Wednesday 17 August 2011

Secrecy and Incompetence

Carmarthenshire County Council has been re-jigging its website again, and managed both to "lose" a lot of important information and make the service even less user-friendly.

Want to find out who the members of the Planning Committee or the Education and Children's Services Committee are? Well, tough. Want to find out the linguistic preferences of councillors so that you know whether a letter in Welsh will be answered in Welsh? No longer possible. Click on the link headed "Councillors and Committees", and you find yourself looking at the council's constitution.

The website gives you a good idea of what the council's priorities are, and they are all about projecting an image rather than making basic, important information easily available to the public.

The main banner page features a selection of "top stories" which refresh every 30 seconds or so. The stories tend to change every couple of weeks. Currently we have a piece on job evaluation and equal pay for council staff; an advertisement for the upcoming Merlin Festival; information on how to nominate a member of council staff for a "Shine" award, and a notice stating that the council is going to review its polling districts and polling stations. Nothing about the Local Development Plan, which is now entering the last few days of its formal public consultation, and without doubt the most important thing the council is doing at the moment. Oh, and before you get too excited, the review of polling districts is really just a legal notice announcing that a review will be carried out, without any information on the scope of the review.

As Caebrwyn has pointed out on her blog, the council's Policy and Resources Committee reported in July that the council has seen a 10-15% rise in the number of Freedom of Information Requests in the last year, and concerns were expressed about the authority's ability to deal with them with the resources it currently has available.

So here are some suggestions to help reduce the number and complexity of FOI requests:

  1. The prevailing culture within the council is best summed up as "if we are not legally obliged to publish something, we won't". Want to obtain a consultant's report on the road safety implications of a planning application? You have to submit an FOI request. You may not get a response until after the application has been decided, but the council has met its legal obligations. The approach should be to turn this on its head in favour of a presumption that everything will be published unless it breaches data protection legislation, compromises the council's financial interests in e.g. a competitive tender, or would compromise legal proceedings or criminal investigations.
  2. Revamp the council's website and newspaper. The website needs a radical re-design to make it easier and more logical to use, with a much better search engine. A search in Welsh for "Cynllun Datblygu Lleol" retrieves nothing on the LDP, but tells you instead about the council's free school milk scheme. Again, a fundamental shift in thinking is needed, away from "how do we make ourselves look good" to an emphasis on making important information accessible. Wonderful though they may be, the "Shine Awards" are not a priority for people interested in the LDP, planning, education, social care, waste, the environment, etc.
  3. Set a target to halve the number of public interest exemptions applied in meetings of the full council and its committees. There can be no justification for keeping secret a report on transferring the council's public toilets to community councils, or for withholding another report on an action plan for the county's leisure centres.
Do this, and the number of FOI requests would fall. And we might end up with a council that actually deserves the praise it is so desperate to receive.


Doh! How could I have missed it? The website does still have a document showing membership of the committees. All you have to do is select 'Council and Democracy', then click on 'Councillors and Committees'. Next select 'List of Committees'. This pulls up the council's constitution, but bear with me. Scroll down to the end of the long list of documents, and you will find a heading '8. Bilingual Composition pdf' just after '7. Councillors' Names and Addresses'.  And bingo! There we have it. Obvious really.


caebrwyn said...

I thought I'd click on a PR link in their Media Section to 'Strengthening Families Programme restores harmony to local families'. Eager to see whether our ever resourceful Council had branched out into the marriage guidance business, I was disappointed to be taken straight to the main council 'Enter Site' page, even the back button on my browser failed to send me back. I see the Head of IT is also leaving the employ of the Council, perhaps he's had enough too.

Anonymous said...

I understand that:
Councillors are reluctant to meet a group of electors (in case of Sainsbury's application,Llandeilo);
Consultants Atkins were engaged without proper or properly documented tendering process, at cost exceeding £511,000 (Dinefwr school reorganisation);
The police were misused (Jacqui Thompson arrest);
The public are locked in if they wish to see local democracy in action.
There is also the huge grant to Towy Community Church when services to the elderly are being cut.
Who does Carmarthenshire County Council work for?