Councillors have narrowly voted in favour of plans from chief executive David Clark to create a draft of an SIC newsletter and carry out further work into the creation of a finance committee to keep better track of how public money is being dished out.
Mr Clark’s proposals were accepted by four votes to three during Monday’s audit and scrutiny committee meeting despite concern from some members, in particular about whether there would be any value in producing a regular SIC publication.
The chief executive believes a council newsletter should be considered because of what he described as the “volatile nature” of local media reporting and explained that he felt “some good news or mundane stories get lost among the more dramatic stories”, such as providing information for people who should be, but are not, claiming benefits.
Mr Clark said he felt it was worth drafting “a council publication highlighting the services that are available to people”, although he accepted that various attempts at such a publication in the past had been of limited success.
Councillor Laura Baisley said the problem with a newsletter was that “good news is dull” and it is “human nature” for people to expect a good quality of service and want to read about areas where things are going wrong. She fears that it will “cost money without having some beneficial effects”.
Lerwick South councillor Jonathan Wills said the problem with the previous newsletters delivered to households was a “Stalinist insistence on only good news” which “made the council look ridiculous”.
In his report, Mr Clark stated that he remained of the opinion that the council’s existing structure was “fairly sound”, although he was concerned that there appeared to be “little evidence that [public services] are being achieved at best value in terms of cost and timescale”.
That appeared to irk Shetland West member Gary Robinson, who said he believed there were “also instances where very good work is being done on our behalf” and that “this broad-brushed approach isn’t giving the full picture”.
Meanwhile, in an attempt to improve the council’s diminished reputation, Mr Clark has managed to persuade the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives (Solace) to feature the SIC’s approach to improving digital communications in the isles as one of the four “best practice” councils.
A five-minute film will be shown at Solace’s annual conference later this month and will then be screened daily on Sky’s local authority channel for a week. The production will cost the council £9,500, which Mr Clark said would be met from existing budgets.
Mr Robinson said he was “intrigued” to know how Solace had been persuaded to pick the SIC. Mr Clark responded that the council was one of four chosen from a total of 70 submissions and that he had stressed “the uniqueness of our situation” and the “adventurous approach the council has taken” in setting up the local authority-backed Shetland Telecom operation, which he said was “seen as exciting, brave and very different”.
Mr Robinson did not find a seconder for his proposal to reject Mr Clark’s report in its entirety, after he had referred to “some serious concerns about issues in this report”, particularly that he felt it painted a negative picture. “It does the council no good at all and sends out a poor message to staff,” he said.
An amendment from Dr Wills that the newsletter idea be rejected in favour of an expanded version of the council’s existing staff bulletin, along with creating a policy and resources committee rather than the narrower finance committee, lost out by a single vote.
Further work on the newsletter and the role, remit and membership of a finance committee will be carried out and will then be put before the Full Council.