26 June 2014

Update on Overview and Scrutiny


Last night we had our first Overview & Scrutiny Committee (OSC) meeting since the election. This is an update on how the meeting went.  I blogged last week about how I wanted to improve OSC by producing more real recommendations for improving services and making the proceedings of the committee more open.

We agreed a number of changes (including making progress on streaming meetings live online) and then set out our work programme for the coming year.  OSC will start by taking an in-depth look at the following:

-  School places across the borough
-  The implementation of free gym use and swimming
-  The council's procurement strategy (what services are contracted out and how is this done)
-  The detail of how Southwark Council will deliver on the pledge to build 11,000 new council homes
-  The quality and speed of responses to casework raised on behalf of residents.

We will also be looking at numerous other issues as and when they arise.  For example, next month we will be speaking to the independent investigator into the major works at Draper House.  In addition, Southwark's Cabinet members will be interviewed by OSC to ensure we keep a close eye on the policy areas in their portfolios.

There are also a number of major regeneration projects going on across the borough at the moment. Because of their importance, at alternate meetings we will include one of these regeneration projects on our agenda.

Finally, we are also going to be asking staff and members of the public to suggest scrutiny items via a survey which will soon be published.  Our view is that staff and service users are usually the first people to notice when things start to go wrong.  We hope that will give us even more to get our teeth into.

To start as I mean to go on, I also made sure we got down to the nitty gritty at the first meeting and we made a start at investigating one of our more in-depth topics:  the delivery of the 11,000 new council homes.  Following a detailed briefing from officers on progress so far, we questioned them regarding progress made on the action plan set out in the January Cabinet paper.  A crucial next step in the process is the setting up of a "Council owned vehicle" which can access and use all the funding needed to build the homes.  OSC requested that more details of the proposals came to us at our September meeting.

I'll now be working to sort out the agenda for next month's OSC and start gathering together evidence on some of our longer-term scrutiny topics.

Our next meeting is on 15th July and the agenda will be published soon.

20 June 2014

Overview and Scrutiny in Southwark - a new approach


Since the election last month I've taken on a new role as Chair of the Overview and Scrutiny Committee (OSC).  As the name suggests, this is the committee which has primary responsibility for scrutinising how the council is being run and looking into various issues of interest and concern.

Some parties on the council are less than happy to see a Labour Councillor taking on this role. But the real problem is that most people couldn't care less who the Chair of OSC is or which party they're a member of. To the vast majority, council committees are irrelevant to their lives which is why people rarely turn up to them. 

Having been a member of the committee for the past 4 years, I'd have to say that people weren't missing much.  In four years this supposedly powerful committee achieved very little either in terms of changing council policy or developing new ideas for delivering services.  There were some meetings where we made progress, but that was the exception rather than the rule.  Usually they consisted of political grandstanding to meet the requirements of pre-drafted opposition press releases. 

As the new Chair, I want to make some changes to way the committee is run.  Firstly, I want to make sure that OSC actually produces detailed reports which the Council's Cabinet has to respond to.  Something which simply didn't happen in the last four years.

As a Sub-committee Chair, I worked with my committee to produce recommendations for change on issues like housing repairs, domestic violence support and community wardens.  I'll continue in this vain as chair of OSC.  Two issues which spring to mind for the coming year are to examine the detail of the Administration's pledge to introduce free gym and swimming across the borough and the promise to build 11,000 new council homes.  The latter of these is already on the agenda for our first meeting on 25th June.  

I also want to ensure that the proceedings of the committee are more open.  I've already asked officers to look into streaming our meetings online and also to upload video of the meetings for future reference.  In a digital age it's surprising that this doesn't already happen and it's about time Southwark caught up.  I don't pretend that we'll be breaking any records for viewing figures, but if only a tiny number of people watched the streams that would still be an improvement on the usual attendances.  It will also allow people to tweet or share links to particular parts of meetings and generally open the process up. 

There are other issues which need ironing out to make the committee more effective at what it is supposed to do.  One is the need open up a line of communication between the residents, front-line staff and Scrutiny. Staff and service users are often the first people to see major issues arising.  When other avenues have been exhausted, I want them to feel that there is an easy way of alerting OSC.  

I'm going to work with everyone and anyone who can make a contribution to improving the way the council delivers services. That includes Cabinet Members and the Lib Dem members of the committee.  None of this is going to turn OSC into a box-office hit, but it will be a start.