Agenda item

Annual Improvement report and the Corporate Assessment report of the Auditor General for Wales for Flintshire


            That the Annual Improvement Plan be accepted, subject to an amendment to the response to proposal 5 and the response following consultation with the Audit Committee be endorsed with the addition of comments from this Committee.                            



The Chairman introduced Mr. Paul Goodlad from the Wales Audit Office (WAO) to the meeting.  The Chief Executive explained that the report had previously been considered at Audit Committee, Cabinet and County Council.


                        Mr. Goodlad introduced the report to present the Annual Improvement Report of the Auditor General which for 2015 incorporated the first Corporate Assessment.  He detailed the background to the report and explained that the Corporate Assessment had taken place in September 2014 but had included works undertaken both before and after this date.  The report was cautiously positive about the new operating model which had been implemented around this time but emphasised that this would introduce a new set of challenges.  The report had identified seven proposals for improvement but Mr. Goodlad indicated that no statutory recommendations had been made.  In some areas the Council had recognised that it was under performing and corrective action had been taken, which he welcomed.  He highlighted the use of task and finish groups to review Council’s approach to issues such as target setting but reports submitted to Overview & Scrutiny Committees were usually for noting which limited its contribution to the Council’s policies or priorities.  Some areas of progress had been identified and he added that it was encouraging to see the way the Council had continued to identify improvements required and any corrective action that was needed.  However, the assessment found considerable inconsistency in the quality of business and service planning to deliver the Council’s Improvement objectives.  Some performance reports to Committees were too long and contained a large amount of detail and the Council had now implemented an ‘exception reporting’ format which highlighted only those areas where performance was worse than anticipated or where there were significant risks to future progress.  Mr. Goodlad stated that the way progress was now summarised was much clearer.          


                        Mr. Goodlad highlighted the second proposal about making improvements to the quality of reports to Committee and Cabinet.  It was reported that the Council had sound structures and arrangements in place to support good governance, but some of its strategies and supporting documents were out of date.  He explained that strategies were not well integrated in HR, ICT, Asset Management and People Strategies and therefore did not fully support the governance framework.  Implications for budget savings were not always clear in all areas but work had been undertaken to ensure that budget planning was now clearer.  He commented on Member development training which was not always well attended and the take-up of Member personal development reviews had not been a success.  Mr. Goodlad spoke of the forward work programmes for Overview & Scrutiny Committees and commented that it was not always clear how they were influenced by corporate priorities, the Cabinet agenda or the corporate risk profile.  The WAO now had more confidence in how the Medium Term Financial Plan was delivered following work undertaken by the Council.  The assessment had also highlighted that the successful completion of the Single Status agreement and Equal Pay Review had been highly demanding and other Human Resources priorities had therefore made slower progress than intended. 


                        Mr. Goodlad explained that the section on performance indicators was overwhelmingly positive with the overall conclusion being that the Council had performed well in this area.  The likelihood conclusion reported was that ‘the Council’s track record suggested that it was likely to respond positively to the internal and significant external challenges it faced and make arrangements to secure continuous improvement for 2015-16’.  In conclusion, Mr. Goodlad said that there was a need to continue to strengthen some areas but the WAO was satisfied that the Council could continue to deliver its priorities despite the financial challenges the authority faced. 


                        The Chairman thanked Mr. Goodlad for his presentation.  The Chief Executive explained that the report also enclosed the executive response of the Cabinet and Senior Officers, to which the Committee could now contribute.  


                        In highlighting the section of the report which indicated that some services did not have service plans in place during 2013-14, Councillor Robin Guest asked if these areas had been identified and whether the details could be provided to Members.  Mr. Goodlad responded that the issue had been raised as part of an Internal Audit report on risk management but that he was not aware of which service areas it referred to.  The Internal Audit Manager advised that he did not have the details about the areas at this meeting. 


The Chief Executive indicated that this was one area where the Council had disagreed with the WAO and added that the issue was about consistency of service plans rather than some not being in place at all. Work was being undertaken by the Chief Officer (Planning and Environment) on whether current plans were sufficient.  A renewed appraisal system was also being considered as the current model did not identify the extent to which staff engaged with and owned objectives and targets that related to the areas for which they were responsible.  The Policy & Performance Manager spoke of the importance of consistency of service plans and work that was being undertaken to ensure the plans included relevant information. 


                        Councillor Carolyn Thomas referred to Overview & Scrutiny Committees and expressed her concern at reports, such as Budget Monitoring reports, that were submitted to this Committee prior to being considered at Cabinet but which were not amended if Members suggested any changes.  She felt that asking Scrutiny Committees to ‘note’ reports was insufficient and suggested that a briefing note be prepared following Scrutiny meetings to allow any suggested amendments to be considered at the meeting of Cabinet.  She also highlighted the issue of repairs and maintenance that was considered at Lifelong Learning Overview & Scrutiny Committee where the Facilitator had to verbally report the suggested changes.  Councillor Thomas felt that any financial impacts that were identified should be reported to the relevant Overview & Scrutiny Committee to monitor.


                        The Chief Executive concurred.  He explained that the format of reports was being considered and discussions would be undertaken with Group Leaders.  He felt that where there was sufficient time to do so, comments from Overview & Scrutiny Committees should be included in the report submitted to Cabinet.  However, if this was not possible, a briefing note could be prepared prior to the Cabinet meeting.  The Forward Work Programme for Overview & Scrutiny Committees was not always clear and the purpose of reports also needed to be clearer.   


                        Councillor Richard Jones felt that the main issues related to Overview & Scrutiny Committees.  He commented on four important areas (costs, income, risk and performance) and said that it was important to increase income and performance and lower risks and costs.  He felt that it was not sufficient for Overview & Scrutiny Committees to simply note reports as any suggestions put forward by Members were not included in the Cabinet report and did therefore not inform Cabinet of any changes that Members felt would improve particular issues.  He raised concern that the report did not make any reference to Value for Money (VFM) as he felt that this was a most important indicator for the Council.  On the proposals suggested by the WAO, he highlighted proposals 2, 4 and 5 as all being linked to Overview & Scrutiny and he added that, in his opinion, proposal 5 had not been answered correctly.  Councillor Jones indicated that the response commented on a review of the terms of reference but did not raise the issue of ‘pre-decision scrutiny’ where committees considered issues before they were submitted to Cabinet for decisions to be taken.  Proposals 1, 3 and 7 referred to governance and the issue of service plans and Councillor Jones felt that it was important to ensure that these issues were linked.  He queried whether some service areas did not have service plans in place or whether those in place were not adequate.  He highlighted proposal 6 on risk management and commented on the requirement and importance of Members and officers identifying and addressing areas which were high risk. 


                        In response, the Chief Executive explained that the response to proposal 5 was an initial one.  He added that there were some areas where improvement could be made but it was also important to ensure that the correct balance was achieved such as on the issue of consultation.  Training and development for Members received a mixed reaction when it was discussed at the meeting of Group Leaders as it was felt that some training was useful and some was not.  Appraisals for Members had also not yet taken place.  The Chief Executive added that a more appropriate reporting format would be pursued. 


                        Mr. Goodlad agreed with the comments of Councillor Jones on VFM but explained that WAO had not carried out a VFM assessment.  On the issue of reporting formats, he suggested that the recommendation of the report could be included at the start of the report rather than where it currently featured. 


                        In welcoming the report, Councillor Peter Curtis felt that it was good overall and said that he would have been surprised if there had been no areas where improvement was suggested.  On the issue of reports being submitted to Overview & Scrutiny Committees before they were considered by Cabinet, he felt that there was a need for Scrutiny Committees to be more assertive about what they were proposing to Cabinet. 


                        Councillor Paul Cunningham indicated that he was satisfied with the training that he had received to date but would welcome more if it was felt that it was appropriate.  Councillor Arnold Woolley raised concern that some issues that were considered by Overview & Scrutiny were historical and was keen to identify ways of scrutinising items before they took place rather than after.  Mr. Goodlad concurred but said that scrutiny of what had already happened was important too. 


                        In response to a comment from Councillor Clive Carver about how he felt that meetings did not last as long as they used to, the Member Engagement Manager suggested that this could be as a result of more effective reporting and appropriate questioning.  Councillor Jones felt that effectiveness of decisions should not depend on the length of time they took to consider.  He referred to information that had been provided in the past about the timeline for business plans/service plans and how departments interacted with each other in the preparation of the plans.  The Policy & Performance Manager agreed to provide the requested information.  Councillor Jones spoke of the importance of business plans and of appraisals as he felt that employees needed to be aware of where they fitted into the service plan and how this fitted into the budget plan. 


                        The Chief Executive welcomed the comments made particularly on the quality of the business plans.  He added that work would be undertaken following the Annual Meeting with the Chairs of Overview & Scrutiny Committees on consideration of items at Committees.  In response to a comment from Councillor Jones on whether the response to proposal 5 would be changed, the Chief Executive suggested that a specific reference business plans be included.    




            That the Annual Improvement Plan be accepted, subject to an amendment to the response to proposal 5 and the response following consultation with the Audit Committee be endorsed with the addition of comments from this Committee.                            


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