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All Change: The Devil's in the Detail

Active citizen Nigel Slack is charting Sheffield Council's move to a new Modern Committee system. Here he looks at new details from Council - like resident representation on committees and councillor voting records.

Arts Tower from Devonshire street
Harrison Qi (Unsplash)

The energy spent by staff at Sheffield City Council to get to this point has been considerable. They have worked relentlessly to develop a set of proposals around the upcoming major change to a Modern Committee system. At the Governance Committee meeting last week we got to see what that looks like.

Before I start, my usual warning applies; it’s an iterative process and this is just the next step in designing the structure to be officially implemented at the Council's AGM in May.

Resident involvement in decision making

One key development is that the new committees will be able to call for evidence from local people on specific issues and can also ask residents to be a part of the committee itself, attending meetings and debating individual issues. This could be a radical shift in decision making towards local people if it survives the design process.

In my capacity as a contributor to the transition process, I used one question at the meeting last week to try and strengthen resident ‘participation’ within committees into an ‘expectation’. Time will tell whether this survives the next rewrite. The current approach to public questions and petitions will remain largely unchanged, with help made available to make sure questions from the public go to the right committee.

You can view public questions and answers in the webcast (item 6) and the debate on the report (item 7).

We’re told there will be improvements to the Council’s website to enable people to find their councillors more easily and the Council has committed to “whole-system change” that will “maximise citizen involvement in decisions.” The newly-formed Local Area Committees will be developed to be key platforms within communities, and in the newest vision they can feed into any policy committee, rather than just the Communities committee, as reported in my last article.

There is also an intention to create stakeholder and community of interest reference groups – what I’d call clever focus groups – though some definition of who will collect and administer these groups is still needed.

Council committee system feb 2022

One section of a new draft of the Council's 'proposed governance arrangements' for May 2022 shows Local Area Committees sitting alongside all new policy committees - instead of below the Communities committee, as in previous plans.

Sheffield City Council

Councillor voting records

Critically, there is some commitment to working towards the recording and publishing of councillor’s voting records, through electronic or recorded voting processes.

People in Sheffield would be forgiven for thinking this is already being done, but it isn’t, and in my view it’s a key element of greater transparency and accountability, enabling residents to see whether the actions of elected representatives match up with their words. We already have this for MPs, so why not councillors?

There are still matters of contention. Recorded voting is not to every councillor's taste and there will be more 'debate' about how this can be done equitably. How members of the public and community representatives will be part of the new policy committees, and what their role will be, needs clarifying to avoid residents having the power and responsibility of a councillor without being elected.

There is a desire for a means of dissenting from decisions within the new committees and the idea of 'minority reports' has been raised. This is available to MPs in House of Commons select committees, allowing anyone who disagrees with a majority view within a committee to put observations and objections on record.

Although there is still work to be done, overall this newest report from Council has made inroads into the way residents can be a real part of the decision-making process and it offers a good starting point for the May 2022 transition. Next comes another Governance Committee Meeting on 9 March, followed by finalised proposals being put before Full Council on 23 March. Look out for my next article soon after that.

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