To begin, Erik Hohenstein (Co-optee) asked attendees to consider one change that would improve the PAC in the next year. A short discussion then took place around the following ideas:
· More of a focus on the scrutinising the Cabinet – currently, scrutiny tended to land more on officers and their work rather than the Executive.
· A more formal approach to Cabinet Member scrutiny – the Cabinet Member could be formally invited for specific items rather than simply attending for everything.
· Better recording and tracking of actions. There needed to be a clearer mechanism to log actions rather than have them ‘hidden in the minutes’.
Kim Dero (Chief Executive) suggested there should be a clear separation between the scrutiny and accountability element of the meeting and the policy development element. The two required a different mindset from both members and officers - and she felt a clear delineation would make for a more production session.
The Chair agreed but highlighted the important of the scrutiny and accountability element. It was a critical part of the process, ensuring the Council was making the right decisions and spending tax-payer money wisely and effectively. Holding officers and the executive to account didn’t mean having to be negative in tone, but the challenge needed to be robust.
It was suggested that meetings could be split into two - scrutiny in part one and policy development in part two. Or they could be separate meetings that alternated - scrutiny one month and policy development the next. Officers noted that policy development could also be achieved through the formation of task and finish groups that took place outside the scheduled meetings of the Committee.
Steve Miley (Director for Children's Services) felt the Council needed to do more ideas development – suggesting more think-pieces should be coming to PACs for recommendation to Cabinet. He also highlighted the problem of 'shallow scrutiny' where reports often comprised a basic presentation on a service area that led to simple questions and answers about its function. There needed to be greater focus and depth. Members of the Committee agreed with this assessment.
A member asked how items got on to the agenda – and what happened if a member of the Executive didn't want an item on an agenda. Councillor PJ Murphy (Chair) said ultimately decisions about the agenda rested with the Chair but he always tried to seek consensus. If a member of the public asked for an item to be put on the agenda it would be considered.
Councillor Donald Johnson, on the topic of how to involve more residents, suggested targeting experts in the borough and inviting them for items in their particular areas of interest. Kim Dero said there was a wide range of topics with a lot of public interest – from voluntary sector funding to business rates to community safety. The best examples of resident involvement were open community discussions on areas of local interest.
Members suggested that the work programme needed to be more closely aligned with the Councils aims and priorities. Reports also could be clearer about how they related to Council priorities – linking them back to the Council's business plan. Officers agreed this would be helpful to see where individual items fitted into the wider context.
Reports needed more time to ensure they were effective. For example, reports should include trend data rather than just a snapshot of performance.
All Committees should learn from the few that were already very effectively engaging residents. There was also a lot to be learned from the Resident-led Commissions. The Governance team could produce a forward plan for all PACs and cross-check all items to avoid duplication. Officers felt there could be more 'strategic coherence'.
Councillor Donald Johnson also noted that the Council should look at the culture of scrutiny - how it felt for officers and new members. Erik added that there were lessons to learn from the German model of a supervisory board of experts - they provided robust challenge but brought huge experience and it was seen as a valuable experience rather than a negative, combative experience.
Chris Littmoden asked if members could be involved in the writing of reports – they could work with officers on a briefing document then get feedback. Officers felt it would be useful for members to be more specific about what they wanted from certain reports.
The Chair summarised the major takeaways from the session:
· Everything should link back to the Council’s business plan
· There should be clarity around whether an item was going to Committee for scrutiny or policy development
· The Committee needed to be clearer about what it wanted from items and what the right form was for that item – an ideas document, briefing document, scrutiny report etc.
· More consideration needed to be given to engaging residents