Saturday 26 October 2013

Business Management

Six months after making a freedom of information request, Caebrwyn has finally received copies of some of the minutes of a council body called the Business Management Group, or BMG.

The BMG is not officially an organ of the council. Its meetings are not public, and it does not publish records of its deliberations, and yet what it discusses and agrees is often relevant to all councillors and, by extension, to the public they are supposed to represent.

Unless the minutes provided to Caebrwyn have been cleaned up, which seems doubtful, there is nothing in them which is in any way sensitive or confidential. A lot of space in the minutes is taken up with boring housekeeping stuff about air conditioning systems, PA systems and the like, but there are snatches of information which are more interesting.

What emerges as you read through the documents is a culture of knee-jerk opposition to openness and transparency.

Should the council publish its register of members' interests on-line? No.

Should members of the public be allowed to film or record council meetings? No.

Should councillors' published profiles include records of how many meetings they have attended? No.

Sometimes - rarely - patently illiberal proposals put forward by officers are deferred or not pursued. Should site visits by members of the planning committee be restricted to a special sub-group which would have full powers to decide the applications concerned? Shelved for another day.

Sometimes highly illiberal measures are waved through unanimously, such as a change to the constitution preventing minorities from submitting motions for debate in council meetings.

When discussing a raft of changes to the council's constitution someone noticed that the officers had quietly removed references to public question time, even though they had previously agreed to retain them. As a result the public retains the right to ask questions, but in practice the rules make Indiana Jones's adventures look like a stroll in the park, and no member of the public has asked a question for years.

Royal and ceremonial flim-flam also merits quite a lot of attention. How should the council go about awarding someone the freedom of the county? Apparently only the Royal Welsh Regiment has been given that accolade.

Members of the BMG note that something called the Medal of the Order of the British Empire for Meritorious Service can once again be handed out. Anyone awarded that particular gong would have to make do with being handed it by the Lord Lieutenant rather than a member of the Windsor clan. In other words, this is officially a second class honour for second class people.

A request from the Chair of Council to defer the date of a council meeting in July 2012 is knocked back because the proposed date would fall in the middle of the Royal Welsh Show. As it turned out, that meeting was eventually scrapped in its entirety, so that there were no council meetings from June to September.

All decisions by the BMG are apparently always approved unanimously.

If the group is supposed to be an informal back channel to smooth the workings of the allegedly democratic machinery of the council, the language used in the minutes suggests that it is anything but informal. A single example will suffice:

"The Group thereupon considered a draft protocol for resolving low-level member on member breaches of the Code."

When questions have been asked before about who sits on the BMG, the answer has been "the party leaders". It turns out that it's the party leaders plus a deputy. All the meetings up to the council elections in 2012 were chaired by that well-known champion of democratic values and transparency, Pam Palmer, who was joined by two other party colleagues. Plaid Cymru and Labour made do with two each, even though Plaid at the time had three times as many councillors as Labour.

For reasons which are not apparent, Meryl Gravell, although council leader at the time, never took part.

The seven elected councillors were usually joined by an equal number of senior officers, normally including the chief executive and his acting head of administration and law alongside an assortment of others.

Council Leader Kevin Madge likes to claim that under his leadership the council has become more transparent and open. If that is so, it is surely time to put the BMG on a proper footing and make its deliberations public. It is costing the taxpayer money and it is making decisions which affect the working of the council. Nothing in the record which has been released is remotely confidential, although some of it is controversial.

For opposition councillors who have to make do with just 2 of the 7 seats, the other question which needs to be asked is what possible advantage they gain from being part of this secretive and undemocratic cabal. Or are they in fact just being used to give the group a veneer of democratic respectability and being made to accept responsibility for decisions which in reality they are powerless to prevent?


Anonymous said...

Business management? Bit of a misnomer if you ask me, as I have seen first hand how the people at the top waste money.

There is too much red tape constraining those who have a 'can do' attitude. There are too many people who talk a good job, but who do very little.

Senior managers have been advised of the problems, but choose to ignore advice from the people who know what the job is all about.

I was always taught, 'management don't have the monopoly of good ideas'.

Anonymous said...

thats interesting, if minutes are approved unanimously, including Plaid members, how do Plaid backbenchers feel about their Peter Hughes Griffiths voting against filming by the public?

Anonymous said...

The BMG is actually and had been for half a century the abbreviation of the Banjo, Mandolin and Guitar society and magazine - an entirely benign band of pluckers compared to the CCC version.

Cneifiwr said...

Well Anon @22.58, I think it's fair to say that PHG changed his mind on this issue. Opponents like to paint politicians who change their minds as weak, but I suspect that most people would tend to see such honesty as a strength.