By Tony Collins
Few people have noticed but changes to the law next month could force councils to be much more open about big spending decisions including those that involve contracting out IT and other services.
It is a pity though that similar changes will not apply to the NHS.
The Local Government Association says that councils are already more open than Whitehall which is true.
Even so some councils are innately secretive about IT-related spending decisions, and discussions about projects that go wrong. Somerset County Council was notoriously secretive about its Southwest One joint venture with IBM in 2007. The deal has not made the expected savings and has consistently made losses. IBM claims the deal is a success.
Haringey Council’s “Tech refresh” project which went way over budget is another example. Evasive answers to opposition questions and meetings in secret were the norm.
Liverpool City Council was extraordinarily defensive and secretive about progress or otherwise on its Liverpool Direct Ltd joint venture with BT. The deal included giving BT control of IT.
Better public scrutiny
Now Local Government Secretary Eric Pickles has announced that changes to the law will mean that all decisions including those affecting budgets and local services will have to be taken in an open and public forum.
Ministers have put new regulations before Parliament that would come into force next month to extend the rights of people to attend all meetings of a council’s executive, its committees and subcommittees.
Pickles says the changes will result in greater public scrutiny. “The existing media definition will be broadened to cover organisations that provide internet news thereby opening up councils to local online news outlets. Individual councillors will also have stronger rights to scrutinise the actions of their council.
“Any executive decision that would result in the council incurring new spending or savings significantly affecting its budget or where it would affect the communities of two or more council wards will have to be taken in a more transparent way as a result.”
Councils will no longer be able to cite political advice as justification for closing a meeting to the public and press. Any intentional obstruction or refusal to supply certain documents could result in a fine for the individual concerned.
The changes clarify the limited circumstances where meetings can be closed, for example, where it is likely that a public meeting would result in the disclosure of confidential information. Where a meeting is due to be closed to the public, the council must now justify why that meeting is to be closed and give 28 days notice of such decision.
Chris Taggart, of OpenlyLocal.com, which has long championed the need to open council business up to public scrutiny, said
“In a world where hi-definition video cameras are under £100 and hyperlocal bloggers are doing some of the best council reporting in the country, it is crazy that councils are prohibiting members of the public from videoing, tweeting and live-blogging their meetings.”
These are the changes to be made by the The Local Authorities (Executive Arrangements) (Meetings and Access to Information) (England) Regulations 2012 (the 2012 Regulations) which will come into force on 10 September 2012.
– Local authorities will have to provide reasonable facilities for members of the public to report council proceedings (regulation 4). This will make it easier for new ‘social media’ reporting of council executive meetings, opening proceedings to blogging, tweeting and hyper-local news/forum reporting.
– In the past council executives could hold meetings in private without giving public notice. From 10 September 2010 councils must give 28 days notice where a meeting is to be held in private, during which time people may make representations on why the meeting should be held in public. When the council wants to over-ride the notice period, it must publish a notice as soon as reasonably practicable explaining why the meeting is urgent and cannot be deferred (regulation 5).
– A document explaining the key decision to be made, the matter in respect of which a decision would be made, the documents to be considered before the decision is made, and the procedures for requesting details of those documents, has to be published (regulations 9).
– The new regulations create a presumption that all meetings of the executive, its committees and subcommittees are to be held in public (regulation 3) unless a narrowly-defined legal exception applies.
– Where the council has a document that contains materials relating to a business to be discussed at a public meeting, members of the local authority have additional rights to inspect such a document at least five days before the meeting (regulation 16). Previously no timescale existed.
– Where the council decides not to release the whole or part of a document to a member of an overview and scrutiny committee as requested by a councillor, it must provide a written statement to explain the reasons for not releasing such document (regulation 17).
– Documents relating to a key decision including background papers must be on the relevant local authority’s website (regulations 5, 6, 7, 9, 10, 14, 15, and 21).
Well done to Eric Pickles and the coalition. These are important and welcome changes. If council decision-makers know their discussions will be open to scrutiny they may give proper consideration to risks as well as the potential benefits of big IT-related investments. With inadequate scrutiny the potential benefits often drive decisions, which was the case with the flawed setting up of Southwest One. The press office at Liverpool City Council was so used to controlling information that its spokesman was outraged at questions we asked about its outsourcing venture with BT.
But what about the NHS?
It’s a pity the NHS is not subject to the new legal changes. Few trusts are open about their big IT-related investments; and when things go wrong, as has happened with some Cerner implementations, NHS trusts tend to lock all the doors, talk in whispers and instruct their press offices to issue statements that claim “teething troubles” have been largely addressed. The trust and everyone reading the statement know it is disingenuous but the facts to prove it are kept under wraps.
Organisations such as Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust are taking decisions about major IT upgrades that could affect the safety, health and lives of patients without proper scrutiny. Pickles may want to mention his legal innovations to Andrew Lansley.