Carole Ewart writes on the campaign responding to a disturbing new practice in the operation of the Scottish Government
I dread to think how many meetings I have attended in my career and sometimes agreeing the subsequent minute is problematic: some are an accurate record of who was there, what issues discussed and actions agreed; some are an attempt to skew the record; thankfully only some are page after page of who said what with some occasional sentence detailing decisions taken. For some, the practice of minute taking is now considered to be akin to a ‘dark art’, whilst others still believe in good governance so a ‘meeting’ cannot properly be said to have taken place unless there is a record of business transacted.
There is growing evidence that too many meetings attended by Government Ministers are not being minuted which raises the question of motivation. Why would civil servants, government Ministers and Special Advisers fail to make a record of meetings? Whatever the reason, the impact is always a lack of accountability and transparency. There is also a real danger that participants get fed up going to unproductive meetings. Last year I attended a meeting where one of the participants announced at the start that if proceedings proved to be another waste of time she would leave half way through as she had lots of real work to get on with. This refreshing approach was one which I shared but when she left, my inquisitiveness forced me to stay although debate was again more theoretical than practical, aspirational rather than realistic and avoided concrete decisions, clear timelines and allocated responsibilities. Subsequently I had a moment of inspiration – if the meetings were minuted then progress would have to be evidenced. My next thought was that meetings were unlikely to be convened in the first place if the purpose was just to allow people to vent opinions and avoid measurable outcomes. Either way calling for Minutes was bound to make a positive impact.
The Campaign for Freedom of Information in Scotland (CFoIS) has now launched a ‘Get it Minuted Campaign’ and is calling on people and organisations to ask and insist that there are agendas, notes and minutes for any meetings with the Scottish Government and, for that matter, with any public authority. Planning a meeting, recording outcomes, agreeing further actions by whom and when are all key steps forward in achieving our shared objective of making Scotland fairer. Civil servants, special advisers, government ministers attend lots of meetings with charities, with the public sector, with the private sector, with lobby groups and coalitions, with business people and professionals. All these meetings should be minuted although we know that the public will not routinely see them as the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002 (FoISA), permits broad exemptions to disclosure.
The ‘Get it Minuted Campaign’ is supported by a report written by CFoIS, with support from UNSION Scotland, on Minute taking rules. The picture is complex and must be replaced with an actively enforced, single set of rules containing precise language and which details penalties for failure to comply. For example, currently “Private Offices should arrange for a record to be taken of meetings with outside interest groups, including lobbyists, that will set out the reasons for the meeting, the names of those attending and the interests represented (see Ministerial Code paragraph 4.22).” CFoIS would have preferred to see “Private Offices must arrange…”. Similarly, the wording and therefore the obligations on civils servants is also weak in respect of “it should be the responsibility of accompanying officials to take an appropriate record of an event with a Minister”. We would prefer to see “it is the responsibility”. The terms “Notes” and “Minutes” are used but clearly these are different types of documents. The full report can be accessed on our website at https://www.cfoi.org.uk/scotland/
Failing to produce Minutes and Notes breeds public distrust. According to the latest research from the Office of the Scottish Information Commissioner 94% agreed that it is important for the public to be able to access information and 77% would be more likely to trust an authority that publishes a lot of information about its work.
Building public trust at a time of fake news and the manipulation of social media is a declared priority for democratically elected politicians. Therefore, there are considerable reputational, confidence-building and trust gains for a programme of pro-active publication of agendas, notes and minutes. Even more reason to review whether FoISA is fit for purpose 16 years after it was passed and 13 years after it was implemented by over 10,000 listed public authorities in Scotland working in devolved areas. CFoIS looks forward to the Scottish Parliament delivering on the motion passed 7 months ago, on 21st June 2017, to hold two independent inquiries into FoISA – post legislative scrutiny and the Scottish Government’s compliance with its legal obligations.
So far, the Campaign has secured support from a variety of organisations including UNISON Scotland, the Scottish Council on Deafness and the Jimmy Reid Foundation. Disappointingly, it has also been misrepresented by the First Minister at FMQs on 18th January when she claimed to agree with its purpose but changed it to “… ensuring that appropriate records of business are taken. When meetings involving ministers meet the criteria that are set out in the civil service guidance, appropriate records are routinely taken.” Ouch, the Campaign wants records taken of all meetings all of the time!
People’s work lives are increasingly frantic across public services due to staff cutbacks and increased workloads. Making time for meetings is increasingly hard. As some ministers and public servants are keen to meet with people and organisations to discuss not much and agree very little, it is understandable that staff and volunteers feel they need to prioritise their time and focus on the work for which they are funded. As there is no accountability for unproductive meetings, it is inevitable that more will be convened. The ‘Get it Minuted Campaign’ will hopefully benefit us all by reducing the number of useless meetings which waste all our time and increase our effectiveness by making a record of the business conducted at meetings convened by either the Scottish Government or the public sector. If you want to join the Campaign, please email your support to email@example.com
Carole Ewart is the Convener of the Campaign for Freedom of Information in Scotland, and serves on the project Board of the Jimmy Reid Foundation
The Jimmy Reid Foundation is one of the initial supporters of the ‘Get it Minuted Campaign’.