in Politics, Shaftesbury, Wandsworth

Do council surgeries serve a purpose?

I’m going to come right out and say it, it’s a risk, but I’m taking it:  I think council surgeries are a waste of time.  They are a hangover from a bygone age.  And we should look at how we provide them, and even whether we should provide them at all.

I’m going to give you a flavour of what a council surgery is, a little video I shot during my surgery session last Saturday.

I recently discovered that my site is getting more visitors than the ‘Be A Councillor’ website, so I see this as my contribution.  Not everything about being a councillor is glamorous, exciting, or even – as in this case – vaguely interesting.

What is a surgery?
Basically, in a surgery session, you sit in a public building and, hopefully, people will come to you with their problems.  You can listen, offer advice or take details and look into the problem.  It’s seen as one of those things that elected representatives do.  But unfortunately not many people attend.

I vividly remember my first councillor surgery in 1998. I’d been elected less than a month before and had barely started getting to grips with how the council worked and the people I needed to know. I was incredibly nervous, wondering who would turn up, what issues they would raise and how on earth I would deal with them.

No-one came.

And that’s fairly standard. It’s been over a year since I met anyone at a council surgery.

And it’s risky to say this because…?
Simple: politics.

A few years ago the Conservative council introduced the centralised surgery system. Previously each ward would organise their own surgeries, typically once a month. The centralised system was intended to be advertised, simple and consistent, every Saturday between 10-11am there would be a councillor in Battersea, Putney and Tooting libraries. You didn’t have to work out which ward you were in, or when the first Thursday after the new moon was, you just popped along to see the councillor on duty on any Saturday.

A great idea. But no, this was attacked by Labour. We were removing accountability, hiding from the public, acting anti-democratically. That no-one was using the surgeries didn’t get in the way of a convenient vehicle to attack the Tories.

So why raise it now?
Because I don’t think surgeries are the best way to provide a service anymore, and because I think things have moved on and we can have a sensible discussion about how we communicate with people. I believe people value honest debate over political point-scoring.

While I was sat in the library last Saturday I looked through the log-book.  As I said, it’s over a year since I had a case raised at a surgery (the log book only went back to June 2008) and  I’m not the only councillor in that position.  Looking through it’s hard to detect a pattern for people coming to surgeries.  It certainly doesn’t appear that certain councillors always attract attendees.  Nor does it appear that people would attend for a particular political party, I know Labour councillors do attract casework from people who specifically want to deal with a Labour councillor but the logs suggest this isn’t through surgeries.

It simply isn’t an issue about the people, or the political parties, involved. It’s an issue about a system that was an important part of democracy, but has been made increasingly irrelevant by the new ways we communicate.

And if you have a problem with the council…?
Frankly, if you have a problem and want a councillor to take it up – you shouldn’t have to wait until that one hour slot on a Saturday morning when a councillor is sitting in a library. You should be able to raise it straight away.

That’s why you can get my contact details – email, home phone, Twitter and I’m currently looking at some other options to add – from the contact page. If you want, you can even get my home address from the Town Hall so you can write to me!

Yes, there are some people who don’t have email, or might not want to call, and there are a number of people who are regular attenders at surgeries. We need to make sure they aren’t lost by any changes. But I do not think Wandsworth is any better because a group of councillors sit in libraries every Saturday reading the paper or looking out the window. Rather than keeping a system that doesn’t work because we’ve always had it, we should be finding the best way to serve Wandsworth residents.

So what do you think? How do you want councillors to make themselves available? Have you ever been to a surgery? Can you think of a better way?

Leave a Reply

  1. This is a really interesting post James and it’s great to hear about it from your side. Personally, as someone who works 9-5 and on the other side of London, I would never dream of going to a surgery. I’m much more likely to just call of email if I need something. I think the idea of a face to face surgery is still valuable but maybe you could go to places where people are going to be (the bar at the BAC, the entrance of ASDA)??

    • That pushes me to refine the problem (and illustrates why I think it would be interesting to have a sensible debate about this).

      The council surgery is very reactive. We are essentially getting involved when the problem has escalated to a level that the resident feels some extra clout is needed. I’d contrast this with Twitter when I will often intervene, or at least offer help, long before that stage is reached. If you operate from a basis whereby the earlier the intervention the better, then having fixed surgeries isn’t the best way to do it.

      But when you start looking at moving the venue then you have a totally different style of surgery, which is probably going to be far more proactive and each to attract different people. The library is a fairly neutral venue, to which anyone can go. BAC is not, and the sort of people I’d meet there would be totally different. Asda offers a similar problem, in that while there’s a huge passing trade, it isn’t necessarily the right target audience! To give an example I often help – or hinder – the council’s community safety unit when they do a session there with the local SNT. What I often find is that I am having to offer generic crime prevention advice because the shoppers come from other boroughs and aren’t eligible for the services the council offers.

      That’s not to say that these are bad places, but I think we’ve never thought about what we want to do. We just ‘do’ traditional surgeries in libraries and always have done. I don’t think we’ve ever had the discussion about whether we want to continue offering the current ‘last resort’ surgery, or whether we want to do something more proactive. And if we were to move towards the latter, then how should we do it, who should do and, most importantly, where would we do it. Surgeries only really help those in-the-know, and often they aren’t the ones who most need the help.

  2. Hi James

    Council surgeries are an outdated mode of connecting with your constituents, and you will probably find yourself being stood up more in the future.

    One of the key reasons for this is sheer age demographics, 56% (159k) of the population are 34 years or under, a bunch thats increasing more on-line and plugged in than the older generation and just not used to rocking up to surgeries.

    Also libraries are unheard of to most peole these days…who visits them anyway…er clearly no one if your video is anything to go by. Libaries, books, newspapers…all that printing on dead trees is old hat. If people aren’t visiting the libraries for books they are even less likely to visit for you.

    Another reasons is advertising, people simply not knowing what a surgery is, what a councillor is, exactly what you can do for them. The only place i see an advert for a councillors surgery is on the door of the furzdown project in tooting. Typically a place for the older generation, further cementing the fact that the younger lot won’t look twice at it. You need to be where the problems are.

    Maybe you should put something up in GP surgeries, universities, rail stations, coffee shops, or intenet libraries.

    Using twitter and having a website is great but i think most people embroiled in a issue with the council simply wouldn’t think of coming to a surgery and escalating it oir asking for advice.

    I don’t know about the politics of what you can do with surgeries. But like they say “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again hoping for a different result”
    So maybe its time to tear up the rule book, get out the drawing board, and change….get some feedback…change some more…get some feedback…and may be you’ll get there.
    Do something totally off the wall.

    Ok thats my 2c.

    Regards
    Nazim

  3. Well, I’ve never been to one – and it’s never occurred to me either. If I had a problem, I’d probably email. But there is something about making yourself available. Like when you sort of had an open question on this blog – it did prompt me to take report an issue to my ward councillor.

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