Verbal update from the Democratic Services Manager
The Democratic Services Manager gave an overview of the New Working Model in order to open up dialogue for input from the Members. It was explained that the current position was that Cabinet considered the paper on 7 July which was approved in principle, pending consultation with the staff and trade unions and therefore the final report will be presented to Cabinet in autumn. Members were advised that this includes the four areas that underpin the new model and the relevance to the Democratic Services Committee.
The New Working Model considers the implications of working remotely for the staff, it covers the well-being side of the home working policy with an allowance for those allowed to work from home one day a week but the model looks to back the investment in well-being considering those especially with long term health conditions and for supporting mental health post pandemic.
With regard to the remote working, there will be different techniques to continue being engaged with a dispersed workforce.
Members were advised that within the model the council are looking at determining the optimum usage for the civic centre and council buildings for them to meet the council’s objectives. The officers are ensuring that this would meet the requirements for the public and look for opportunities to increase the usage of the building to also help with the ongoing costs and ensure flexible working opportunities.
The Democratic Services Manager assured the Committee that the Civic Centre will remain as the main administration area, zoned in particular groups of staff, meeting rooms and reception publically available. Members were informed that there are other areas that could be opened up on the premises to others and also are looking at new technology solutions such as how room bookings can be supported by the track and trace facility.
Members were informed how the council want to make sure that the equipment meets the IT needs of the council under the new working model and how it could support the development within the Digital Strategy Refresh on how hybrid meetings can be implemented.
The Committee was assured that the Members discussion will be catered for in order to meet the requirements of the Local Government Elections Act and part 3 places duty on the Council to make provisions for access to these meetings. This flexibility was intended to attract a more diverse group of members into Local Government. There are plans for hybrid meetings to be in place for next year as the council are working with the current supplier to advise on what needs to be implemented within the Council Chamber.
On a last note the officer mentioned the wellbeing of the Council’s relations with the members and acknowledged the impact of dispersed working has had on both staff and its members. It was reiterated that staff and members have the same access to e-learning and support. Therefore, the committee were asked whether the council should enhance this model as the cabinet has recently agreed that any member specific intervention should be considered within the Democratic Services Committee.
The Democratic Services Manager welcomed any questions from the Committee.
The Committee asked the following:
· A Committee Member expressed their concerns as the civic centre is a wonderful historic building. It has been discussed many times about the future how inappropriate it is for staff working in civic, for instances as there are offices without windows. Wondered what the views are on this and in terms of costs. There would be a huge cost to modernising the building but said it is great to see work being done but the committee queried whether there are individuals asking to use space at the civic.
The Head of Service replied by explaining that this would be technically more for the work stream for the dispersed staffing model, the report to Cabinet made it clear that the main driver of this idea was not to make savings or generate income from the building. In response to concerns, the changes to the civic centre were due to the working life balance and a way to deliver services, the spare capacity in the civic centre is a by-product of the new working model.
Members were informed that the long term issue that the council needs to address within the implementation plan to discuss with the unions on how that will work with flexible working patterns. For example, what will be confirmed – how many people are allowed within the civic at one time in designated areas how to restrict numbers and look at the logistics of that.
If the Council has a number of spare rooms, then the Council would need to consider would could be the use of those once all of the prior points have been agreed.
For example, the Public Services Hub could be used for in terms of efficiency of shared use, it could be impractical but it is a long term ambition to look at this. However, the officer stressed that the focus is more on the staff and to see to the arrangements for the staff.
Commercialisation was considered years ago and is certainly not one of the objectives behind the working model as the council has no current plans to sublet the civic centre. They wish to think best about the accommodation of the building, however it was explained that it is difficult to update the committee on the plans because it will be one of the last parts of the model to be looked at.
· The Committee acknowledged that the old normal is not going to return as things will not be the same again and thanked the Democratic Services team for the work undertaken during the pandemic. Members asked if the Democratic Services Manager could distribute the presentation with the members of the committee so they know what is on the agenda as far as these issues are concerned with at the moment.
The Democratic Services Manager confirmed that they will send across the presentation to the Members.
· A Member of the Committee referred to the members section of the Local Government Act, with the Remuneration and IT support, the Councillors do not have much say in that unless the Welsh Government send it into consultation. Therefore the technology updates need to be put forward on a more regular basis to Members so they are kept updated. The committee highlighted that Members are experiencing difficulties on the systems used and the quality of equipment that they have as they have to get every 4 months to bring in Councillors to check business developments within the IT system, now and again the Members stressed that Members experience confusion over the usage of systems and updates of software.
In response, the Head of Service commented that with relation to the remuneration, it depends on the context of what they are being looked at, for instance, members allowances are fixed by the remuneration panel so there is no discretion with that. Within the report, the Local Government Elections Act, no matter what model the council will adopt, the legislation stipulates that the local authority must have a facility within the civic centre for members to dial in to meetings.
Members were advised that logistically, there will be issues and how we run these meetings, this will be a hurdle for the Democratic Services team to consider closer to the time.
As there will be a new way of working, Members themselves will not be present within the civic centre as often as before, so they would like to discuss what would be best for the Members’ wellbeing, as the Democratic Services Committee to advise the council of the impact of this dispersed working model.
The officer went on to explain that the impact of hybrid meeting will be on how heavily reliant the council will be on the operations of IT systems. For instance, when remuneration comes into it, the Committee was asked to consider whether the IT member package was good enough for what will be needed going forward. In the past, members agreed to be given a tablet and a laptop plus mobile phones for senior members but the committee will have to reconsider what devices members will need in order to be able to read agenda items whilst being logged onto a Teams meeting.
Therefore it was explained to the Members that now is the time to look at Member IT support and see what can be enhanced. The Council pays for IT support that the Members need, and it was noted that issues previously have been about concerns relating to the broadband that Members had in their homes – whether it was adequate or not was considered. Should it not be adequate, it was queried whether the council should pay for Members’ broadband bill for upgrading. The officer stressed that those issues are the kind that the council want opinions on directly from the Members.
· A Member of the Committee queried whether there is scope for an IT champion to assist Councillors with their digital equipment.
In response, the Head of Service confirmed that this would be Councillor Mayer in non-technical terms. As it comes under the Cabinet Member’s portfolio for technical solutions through resources. However, with regard to the equipment, if what the Members have got is not fit for purpose, the council what to be informed so the digital team can look at what the options are.
· Discussion ensued amongst Members on how they found working remotely. Most members agreed that the equipment was a good standard, but they experience lots of issues with the system being used. As a majority of the members experience their systems crashing and therefore the system needs looking into.
The Members recognised their higher workload but not down to meetings, more down to the combination of increased public complaints. The members acknowledged the positive of not having travel time so they tend to attend more meetings. The positive is that they also are better prepared for busy meeting days as they do not lose out on downtime before attending.
In response, the Democratic Services Manager noted the Members’ comments and assured the committee that the digital team are looking at a comparison paper at the moment for future consideration of how to go about this.
· Members mentioned that the Council has adapted very well with technology despite there were concerns expressed, about how difficult it can be to attend a meeting if there are technical issues, as it then affects the councillor’s attendance record when it would be no fault of their own which has a knock-on effect for the public when they check attendance records.
Discussion ensued and a Member noted that they can feel isolated at times but also relish in the fact that the system is good to use as a central point and hub for communication but would like the council to look at if there would be any other platforms to use for meetings apart from Microsoft Teams, as the council has experienced issues with strategic stakeholders such as members of the Police not being able to attend important Teams meetings.
Therefore the Members asked if it could be possible to log attendance differently by logging who tried to log in but experienced issues so they would not be marked as absent.
Head of Law and Regulation responded by explaining that it is not that easy unfortunately with the Regulations, attendance is remote attendance, therefore intending or trying to dial-in is not good enough for the record. Members were reminded they need to get online 15 minutes prior to the meeting. If there is a connection and if logged in successfully but the Member is experiencing glitches – the record would have them down as attended.
But if a Member called the Democratic Services team and said that they could not get on the meeting yet asked if they could log them as present, then that is not allowed. Therefore if the Member is experiencing IT difficulties, it gives the team a few minutes to provide support.
· A Member of the Committee mentioned that the link is broken down as sometimes when they try and phone through to the team, they cannot get an answer.
The Democratic Services Manager replied that the shared duty system has been distributed in the newsletter for the Democratic Services. For a rota shared line, they only deal with one call at a time on the generic line that day.
· The Members asked if the Democratic Services Manager could send on the generic number so they can have the right direct number.
The officer agreed to this but reminded the Members emailed the structure of the team out with the contact details already this month but will send it out again to ensure receipt.
Referring back to the IT kit, Head of Law confirmed if the Members are happy with the kit provided then it’s the reliability and support that the council can look into discussing with the Digital Team.
· A member of the committee welcomed the Democratic Services Manager’s earlier mention that there is a report about the efficiency of Microsoft Teams.
In response, the Head of Service said that while looking at a comparison of IT systems, the corporate policy is to use Microsoft Teams initially due to the security issues in terms with Zoom. The Council do not mind individuals using it to access other meetings but the Council has a problem with the data security for this, such as for hosting Council meetings but the report will go into that in more detail.
A further issue mentioned was also the cost of the licence for all of the operating systems, as Microsoft Teams is included within the cost. Members were advised that the Council pays corporately for more licences, and it would be £100k+ for additional licenses with security issue and cost charge issues. However, all of this will be within the report put forward by the digital team.
Therefore due to the lack of secure platforms, the Digital team group are more qualified for information within that report.
The Committee acknowledged this and noted that in terms of resolving issues, the support from the officers has been excellent, and this was not a criticism of Democratic Services or Shared Resources Services.
The Committee also requested that a direct phone number for the officer running the meeting to be mentioned at the bottom of agendas for future assistance if issues did arise.