Budget scrutiny might not seem like the most exciting of subjects, but it’s causing a stir at Public-i right now.
We’re seeing the first police and crime panels (PCPs) looking into police and crime commissioners’ spending plans – and since this is the first time any of this has happened it’s interesting to watch it all unfold. We’re in a privileged position at Public-i, because a number of PCPs’ meetings are already being webcast on our Connect and Connect Social systems.
The brand-new commissioners are preparing to submit their precepts (the addition to council tax that provides part of the funding to police forces) to the panels by the 1st of February. The panels have a statutory responsibility to pore over the numbers PCCs present them, justifying how much tax they claim they need, and can veto the precept if they’re not happy. In the meantime, PCPs are bedding down and beginning to quiz the PCCs about a number of other issues.
The precept is one of the more contentious ‘on diary’ issues a PCC will have to deal with. Setting a good budget – to adequately finance the kind of police force the public expects – has to be balanced against keeping residents’ council tax at an acceptable level. Whatever the outcome, we all have a considerable stake in the debate, so ensuring the public can understand how that process goes is essential.
PCPs are not required to engage with the public (but PCCs are). Nonetheless, there’s a strong argument, we think, for both panels and commissioners to want meetings and deliberations about the budgets watched by as many people as possible. Equally, for PCCs it’s important that the public understands their decision making on the budget. If, for example, a PCC wants to increase the precept, residents are going to want to know why and what it will help pay for. PCCs will undoubtedly have the opportunity of making these arguments elsewhere, but doing so in front of the cameras makes sense.
With this in mind, it’s perhaps not surprising we’ve already seen some different uses of webcasting:-
While Sussex and Northamptonshire have chosen to webcast their panel meetings, we’ve also seen Surrrey PCP’s confirmation hearing for a deputy PCC .
And on Wednesday Surrey’s PCC, Kevin Hurley, met with the force’s chief constable, Lynne Owens, in front of the cameras at Mole Valley District Council.
Meanwhile West Mercia office of the Police and Crime Commissioner has also held a panel session, in which the chief constable, the deputy PCC and the PCC’s treasurer and chief executive answered questions emailed in by the public.
Clearly, while PCP meetings are often hosted at councils that have existing webcasting facilities, there is also the opportunity for PCCs to look to make use of facilities and hold their own kinds of meetings – as we’ve seen already. Elsewhere there are interesting examples – in a similar context – in local government:-
We’ve written before about how Liverpool City Council used webcasting to demonstrate how seriously it was taking the budget cuts it had to manage last year.
As Jason Kitcat told me on Monday, much of this is about creating a new channel of communication with residents, which can offer a deeper level of understanding than the headlines about tax cuts or increases would offer. If tools like webcasting can be used to start a conversation, where we get a better understanding of the pressures on resources and the complexity of providing public services, then that can be of huge value to all authorities, and commissions.