The Virtual Council: How are local authorities responding to the Covid crisis?

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Posted on the 4th June 2020

This is a guest post by Ed Hammond, Director of Campaigns and Research at the Centre for Public Scrutiny.

Over the past few weeks a significant amount of attention has been drawn by the arrangements to set up a “Virtual Parliament” – the facility to conduct Parliamentary proceedings remotely.

Business in the Commons Chamber and in Select Committees has been transacted on Zoom, and votes have been carried out remotely and electronically – a huge change and a substantial technological feat.

While the technology looks different however, the form of business in Parliament looks very familiar. Commons debates may be more muted but they still run to the same rhythm as when all MPs were physically present. Likewise, select committee meetings are formal events, covering subjects similar to those discussed before the crisis and in much the same way.

Less attention has been paid to the way that governance systems in local authorities have had to change in much the same way. Local government has its forms of scrutiny too, in the form of committees which exist to hold to account the council’s executive (the small “cabinet” of leading councillors responsible for making decisions).

The Centre for Public Scrutiny provides advice, guidance and support to councils operating these arrangements. As you would expect the last few weeks have been extremely busy, as we help councils to get remote arrangements for scrutiny up and running. But how has local scrutiny been retooled to meet the challenge of the COVID-19 crisis?

Business as usual isn’t possible. Scrutiny has reorganised to focus principally on “life and limb” issues – social care, children’s services and the state of councils’ finances.

Resources are stretched. That means staff who would have previously supported scrutiny committees have been redeployed onto the emergency response. Councillors themselves may have found themselves with unexpected responsibilities in their own professional lives – or may have new caring responsibilities. With limited time and resources available to carry out scrutiny, the need for careful prioritisation is crucial.

“Formal” meetings aren’t everything. There is naturally a big focus on formal, public committee meetings. But councillors need to be supported to gather information – and to keep a careful watch over local services – on a more continuous basis.

This is tough: it can be difficult to find out what information is being collected about the crisis and how it is being used, and how scrutiny should best feed in. But it needs to be done.

We are concerned that the risk exists for local scrutiny to be put on hiatus until the crisis has passed. Councils will be focused on business-critical activity – ensuring that decisions can be made on matters like planning and licensing and school admissions – with scrutiny seeming less urgent. But the independent space and assurance that scrutiny affords at a time of crisis is especially important.

Councillors bring with a unique perspective on the needs of local people that the authority needs to understand if it is to support them effectively. Where the pressure may exist to make decisions quickly – perhaps without not in possession of all the facts – scrutiny can act to question and constructively challenge, and to persuade the authority to refine its approach.

We won’t know for some months whether scrutiny has been fully maintained across the country during the crisis. The early signs are broadly positive, but we are only partway through.

In the coming weeks we will be focusing on bolstering our support by producing guidance and providing practical help to councillors and officers on the ground. You can find out more about this support here.

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