It’s a valid question. And not one I’ve ever found an easy answer to. When asked socially I usually find myself fudging; “I work in local government” I’ll mumble, prompting a discussion about bin collections (this is regardless of where the conversation takes place, no-one asks if I work for their local authority or if my job has anything to do with refuse contracts).
I’ve been thinking about it a lot because of the move towards greater local government transparency. You can now look up council spending over £500. I publish the public meetings I attend in my feeble attempt at open data. But do any of these help anyone answer what I do? They certainly don’t help me.
Part of the difficulty is around the unique nature of the political leadership role. As a councillor you help shape the policy that directs the council, but it’s intangible. Everyone understands ‘management’ – you have staff and you tell them what to do. Leadership? That’s different. I might help set or, more realistically, shape policy but it’s hard to firmly illustrate what difference that makes. Always there is the question of whether it would have happened anyway. If you take open data as an example, I’ve been banging on about it for far too long – and while I like to think I might have shaped the council’s approach by, say, ensuring we have an open data licence, who’s to say it wouldn’t have happened anyway?
This post is, partly, prompted by a post on the Local Government Information Unit blog raising the idea of ‘public goal setting’. It annoyed me, because I’d been thinking about doing just that. Now it just looks like I’m idly talking about copying someone else’s idea.
This is especially the case because my thought processes were started by something very similar to the post – the realisation that if you want any idea of what I’m doing as a councillor or executive member in Wandsworth, the very last place you should look is at my meeting attendance on my open data page! The problem with meeting attendance as a measure is that it doesn’t give any indication of the value of that meeting.
A simple test I use is to ask whether anyone’s life was improved by my attendance. All too often the answer is no.
This is not to say that the meetings are useless, or that the meetings I attend are all useless. But some can be. Take, for example, Wandsworth executive meetings. In the Wandsworth system they act as a rubber stamp, since discussion should to take place in the relevant OSC meetings. The only time I actually make a difference at an executive is if my attendance makes the meeting quorate, a situation that happens very rarely. You could argue that a high attendance rate at those meetings is a bad thing, since (theoretically) I could be doing something more valuable elsewhere.
So how do you know what I’m doing as a councillor?
The blog might be one way, but it’s far from perfect. Take a comment on a post about the Belleville/Vines issue that, essentially, accused me of jumping on a band-wagon. On reflection, that’s probably how it appeared. There had been one post about the issue before (I don’t know if the commenter had read it), and I’d even corresponded with him last year, but there wasn’t an easily visible trail of what we’d been doing.
In part this was because we’d consciously decided the best approach was behind the scenes. Of course, I could have posted something along those lines. But even if you assume those old posts would be easily found, it would mean there’d be a lot of short posts made just in case something became an issue.
So my thinking had been not so much the ‘public goals’ as outlined by the LGIU, but a ‘public project list’. Essentially a listing of the things that I was doing (or sometimes not doing) to illustrate that they had my attention.
Of course there are problems. It won’t be a complete list for all sorts of reasons. For a start, I can’t include everything, but where should the cut-off be? How ‘big’ a project should be on there? Should I include casework, suitably anonymised, or are anonymised cases too meaningless to have value? And what about the detail – do I put down ‘Wandsworth Challenge’ as one item, or do the fifty or so ideas currently identified get their own mentions? How do I disentangle those things that all three ward councillors are working on, or show those issues that one of us is handling for the other two? And what about the politics?
The politics are tricky. Because I can see how this becomes a list of nice ideas that just never get delivered, and do I really want to see myself castigated for failing to deliver on ambition? Or do I play it safe, but then get accused of not being ambitious enough?
But one thing that has really attracted me to the idea was acting, once again, as a judge in the LGIU’s ‘C’llr’ awards (which are presented this evening). What really sticks out from them is the difference made by councillors who have absolute clarity on one or two key goals or projects. Their dedication to it, and in dragging along a council (which might not be controlled by their party) makes a huge difference. And that clarity is readily apparent to the people they work with and the people they serve.
In fact, the real killer question, the one that has stopped me actually doing this for so long: how on earth do I illustrate this? It might be a slightly geeky question since I’m thinking about the design, and perhaps even thinking of the software behind it. But I’m also thinking about that clarity. How do I clearly illustrate what’s got my attention as a councillor and what I’m trying to do?
I used the image of a departure board to illustrate this because I think it’s a good metaphor (and inspired by a software company who do something similar): everyone understands the travel metaphor, they can see the destination, they can see the stops on the way. And perhaps all too often they can understand there are delays. Would something similar work for councillors…?
What do you think? Are you actually happy if I just ‘be’ a councillor? Or do you want to know what I ‘do’ instead? And how do you want to be told?