Thursday, September 16 2010
It seems some county councillors had misgivings about a decision to invite me to talk to KCC's cabinet scrutiny committee yesterday about the new transparency programme at County Hall. I'd been asked if I wanted to contribute to the meeting rather than cover it (although I ended up doing both) on the grounds that it might be useful for the council to have a media perspective on the initiative.
KCC sets out plans to open its books>>>
I had some reservations about appearing myself but agreed. But it seems my presence as a witness was giving some members cause for concern and before any discussion on the great transparency agenda took place there was a debate about whether my presence could be deemed to be against the council's constitution.
Conservative spokesman Cllr Roger Manning outlined what his concerns were first, which revolved around whether, as a witness, I could potentially ask members questions - although I was there to answer them. "I need to be clear in my own mind that we are acting within our constitution. It seems to me that we are setting a dangerous precedent" he said, before going on to add that he was anxious lest the authority be inundated with witnesses at future meetings who might also ask councillors questions.
Fellow Conservative Jean Law questioned whether it was in the gift of the chairman of the committee - Lib Dem Cllr Trudy Dean - to permit witnesses to ask questions as well as answer them. Cllr Dean replied that it had always been normal practice to allow questions from witnesses.
I was as bemused as anyone who might have been looking in at the webcast of the meeting. I certainly hadn't gone along with any intention of quizzing councillors. Although I'm bound to say it struck me as somewhat odd that some considered the idea that journalists should ask elected politicians questions somehow questionable.
Still, it was interesting to be the focus of a debate about whether, in agreeing to my presence, there might have been some dreadful constitutional crisis at County Hall.
Still, I did have a salutary reality check when one member of the committee - Swanley Conservative councillor Robert Brookbank - interjected before the debate to demand to know who I was, declaring: "I have never heard of him." If I was a politician, I suppose I'd be describing that as a wake-up call.
There was a robust defence of how the council is looking after vulnerable children at yesterday's meeting by managing director Rosalind Turner, who decried the willingness of agencies to press the nuclear option at the merest hint of possible harm and request KCC to carry out a risk assessment.
It follows a critical Ofsted report that flagged up delays in the time it is taking to assess vulnerable children in Kent.
It's undeniably the case that heightened sensitivities have created the risk averse culture and as always, striking the right balance is incredibly tricky, more so when any failing will inevitably trigger a slew of unfavourable headlines and searching questions.
No wonder it's hard to recruit social workers.
Don't press the nuclear option, says children's chief>>>
Monday, September 13 2010
I didn't think I would ever read a county council report that stated "KCC views transparency as a fundamental principle of how we do business" but I have and, yes, I did check the date and it wasn't April 1.
But let's give credit where credit is due. Despite what it may have said in the past, County Hall has never had much of a reputation for openness. But it looks like things may be about to change.
How County Hall will open up its books>>>
Under its "Transparency Programme" - being led by the new group managing director Katherine Kerswell - the authority is pledging to be much more open about how it spends our money. Some of this, admittedly, follows various edicts coming from central government - notably the expectation from communities secretary Eric Pickles that all councils must publish monthly statements of transactions of more than £500.
But KCC appears to be much more committed to embracing the spirt of greater openness than it was and it was telling that Conservative cabinet member Roger Gough said at a cabinet meeting that he wants KCC to do much more than observe the letter of the law and that the spirit of transparency is as important.
Certainly, it seems that some politicians are grasping that if they really want to engage and involve residents, letting them know how thier money is spent is a good start. (We're even being promised video clips of senior officers going about their work, too).
Of course t
he proof of the transparency pudding will be in the eating. One key challenge will be how it publishes all this information and whether it does so in a way that is user-friendly and easily understood by the general public.
Initiatives often begin with fine rhetoric but later unravel because of lack of political commitment. Let's hope this isn't one of them.
Mind you, with the exception of Cllr Gough, not many other cabinet members had much to say about the initiative at today's cabinet meeting. Maybe they've no strong views. Maybe they don't think it terribly important. Or just maybe they're a lit
tle unhappy about it all...
Oh dear. The perils of the typo that give a council report an unintended meeting.
Outlining KCC's next grand vision statement "Bold Steps for Kent" - which follows the earlier incarnation "Bold Steps for Radical Reform" - a paper being presented to county councillors on Friday remarks: "From the recommendati
ons it is worth nothing that many have been swiftly acted on by the new government."
Worth nothing? Whoops. We think the word was "noting." But heh, who knows? maybe someone was having a little joke...