Tuesday, 3 March 2015

An Evening’s Consultation – Part 1

An Evening’s Consultation – Part 1

A new experimental format began tonight. Ministers, including the Chief Minister, made themselves available to the general public to meet and ask questions. It ‘s a bit like a Parent’s Evening at a school, except it is not timed with a bell every ten minutes, and you have the opportunity to sit down at a table with a Minister and ask questions. It’s a bit like a surgery and a chance to question Ministers directly about policy and decision making.

Incidentally, it was at small tables with chairs like a Parent's Evening, not like the big table shown above, but I forgot my camera. The photo above is by way of illustration of who the Ministers are only!

The numbers in the lunchtime session at St Paul’s Centre were quite promising, but perhaps as might be expected, there were less people coming along to ask questions, more of a slow trickle, at Communicare. That doesn’t mean the evenings are not important. And people did trickle in and out.

It is a method of engagement that has not been tried with previous Councils of Ministers, and shows a greater willingness to engage directly with the public. And because it is a one-to-one conversation, there is less likelihood of scoring political points, and a greater likelihood that people might want to speak about issues that concern them directly, rather than perhaps issues that some politicians and bloggers want to make centre stage, although the excellent Change.Je's "Question Time" addresses that and complements this well. We need both kinds of engagement. I only hope the slightly lower numbers in evenings will not dissuade Ministers from this kind of engagement.

But there is no reason why bloggers, or Parish Magazine reporters, for that matter, should not go along and ask questions and take notes. It was in that capacity that I went along, fortified by spoonfuls of cough mixture to ensure I didn’t give my germs to any of them, especially not to the Health Minister! My son had one or two finance related questions to ask, so came along too.

While waiting to speak to Ian Gorst and Rod Bryans, I had a chat with Paul Routier, who put the case for needing controlled immigration for extra funding for health and education. I did make the point that those extra people will also increase demands on healthcare and need educational provision for their children.

But the real debate on immigration is yet to come: at present we are following the “interim immigration” policy, until the States debate a full term one. It is not sure when that debate will take place, and perhaps that is as well: some figures are needed on immigration policy and how the existing strategy is working before making changes. I’d just like to see better “flow through” statistics, so that we can see a direct connection between demands on infrastructure and immigration.

Senator Routier also seemed unaware that the Accountancy Degree at Highlands which shares the first year with the Financial Services Degree has stopped for one year because of lack of numbers, and the Financial Services Degree itself has only about 10 people in one year. Are these being promoted enough as career choices? With the Finance industry asking for more immigration to meet its needs, it seems obvious that local degree courses could fill the gap, if more students took them up. Perhaps local businesses should also be promoting take up in liaison with Highlands?

As Andrew Green was free, we had a chat with him about how the hospital plans were progressing. There are four options, including the two-site solution (which he thinks may be more expensive in duplicating administration) and the Waterfront, where he thinks the current debates make a quick decision unlikely. The hospital site (and Kensington Place) remain one option, as does developing Overdale, but he was waiting for the feasibility study to come back to him, hopefully this week, on the costs of the different options.

The next stage would be public consultation, probably in April or May, and also probably involving some meetings in the Parishes, and if lucky, the States might actually debate the preferred solution in July. The building work itself, including getting appropriate tenders, would probably take two to three years, but it was very important to get things right, and try, as far as possible, to future proof the design.

As an example, he gave of a new kind of glass division which can be made opaque for privacy in the day, but transparent at night, enabling a nurse on duty to keep an eye over a wider area, while permitting smaller patient rooms. The technology was changing all the time, and even the current MRI scanner was considerably smaller than the first. But we had to try and plan as best for change, and get it right because the new hospital would probably have a lifetime of at least 50-60 years. That doesn't mean it wouldn't be changed just as the current one has, but the basic structure needs to be sorted now.

On prescriptions, he was of the opinion that a charge should be introduced, but that there should be a cap on the amount. He also thought that people with specific life threatening conditions should be protected because they had to have a repeat prescription – I cited the example of a diabetic, and he concurred. This was very different from a one off prescription of a course of antibiotics for an infection.

The elderly and the very young should also have some kind of cost protection, especially as children often got ill with a higher frequency than adults – and he mentioned he had endless ear infections as a child, often needing the doctor. He would also like to see pharmacists able to prescribe some medicines, as after all doctors also sometimes took advice from pharmacists on appropriate drugs. This could also reduce the costs of health care.

“Do you think Jersey could suffer reputational damage for having Bitcoin funds when Bitcoin isn’t globally regulated?” That was my son’s question to Ian Gorst, asking about the dangers of money laundering in the Bitcoin market, and the problem that while some jurisdictions may regulate it, others do not.

“It could and there is some concern” was Senator Gorst’s reply. The Chief Minister added that local Bitcoin funds were an “expert fund” where only those who understood the risks of a crypto-currency would take part, limiting the risk, and it was monitored by the JFSC and the States of Jersey. Crypto-currency was a new phenomenon but would probably be one of the ways the future market would go, and the UK and OEDC were also looking at issues of money laundering.

I asked Senator Gorst if they had been looking to Estonia for ideas about e-Cabinet. Apparently, they have taken an extensive look at Estonia. The e-Cabinet system has cut their cabinet meetings and made them much more efficient.

I looked at it last week, and this is how it works:

“It lets ministers prepare for cabinet meetings, conduct them and review minutes, entirely without paper. At its core, the system is a multi-user database and scheduler that keeps relevant information organized and updated in real time, giving ministers a clear overview of each item under discussion.”

“Well before the weekly cabinet session begins, the ministers access the system to review each agenda item and determine one’s own position. They then click a box stating whether they have any objections or would like to speak on the topic. That way the ministers’ positions are known beforehand. Decisions that have no objections are adopted without debate, saving considerable time.”

“Once Estonia adopted its e-Cabinet system, the average length of the weekly cabinet meetings was cut from 4 to 5 hours to just 30 to 90 minutes. The government also eliminated the need to print and deliver thousands of pages of documents each week – a significant reduction in environmental impact, not to mention cost. Because e-Cabinet uses web-based software and audio-visual equipment, ministers can take part remotely, and have often done so.”

As the BBC described it in 2004:

“Spaced at intervals along the table tops are sleek, flat-panel monitors, one for each minister. Underneath the desks are high-end computers, each hard-wired to the internet via broadband connections. The day's agenda is displayed on a giant projection screen. Any cabinet member who happens to be travelling can participate in the meeting via instant messaging. As the meeting progresses, press officers send updates to the Estonian government's website. In the space of 30 seconds, government decisions are made available to any Estonian citizen with an internet connection.”

The Chief Minister was not sure whether it would be appropriate for Jersey, and suggested that perhaps it was better geared to a party system. He thought it was important with the introduction of collective responsibility for any Minister to speak and put a case, as they would have to abide by a collective decision.

I can see where he may be coming from on this – deciding options before might mitigate against airing positions in depth. While a debate takes place if there are objections in Estonia, a debate in Jersey’s Council of Ministers might not work terribly well if it was known that a majority had already made a decision; changing those decision without losing face might be difficult.

Apparently the Council of Ministers meets, on average, for a day every two weeks, although sometimes it may be half a day every week, depending on matters in hand. Jersey is a smaller jurisdiction than Estonia, and so  I do wonder if something could be done to streamline matters.

Speaking of streamlining brings me to the appointment of Kevin Keen. Contrary to the bad press he seems to be getting, focusing mainly on his salary, I have hopes that if anyone can, he can help to streamline and make our government more efficient, and less fixated on empire building and silo mentalities. Apparently, according to Ian Gorst, he’s already made a good start, and Ian Gorst said this was absolutely crucial, as the Department structures were too much constrained by their past, when the world was very different from today, and had too rigid boundaries and demarcations.

Kevin Keen is joining a team which already exists - the other members of the group are Sir David Henshaw and Elisabeth Astall. I asked when this group was set up, and who decided it, and where I could find the Ministerial decision, and details about its remit etc. The Chief Minister admitted that there did not appear to be any decision online, although he thinks he set up the group initially, and promised to rectify the admission. He even made a note of it.

I think that is important, because while we know about Kevin Keen’s appointment, we know virtually nothing about this group he is joining. Any groups which are set up, which have members, should be visible somewhere, whether on states debates, reports or Ministerial decisions, otherwise we have no idea what is going on.

When I get a chance, I’ll dig out my notes on the other Ministers I spoke to – Rod Bryans on Education, and Lyndon Farnham on Economic Development.

All told, it was an interesting evening, a chance to ask questions that I otherwise might not have, and get some answers. The most important part of the engagement for me was getting the thinking behind the decision making, and also timetables for decisions. “Why do you think that?” is something worth finding out, even if we don’t necessarily agree with the end result, because at least we can understand the arguments behind that position.

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