Alister Esam 04 February 2016

Practise what you preach: Instilling good governance within local government

Pressure for council leaders to achieve year-on-year efficiency savings is mounting in 2016 following the implementation of the recent Spending Review. Severe reductions in central government support and budget cut decisions look like they have become a fixed point for all local authorities, and urgent cabinet and committee meetings are being held across England and Wales to decide where the axe will fall.

At the same time, the demand for added local council involvement by government bodies has never been greater; partnership boards and Clinical Commissioning Groups are demanding extra member input to ensure services are meeting community needs.

The growing number of local government meetings are a significant and seemingly unavoidable budget consideration in themselves. But, that's not to say they can't be run more cost-effectively with a more efficient meeting management process. With the drive for collaboration across a variety of partners in the third sector and local government comes an increasing need for transparency of information and informed decision-making. This can only be achieved through better meeting governance, which can also result in a number of first-hand financial benefits.

Improvements across the board

The majority of councillors attend at least one committee meeting a day, with each one requiring hundreds, if not thousands, of sheets of paper to create the necessary meeting packs. In an era of smart devices, there is simply no excuse for the huge print, post and administration costs this incurs, not to mention the threat to informed decision-making, risk management and security measures. Instead, members should be transforming the way they interact with online information and meeting management.

With one-click document distribution using a paperless meeting management solution, not only can councils drastically reduce the essential paper, print and collation costs, it ensures democratic services officers are undertaking their valuable and important day-to-day activity as efficiently as possible. Usable technology can also help ensure all councillors have efficient, effective and secure real-time access to the right information, in a format that meets an authority's Freedom of Information obligations from a smart device - and make that information searchable and available at every stage of the meeting cycle.

Practising good governance

As meeting management accountability and corporate governance has come under increasing scrutiny outside the local authority and third sector, the valuable role technology has to play in empowering all board and committee members with vital intelligence is becoming increasingly recognised in all sectors. Indeed, many are now using it as an important tool to provide a holistic oversight of operations and hold sub-boards and committees to account.

For example, officers and members can exploit in-built interactive risk assessment and governance tools to provide a top-level view of risks. Rather than trawling through hundreds of pages of paper, members can understand immediately the current risks, the controls that are in place and identify gaps that need to be addressed. They can use the real-time search to locate relevant information and gain the insight required to make a decision immediately - rather than re-tabling the issue for a subsequent meeting.

Furthermore, while real-time access to information clearly provides a chance to improve the effectiveness of members during the meeting, the most fundamental change is the way information can be interacted with between meetings. Combining alerts to information with updates on key topics raised during meetings, plus decision-making functionality that incorporates discussion and voting tools, can enable councillors to take part even if they are unable to attend, which can lead to considered conclusions that are less likely swayed by more vocal members. This ensures delays are avoided - and the meeting can concentrate on the top issues affecting the community, rather than risk being derailed by minor, yet pressing, concerns.

Security at the fore

In order to abide by Freedom of Information regulations, many councillors are already provided with smartphones to ensure correspondence is kept within council confines. Yet, while the content of many committee meeting packs is confidential, the majority are still printed with a contractual obligation for the councillor to simply shred them after use. With such a high volume of paper and the time pressure on many councillors juggling full-time employment however, paperwork is often at risk of being processed incorrectly, either hoarded or thrown away intact.

Indeed, in cases of particular sensitivity, it has been known for councillors to be called in to view notes on a computer screen prior to the start of a meeting, where they are expected to simply memorise content ahead of discussing it. Not only is this approach prone to inaccuracies, it is also challenging for the clerk to record the minutes and uphold an audit trail and future reference point.

Given the pressure on council leaders to become ever more accountable for their budgeting and decision-making when representing their local communities, processes within the councils themselves often make a good starting point. With continuous real-time access to information via a raft of devices, council members have the chance to be constantly engaged - and not just at meetings. Those councils that take the step away from paper and look to actively and continuously exploit real-time access to information will transform both the speed and effectiveness of decision-making and risk assessment at minimal cost.

Alister Esam is managing director for paperless meeting software supplier BoardPacks.

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