Transparency returns to York Council decision making process?

Two decisions on the award of large IT contracts are to be taken in public next week as the York Council takes its first tentative steps towards a more open approach.  It is not the decisions themselves which have attracted attention but rather it is the justification offered for placing them before a public meeting.

The report states “that councillors consider routine procurement decisions over £250k in value in line with procurement regulations and the public have the opportunity to see transparent decision-making in operation relating to major procurements.”

That is always supposed to have happened but some officials have sought to exploit loopholes in the budget process to justify making implementation decisions behind closed doors.  Such “routine” decisions must be reported to the responsible executive member in a “register” This has not been done routinely in a transparent way.

It appears that the Executive are now insisting that proposals are tabled individually. That is a step in the right direction.

The two decisions being made on 18th November relate to

  1. Expenditure of £323,800 on an “on line” customer payments system
  2. A £710,000 investment in a new document management system.  

The meeting will also hear that the Council is scrapping a proposed joint procurement with Harrogate to appoint a technology provider.

Instead the current provider in York will continue until summer 2020 with a new supplier, for managed network services, taking over then. The Council current spends around £2 million per annum on this service.

Full marks to Cllr Nigel Ayre who is taking the first tentative steps towards making the Council more open and accountable

Psst, can you keep a secret?

A York Council committee will be considering how to make settlement agreements – made when employees leave the Councils employment – more transparent.

They will also touch on the number of “Non-Disclosure Agreements” issued by the Council (over 60 in recent years) and whether these are in the interests of taxpayers.

The proposals are on the agenda of the, normally secretive, Staffing Matters and Urgency committee meeting which takes place on 5th August. Unusually all the items on the agenda will be discussed in public.

Although the new process will involve the appropriate Executive Councillor, it does fail to lay down clear rules limiting the scale of enhanced payments to a leaving employee. They may still be seen by some managers as an easy way to get rid of under-performing staff.

Non-disclosure agreements will still be possible.

There are no plans to routinely report the nature and value of settlements and agreements to a public committee.

There may still be a suspicion amongst taxpayers that enhanced payments are made solely to avoid the laborious processes and costs of an Employment Tribunal.

NB. The same meeting is being told that the Council has been unable to find a suitable candidate to fill the new post of Director of Governance and Improvement. Instead a Director of  Governance is to be appointed at a salary of around £90k.

Shy Council candidates refuse to reveal where they live

We publish below a list of 55 candidates in the York Council elections who are refusing to reveal where they live.

It is only recently that the government changed the rules to allow home addresses to be omitted from candidate nomination forms. Council officials still check that potential candidates are on the electoral register or are qualified to stand in some other way. But there is no transparency about whether a candidate lives in or particularly close to the area that he or she hopes to represent.

The Dringhouses ward fares particularly badly. 7 of the 14 candidates there decline to say where they live.

This is important because many electors will expect their Councillors to regularly check on the quality of public series in the area. A good maxim for Councillors has always been the three “C”’s.

Consult residents, Campaign for improvements and Communicate what you have done.

This can most easily be done if a Councillor lives in or very near to the ward that they represent. From the moment they leave their home in a morning they can be scanning public services like roads, street lights and litter collection to check that everything is OK.

That’s much more difficult if you live several miles away. There is evidence to suggest that, after the first few enthusiastic months, communication with residents declines (until another election comes round).

So, electors have a right to know whether a candidate lives in the neighbourhood.

The government changed the rules in an attempt to protect public servants from intimidation. That’s’ fine. There is no need to publish the house number of a candidate. Just the street name, and confirmation of which ward it is in, would suffice, at least until someone has been elected.

Four of the “shy” candidates are currently sitting Councillors.

  • Cllr Boyce doesn’t provide either her address or personal telephone number on the Council web site
  • Cllr Michael Pavlovic also doesn’t provide an address but he has listed a mobile phone number
  • Cllr Margaret Wells doesn’t provide an address but does list a phone number
  • Cllr Stuart Barnes does list both his Strensall address and a personal telephone number.

A quick look at the Party websites reveals that they are no more candid about where their candidates live.

All candidates should, before the 2nd May poll, publish details indicating which polling district they live in, and provide a contact email and telephone number.

Such details will be required by residents if candidates are fortunate enough to get elected.

City of York Council; When things go wrong

There have been some strange goings on at the Council over the last few days.

First up we reported yesterday that there was something seriously amiss with the “planning on line” web site..

Some residents routinely use the site to check what planning applications have been made for the area in which they live. We do so routinely for the west of York  and report applications on this site.

There was something unusual about the list of applications which the Council claimed to have validated for the Westfield ward during the week commencing 7th May. Closer examination revealed that the list include applications that had not only been validated months – and in one case 3 years – ago, but all had actually already been approved.

In most cases the planning permission had been implemented.

So a computer glitch?

Yet 24 hours later the incorrect information is still on line.

York Council planning web site 13th May 2018

Equally worrying is the way in which decisions, delegated to officials, are reported in an opaque manner on the Council web site.

Today we are told of a “Decision for provision of the Ways to Wellbeing service is already approved through the Better Care Fund decision making process which is on an Executive Member level”

What? We have no idea what the Council is trying to tell us?

On some occasions the Council seems to be trying to be more open.

It reports today that it has decided what grants to make from an “improving lives” financial advice campaign. Over £166,000  is being handed out to local organisations with Citizens Advice getting the lions share.

But in listing the awards, the Council inevitably prompts  more questions; not least “What are taxpayers actually buying for this money?”

At the very least  the expected outcomes for the expenditure should be listed, together with a summary of the monitoring process that the Council will use to determine whether it has received value for its investment.

 

Freedom of Information and the City of York Council

A year or so ago, the then new York Council Chief Executive promised a fresh approach to the amount of information on Public Services made available to York residents. Questions would be answered without the need to submit formal Freedom of Information requests to the Council. It would be unnecessary to refer many issues for determination by the Information Commissioners Office (ICO)

So how have things turned out.

The Council legally must respond to FOI requests within 20 working days

Many – but by no means all – requests for information are submitted via the “  What do they know” website https://www.whatdotheyknow.com/body/city_of_york_council

There is a mixed picture on response times

Responses to FOIs are (eventually) published on the Councils web site. https://www.york.gov.uk/info/20219/freedom_of_information/1535/freedom_of_information_responses But it can be a laborious business trailing through the list to find information.

Several recent responses do give reason for concern.

  • As long ago as last May 2017, a request for information about the number of public service reports registered by Councillors, was turned down. The Council claimed that this might influence voting intentions in last year’s General Election. The information was provided after the election had taken place (i.e. outside the so called “purdah” period). However, the grounds for rejecting the request were spurious and were referred to the Information Commissioners Office. The ICO said they were then powerless to intervene and declined to issue guidance to Local Authorities about how FOI requests could be reconciled with the Local Government Act 1986.  That failure is now being investigated by the Parliamentary Commissioner.
  • Vacant garage problem

    In January 2018 a request was submitted asking how many vacant Council owned garages there were in the City. It would take two months to get a partial response. Failure to advertise vacant garages for rent has lost the Council a significant amount of revenue in recent years.

  • On 11th February the Council were asked to provide a list of Business Rate debtors in the City. This information has previously been published routinely in committee reports. The Council promptly turned down the request quoting “purdah” grounds (because a council by election was taking place in the Holgate ward four days later). The grounds for refusing that request have been referred to the ICO as it is unclear why the publication of, what could only have been a factual list, could possibly have favoured the chances of an election candidate (even if the Council had managed to respond in three days to the request).
  • The Council do publish some information about Coppergate fine levels. Numbers are much higher than was expected

    More worrying is the failure to respond to a request made on 5th January 2018 regarding the profile of those fined for flouting the access restrictions on Coppergate. The Council does publish the actual number of offenders but has, in addition, been asked to indicate whether the drivers concerned are local or visitors (from the postcodes of the fine notifications). This type of information was provided – albeit reluctantly – by the Council in 2014 when the original ANPR traffic camera scandal first peaked. Responses from the FOI staff suggest that the complainant should refer the issue to the ICO!

  • On 9th March 2018 a request was made for information about the number of reports received by the Council about “damp” houses. No response has been received.

So, far from things getting better, the York Council has failed to even answer relatively simple enquiries on time.

Added to the highly selective nature of the stats quoted in many committee reports, it is difficult not to conclude that the Authority has something to hide and that it will do its utmost to frustrate those who seek transparency.

More progress by York Council

The York Council finally seems to be getting its act together. carrier_pigeon

It has started publishing supplements to its agendas detailing any written representations that have been made ahead of decision meetings.

This was the system in place up until 2011

Examples are the public representations made on the report on dog fouling in the Holgate area.

Still a long way to go to re-establish confidence io the transparency of the organisation but a step in the right direction.

NB. All future Council meeting agendas are published on the Council web site here.