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.
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…?
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?