part in work planning sessions for Scrutiny Committees
  • the existence of protocols / role descriptions setting out how Scrutiny Committees, Cabinet Members and senior officers should work together.

Notwithstanding the above, the Study concluded that, in some Councils, the relationship between the Executive and Scrutiny was not always clear (including the role of Cabinet Members in attendance at Scrutiny Committees and the reasons for such).  Councils were urged to ensure that there was clarity regarding the role of Cabinet Members at Scrutiny Committee meetings.  It was also considered that Scrutiny Committees should ensure that they were clear on the reasons why they wished Cabinet Members to attend meetings before inviting them to attend. 

 

In terms of the relationship between senior officers and Scrutiny Committee Members, again, a variety of practices were observed during the course of the Study.  One of the conclusions was that 'the expertise and knowledge of officers should be drawn upon sufficiently by Committees in carrying out their scrutiny role, whilst ensuring that scrutiny processes remained led by Scrutiny Committee Members.' 

 

Ensuring that individuals involved in the scrutiny process had the right skills and competences was seen in the Study as a key element of preparing for effective scrutiny.  This rationale was applied not only to those involved in supporting and providing information to Scrutiny Committees, but also to 'scrutineers'.  This was one of the issues covered within the nine specific recommendations.  In particular, Members would be afforded the opportunity of attending sessions on questioning, analysing and chairing in order that they might develop their existing skills further.

 

"Better planning, more effective chairing and improvements to the range, quality and use of information are required to improve Scrutiny across Councils in Wales"

 

A key element emanating from the Study was seen as the selection of appropriate topics for scrutiny, led by Scrutiny Members with support from officers and informed by clear selection criteria.  This should include determining whether topics should be examined through a Task and Finish Group or by the full Committee.  Whilst most Councils felt their work planning processes were effective, with many stating that Members' choice of topics was appropriate, Councils generally were less positive regarding the extent to which work programmes were balanced and focussed appropriately, or were developed following consultation with the public and partners and in discussion with senior officers and Executive Members.  The Study concluded that the contents of Forward Work Programmes needed to be based on sound criteria with a clear rational for topic selection.  Sufficient consideration should be given to the method of scrutiny, rather than just the selection of topics.  A key criterion for the selection of topics and the method of scrutiny should be the extent to which Committees were likely to have an impact in the area they had selected.  Significantly, it was considered that “to help ensure that scrutiny has an impact, Scrutiny Committees might have to balance a desire to examine a large number of topics with the likelihood of securing greater impact through focusing on a small number of items in more detailâ€. 

 

Common 'shortcomings' identified during the Study included:

  • the extent to which work programmes were focussed on outcomes
  • that work planning processes were too 'officer driven'
  • that some Committee meeting agendas contained too many items
  • the extent to which the public were engaged in the selection of topics
  • aligning with Cabinet Forward Work Programmes so that scrutiny could contribute to improving proposed, or existing, policies.

The range, timeliness, presentation and relevance of information available to Committees all had an impact on the effectiveness of scrutiny.  Councils identified a number of ways in which information to support scrutiny could be strengthened.  These included a need for less irrelevant detail in reports, a broader range of information to give a more rounded picture, as well as better quality and more timely information.  To achieve this, it was considered that Members needed to ensure that clear communications channels were in place between Scrutiny Committees and those responsible for providing information to them.  Scrutiny Committee Members had an important role in shaping the content and format of information that was presented to them and, where appropriate, in challenging the way in which information was presented if it did not enable them to perform their role effectively.  Members of Committees needed to be clear as to the purpose of requesting specific information and the outcome they were hoping to achieve as a consequence of examining it. 

 

One section in the Study report dealt with the various approaches within Councils to 'pre-meetings'.  Whilst acknowledging that pre-meetings could assist the scrutiny process, the study stated "We have also observed some confusion about the role of pre-meetings.  There were some concerns that the use of pre-meetings could undermine the formal committee meeting, leading to "staged" questions with little spontaneity or follow-up questions."

 

The Study identified some examples of challenging questioning by Scrutiny Committees, but in other cases, the process observed was regarded as 'ineffective'.  The WAO considered successful scrutiny to rely on effective questioning that followed lines of enquiry, probed for further information, was prepared to challenge when necessary and was clearly linked to the role of the Committee.  The role of the Chairman in facilitating and leading Scrutiny Committees was highlighted.  Examples of effective chairing of meetings, where the Chairman summarised discussions, ensured that questions and discussions remain focussed and set an appropriate tone for meetings, thereby allowing Members and witnesses to contribute constructively, were observed. 

 

In the Peer Review visits undertaken to this Authority, the Peer Group were complementary regarding the two Committees observed and, indeed, the role played by the respective Chairmen.

 

"In general, Council Scrutiny is not always fully aligned with other Council improvement processes, nor builds on external audit, inspection and review"

 

This part of the WAO report examined how scrutiny interacted with, and utilised, the work of audit, inspection and review bodies to help inform and shape their work.  The report considered there to be opportunities for Scrutiny Committees to use the reports of external review bodies to inform its own work planning and to provide evidence to inform the findings of Scrutiny reviews.  In turn, those external review bodies might also look to take assurance from the work undertaken by a Council's scrutiny function.  The majority of Councils considered that communication between Scrutiny Committees and the Council's Auditors, Regulators and Inspectors could be improved.  The same principle was acknowledged in terms of the sharing of work programmes between Councils and external review bodies.  The nine recommendations contained in the WAO report included:

  • "R4 - Ensure that Scrutiny draws effectively on the work of audit, inspection and regulation and that its activities are complimentary with the work of external review bodies
  • R5 - Ensure that external review bodies take account of scrutiny work programmes and the outputs of scrutiny activity, where appropriate, in planning and delivering their work."

Turning to the issue of the alignment of scrutiny with wider Council improvement processes, the Study stated "There is as clear role for an authority's scrutiny function in its improvement processes, as part of its role in holding local decision makers and policy makers to account, and in its policy development role."

 

Significantly, only just over half of Councils considered that their Scrutiny Committees challenged poor performance effectively.  Whilst the WAO observed that most Council's Scrutiny Committees had a role in performance management arrangements, with regular reporting of performance information, it concluded that the level of understanding of the data provided varied amongst Councils.  Furthermore, questioning of performance was not always effective and there was “limited connection between performance data provided to Committees and the outcomes that it purports to relate to.  In such cases, Committees would not be equipped to effectively contribute to performance evaluation and management."

 

"More effective engagement with the public and partners will improve Scrutiny and increase public accountability."

 

The final section of the WAO Study report examined the extent to which Council scrutiny functions engaged and involved partners, stakeholders, community groups and members of the public in their work.  Engaging the public could help to ensure that the selection of topics for scrutiny took into account the views of local communities, improved the evidence base for scrutiny recommendations and demonstrated accountability for decisions, policies and performance.  The Local Government (Wales) Measure 2011 required Scrutiny Committees to take into account the views of the public.

 

Notwithstanding the above, most Councils recognised that the extent to which Scrutiny Committees 'ensure that the voice of local people is heard' is an area that needed to improve.  Broadening and improving engagement with partners was also recognised by Councils generally as an area for development.

 

Whilst acknowledging the generic nature of the WAO report, it was obviously important that any Action Plan drawn up by officers reflected the specific Scrutiny arrangements existing within the Council itself. 

 

RESOLVED –

 

(1)       T H A T the report be noted.

 

(2)       T H A T officers prepare a draft Action Plan for consideration at the next meeting of the Committee.

 

 

501     LOCAL GOVERNMENT (WALES) MEASURE 2011: UPDATE / ACTION PLAN (HDS) –

 

In order to maintain the Committee’s awareness / monitoring of progress in respect of the Measure’s provisions, the following update / action plan was submitted (the emboldened text indicating updates since the last meeting:

 

[View Action Plan]

 

502     CONTRACT MONITORING: MEMBER TRAINING (REF) –

 

The audit Committee on 7th July, 2014 received the Council’s External Auditor, Grant Thornton UK LLP report on the review of Contract Monitoring arrangements.

 

The Annual Governance Statement, published in September 2013 highlighted key control issues that had been identified as part of the work undertaken by Internal Audit.  In particular, there were concerns relating to the lack of contractual arrangements within the Waste Management Service and also to the adequacy and effectiveness of the financial and quality monitoring arrangements surrounding partnership arrangements between the Council and the Leisure Centres service providers.

 

Following on from discussions with the Managing Director, the Council’s External Auditors were commissioned to independently examine the key control issues highlighted. 

 

This report summarised the External Auditors’ overall assessment as to whether or not the Council had effective arrangements in place to monitor the performance of contracts.  The review found that there was no performance management regime which formally and systematically tested the extent to which the contracts examined were being monitored. 

 

Four proposals for improvement had been identified and a response from the Director was being sought.

 

Of particular importance, the Audit Committee noted comments of the External Auditor regarding the level of scrutiny of questions that had been asked by members of the Scrutiny Committee (Economy and Environment) when discussing Leisure Centre Services with the contractor.

 

It was the view of the Audit Committee that the comments of the External Auditor had highlighted a training deficiency on the part of Members and the view was expressed that the Democratic Services Committee, as the Committee responsible for overseeing the Council’s approach of Member Development, be advised of the

concerns of the Audit Committee with regard to the training gap identified. 

 

One Member of the Committee, who was also a Member of the Audit Committee, indicated that the latter Committee’s primary concern related to whether officers were monitoring / managing the contracts effectively.  The Head of Development Services had submitted a suggested way forward to a subsequent meeting of the Audit Committee which, in turn, provided a framework for future monitoring.  Reference was also made to the fact that the Audit Committee was of the view that this aspect of work would become an increasing requirement.

 

The Chairman of the Scrutiny Committee clarified, for the Committee’s information, the reason for the Request for Consideration submitted by a member of the Scrutiny Committee, which, in turn, had led to the above sequence of events.

 

RESOLVED –

 

(1)       T H A T the Head of Democratic Services, in liaison with the Director of Development Services, arrange for an appropriate Member training session to be provided to the Members of the Scrutiny Committee (Economy and Environment) in regard to contract monitoring arrangements in relation to the Council’s Leisure Centres’ service provider.

 

(2)       T H A T the Head of Democratic Services arrange a wider Member training session(s) relating to financial and quality / performance monitoring of contracts as soon as practicable.            

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