Verbal update from the Democratic Services Manager
The Head of Law and Regulation introduced Leanne Rowlands the new Democratic Services Manager to the committee and informed members that she would assume the role of Head of Democratic Services and will be accountable to the Democratic Services Committee in terms of governance support and democratic processes. Following on from the previous meeting, the two items on the agenda are interconnected matters on where the council is with the Local Government and Elections (Wales) Act 2021 and the Public Participation Strategy, and the New Working Model with its implications for the new incoming Members.
The Democratic Services Manager provided members with a verbal update on the matter through presentation. The lead officer highlighted the two requirements of the legislation regarding public participation and engagement:-
s.39 - Duty to encourage local people to participate in local government decision making to include the making of decisions in partnership or in conjunction with any other person
s.40 - Prepare and publish a strategy on encouraging people to participate (as above) and review the strategy following every local government election. Members were advised that the strategy must be in place before May 2022.
The Council has carried out some work in advance with the participation element of the act. The officers in the working group have been focusing on the 5 requirements on the road mapping document with clear links to equality plans and previous strategies. Members were informed that these officers are considering what the council already has in place on how residents can make representations and access meetings and decisions, such as the website, digital forms, complaints.
Panels such as the citizen and youth panels are deemed useful forums for public decision making. It was mentioned that social media accounts such as the Facebook and Twitter pages are used by the council in putting out information to the residents however the Council are looking to see where they can improve on different platforms and fill the gap to encourage engagement with the public.
The officer informed members that the council want to determine what democratic processes the residents are already aware of and how to enhance the transparency with its residents so will use this roadmap as a basis of what they might need.
The main issue that has been considered by officers, is that there are particular members of society that are hard to reach, therefore they are thinking of inclusive strategies on how to support them, encourage them to become a councillor and participate in decision-making.
It was explained that the next step will be for the council to come up with a detailed plan for public consultation, engaging with underrepresented groups and drafting the strategy for this consultation.
Head of Law and Regulation assured the committee that the officer working group are doing the leg work so the council is not starting completely from scratch on the strategy in order to build upon what the council is already doing with the support of consultation and working with the partnership team.
The Democratic Services Committee’s role is to offer suggestions on what the council could do better, and for instance, guidance on how to communicate better with communities. The officers welcomed a steer from the elected members in order to make progress with the officer group work.
The Democratic Services Manager opened up questions from the committee on the strategy.
The Committee asked the following:
· The Committee commented on the low amount of viewing on the Full Council’s streaming facility and suggested that officers could look at how other councils perform and how they encourage public engagement for where they can raise questions to the Members. Members acknowledged the drawbacks of this as it could risk the same individuals raising complaints/concerns to councillors. Members queried if the officers could find out what other councils are doing, how they manage open public questions at council meetings and how this could be made suitable for Newport City Council.
The Head of Law and Regulation responded by stating that there was no best practice or exemplar model on what the council should or should not do. This means that the council will ultimately decide which strategy suits it and the decision making process. The officer confirmed they were keen to report this feedback back but would not want to suggest there is a model out there as an exemplar as good practice as it should be tailored to the needs of each local authority.
· Members mentioned that the issue also could lie within how the council represents itself to the residents. For example, looking at the photographs of councillors, with visual representation, the council should be inclusive by including all age ranges, ethnicities and backgrounds of life. The committee commented that should the council wish to attract people from all works of life, they would need representation that they feel affiliated to and the members queried if this could be a high priority. The Members also expressed concern that some individuals may not be interested in becoming a Councillor due to the social media abuse from the public that they could receive such as racist and sexist abuse. Therefore, Members asked if the working panels would help in promoting how to become a Member.
In response, the Lead Officer clarified that there is no panel as such, and confirmed that it is an officer working group which is largely operational in making those changes. They have set out identified elements of the plan and such pieces of work need the Members’ input. The officer assured the members that they will update them on the operational work with the changes made but the participation strategy would need to be guided by the members for what would be included for the first draft before going to public consultation. It was reiterated that this is the start of the conversation and mentioned that the Committee may need to organise extra meetings from now before next May as there will be regular updates for the Members.
· Members asked if they could have a copy of the presentation provided by the Democratic Services Manager and queried if the council would consider installing televisions within public places like the museum, library and the Riverfront Theatre to show council meetings taking place. Members mentioned perhaps the council chambers/foyer could be made accessible for people to watch what is being discussed like they do with the Welsh Government meetings.
The Head of Service confirmed in terms of television screens the council can do that and they could cover this in the next agenda item with regard to live streamed screens, which will be subject to licensing requirements in council buildings but however the officer confirmed that this could be done by May 2022. The Officer also confirmed that they can have a copy of the presentation emailed to them.
· A Member of the Committee asked for confirmation on when the hybrid meetings and legislation have to be implemented by.
In response, the Head of Service confirmed that it has to be implemented by May 2022.
· A Member of the Committee commented on how important it is for the council and politicians to be as transparent as possible for reasons of efficiency as well as some wards have experienced significant issues with complaints on certain things not being reported in the same way anymore. For instance, residents cannot see if a car is legally parked within its street or not without parking permits being used more. Therefore, Members asked if the council has considered the pressure this could put on certain areas of Newport.
Head of Law replied that it would depend on how the council chooses to engage with their constituents or not and also a matter for city services with regard to the permits but whole point of legislation to encourage transparency, in order to get people to stand as councillors with a working relationship by listening to members of the public.
· The Committee then queried whether the officer could confirm that the officers of the working group, are diverse to ensure all points are covered.
In response, the Lead Officer asserted that as it is an officer working group, the group is not taking any decisions or changing anything as the stage they are currently in is just the nuts and bolts, right at the start of the process. This is where the Democratic Services come into the discussion as a cross party forum for that to communicate if there is any disengagement in terms of elected members and the people they represent in tackling the main question of how can that be improved.
Members were advised that at officer level, they can only take it so far on what to put forward for consultation so ultimately it is up to members to decide what kind of engagement they want to encourage.
· Members expressed their concern with regard to the online abuse that they could face for being in the public eye and asked for the council to emphasize what people need to be aware of what they are signing up to and one member argued that the staff are protected more so than the councillors, and that this could deter members of the public stepping forward to become a councillor.
Members were reminded by the Head of Service that in the council meeting before the last, the Diversity Resolution was passed which entails a number of actions on this to encourage people to come to council as a member which also covers discussions about online abuse. Members were advised that the council is conscious of encouraging members to use social media as a means of communication but also acknowledge that it can be a double edged sword as it makes them open to being abused online. The officer refuted the member’s claims that staff are more protected as the same type of abuse can happen to an employee but it is more about members in the public eye and need to be made aware of what their rights are and how they are protected. There has been changes such as not having Members’ personal details on the website but instead publishing the civic address.
· The Councillors asked if the council would run an introductory seminar for those who are interested to go over protections and their personal rights.
The Head of Service stressed that in terms of legal protection, the same law applies in terms of social media usage for both employees and members. If anything is posted that is threatening toward the individual, the officer explained that there is not much that can be done from their end except to ask the social media providers to get posts taken down and users reported and blocked. Members were informed that they have examples of both officers and members receiving threatening emails and under such acts, the protections in place are always considered, however, a seminar can be considered to ensure members of the public would be aware.
· The Committee went on to ask how this work could affect the regional partnership board and asked what the council would need to do about that and how the Regional Partnership Board would affect what the Committee discuss and agree.
In response, the Head of Service clarified that the public services board meet on regional basis and that as it went through council on Tuesday, this would not affect it. It was explained that the partnership board is not decision making in that respect and that they will adopt the plan on whole of Gwent but clarified that it stands with the individuals within their wellbeing and in terms of decision making and engagement that will be on a local level. Therefore the public participation strategy will not affect that at all, as the Local Boards end in 2023, the Public Services Board whether regional or local, is a board of legislative bodies that set wellbeing objectives and policies of the region; not a decision making body.
The Committee was advised that it would be more for the local authorities to decide on how to steer this strategy within their area and up to Newport City Council on what they can do to meet the wellbeing objectives.
· The Committee queried if the participation strategy will only be valid until the elections next year, would the council consider having a non-political ‘meet the councillors’ drop in session at the civic centre foyer just to talk to people. It could give the public an opportunity to see first-hand what members experience on a day to day basis, and dispel any myths of how politicians mostly go out for lavish meals. The committee asked if so, this could be organised for October/November 2021.
The Head of Service responded by pointing out that come early next year the council will be into the early election period so this session could be misconstrued as political canvassing so reminded members that they must be careful about meet and greet sessions before any big elections. It was explained to the committee that this has to be reviewed after every election every 5 years, sometime within that period, the committee and the council would review it.
In terms of communicating with residents, by using social media you can reach far more members of the community via that channel rather than a foyer for a set time within the civic centre. For example, discussing ward meetings as a way to get residents to engage with the council. The council has to use social media to get messages out and the council has not fully developed the Members’ annual reports and members were reminded that they can add more to in before it is published in terms of explaining to residents what they do.
· A Member of the committee acknowledged the issue of the logistics about drop in session but also asked the council to acknowledge that there are some parts of society who are not on social media as not everyone is confident on technology. Members agreed that it is difficult as people are generally not engaged if they do not have access to knowledge of the council. Therefore Members queried what would be the best way to overcome this hurdle and if the candidates’ convention could be organised for after the election.
The Head of Service replied by stating that the team will try and find out what other councils do and maybe look into putting on a seminar to discuss members’ usage of social media and protections from this. With regard to the drop in session, the council can have a look at that as it would be for potential candidates.
It was stressed to Members that this would be need to be subject to social distancing, and non-political.
The officer raised a slight concern on the current council members and potential members on meeting members of public, however, if it would be more of a recruitment drive then the WGLA could be behind that. This is because there would be nobody better to talk to then to talk to current members.
Members were advised that the working team could look at that with useful points and look to build them in the strategy which will be brought back to the councillors for more deliberation.