Scrutiny Committee report Dec 2019: Communications and Consultations, at Resources and Governance

Manchester City Council’s Resources and Governance Scrutiny Committee (1) today discussed the city council’s communications strategy (nowt on climate emergency) and also consultations (nowt on climate emergency).

If that sounds depressing, well, yes – but there are also some minor causes for optimism, as the councillors present asked probing questions of officers present, and got some potentially useful answers…

First up – you can watch the archived livestream of the meeting here.

The chair of R&G, Cllr Sarah Russell (Labour, Northenden) was sick, and Cllr Shelley Lanchbury (Labour, Higher Blackley) was voted as replacement. The first item was an update on the Council’s Communications Strategy. (You can see Manchester Climate Monthly’s (2) take on that here.)

First question from Cllr Andrew Simcock (Labour, Didsbury East) asking about the new contractor, Granicus. Cllr Bernard Priest (Labour, Ardwick) asked about more local consultations, beyond the centralised ones.  There were questions about whether comms are done in other languages (yes, said soon-to-depart depart Strategic Comms lead, Jen Green – translation and interpretation available upon request.)

Meanwhile, Manchester is “ahead for our current site” with regard to new legislation for website accessibility and for text to voice, but also colour and contrast .

The committee’s sole Liberal Democrat, Cllr Greg Stanton (Didbsury West) asked about the design team and its hunt for commercial work (brings in 850k). Came the answer yes, that’s mostly to public sector orgs and third/voluntary sector, it mustn’t interfere with doing work for the Council.

Cllr Simcock  asked about the move from paper-based consultations. Green noted that there’s still a place for it, esp with older folks who are attached to dead-tree format (my words), but that social media is a bigger player these days.

Cllr Joan Davies (Labour, Deansgate) asked about whether regular or ad-hoc reviews of the website/comms were done – answer “b oth”.

Greg Stanton asked about firewalls ensuring that the 400k that the Council spends on the Manchester Evening News (the Council has to make public announcements) doesn’t give it undue leverage over the newspaper. Green quipped that she’d love to be able to do that (have influence) but can’t. The contract for public notices is up for renewal in May 2020 btw.

However, through all of this, no councillor asked about the particular challenges of communicating climate change, nor asked for a report on this thorny topic. This was an omission, and it may be up to concerned citizens to raise the issue.

The next item on the agenda was consultations (see MCFly’s take here). I (Marc Hudson) had asked before the meeting to be able to address the committee on this item (If you’re a Manchester-resident – and even if you’re not – then you will probably be told yes, IF it is to an agenda item that hasn’t been withdrawn. Custom has it that the chair asks the committee if they’re up for it – though apparently final say is with the chair. In this case, I was given permission, on a strict three minute limit and not about particular consultations is/will or may undertake. (3).

You can watch the footage here.

I finished well within three minutes. Explained Climate Emergency Manchester is aiming to be a critical friend (but constructively critical – see our With Love and Rockets report, done in collaboration with many folks in Manchester).

  • I echoed the chair’s point about the previous item – what about other languages?
  • I pointed out that although the report spoke of eight different consultations and lessons learnt, none seemed to be about consultations that had gone Badly Wrong.
  • I wrapped up by pointing out that if you want to know how Joe and Jane Consultee feel about consultations – and they may have some of the best suggestions – then perhaps a consultation about consultations was called for?

I won’t try to capture the responses here in detail, but the consultation about consultations did not get any support (perhaps it is something civil society has to do for itself?!)

Various officers emphasised that consultation is not an exact science, and pointed to the current city centre transport strategy.

Councillor Davis had googled and was unhappy with the page you land on if you google “Manchester Council consultations”.

Councillor Ahmed Ali (Labour, Rusholme) asked about the use of face-to-face meetings/symposiums (yes, used) and whether the team in charge feels well-enough resourced – yes, came the answer.

Councillor Simcock, as well as asking officers for their thoughts on my presentation, also asked about paper consultations, and Councillor Stanton about the use of local knowledge of councillors to get beyond “dot and radius” catchment areas.

Councillor Ben Clay (Labour, Burnage) asked about how to include ‘outsider’ participants – the officers responded that they do weekly demographic checks during consultations and try to take corrective action. They cited a budget consultation where they ended up with more than representative Wythenshawe participation because of standing at the Forum…

It seems that Facebook groups are where it is at with social media (Climate Emergency Manchester had best take note – learning from t’Council), but Instagram can get you the teenage types. No mention was made of Grindr or Tinder.

Again, through all of this, the climate emergency and the need for very extensive and repeated consultations, and co-production, about a tremendously knotty and confusing-to-many issue, was not raised. It is NOT that the Councillors don’t care – they clearly do, and raise it at Full Council etc. I think that it is simply that the issue isn’t high enough on their day-to-day agenda. That will ONLY happen if they are contacted, regularly (and politely) by people who live in their wards, calling for more action.

Climate Emergency Manchester wants that to happen, and wants to work with anyone who wants to make that happen.

Marc Hudson,

core group member of Climate Emergency Manchester

Footnotes

(1) There are six scrutiny committees. They are made up of “back-bench” councillors and their job is to keep tabs on what is and is not being done by the Executive and the officers. The scrutiny committees meet about ten times a year (2 hrs-ish per meeting), in public. You’re able to attend and if you live in Manchester you can ask to speak on particular agenda items. Our advice is – never go alone, especially if it is your first time.  The scrutiny committee meetings are live streamed these days.
The six scrutiny committees are –
Resources and Governance, Health, Communities and Equalities, Neighbourhoods and Environment, Economy, Children and Young People

(2) Manchester Climate Monthly (aka “MCFly”) – www.manchesterclimatemonthly.net – has been running since 2011, and was successor to Manchester Climate Fortnightly (2008-2010). It is edited by Marc Hudson, and reflects his personal views. Opinions appearing on MCFly do NOT represent those of the Climate Emergency Manchester group.

(3) Speculating now, but this could possibly be because someone has apparently recently gone around stating that I am ogre who likes to dismember officers and eat their arms and legs, or some such.

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