in Politics

Is all communication good communication?

I’m sure many are getting bored with my council surgeries and engagement obsession, but sadly for those that are it’s my blog – and if a blog has any point it’s surely to allow the blogger an outlet for all those thoughts and ideas which he worries bore his wife far too much – so I’m going to have one last post on the subject.

I’ll begin by pretty much ignoring the letters to the South London Press on the subject. Both correspondents, in their unseemly haste to make political points, fail to appreciate the very point I was making is that I do actually engage in many other ways (including sessions on the doorstep once or twice a week) and that surgeries might just be a little outmoded. Luckily, I know readers of this blog are a far more literate bunch.

So instead, I want to continue the discussion by referring to a comment left on my blog last time I discussed it, and with a post over on The Local Government Officer to which I’ve linked a few times before.

I’ll take them in reverse order.

The social working MP
My contention is that councillors’ surgeries just aren’t working. People aren’t using them. If I were to nail my colours to the mast I would say that we should just get rid of them because there are so many better ways to provide the same service. The post on The Local Government Officer suggested that one of the reasons councillor’s surgeries might be failing is because people are going to see their MP instead. And I’ve no doubt this is part of the problem.

I don’t know exactly what attendence at Martin Linton’s surgeries is like, but I know it’s better than at the councillors surgeries. I’d guess there’s a fairly high proportion generated by housing matters, a significant amount generated by social services and education related matters and goodly number on other issues in which the council has a say, like anti-social behaviour.

So why do people go to MPs’ surgeries rather than councillors’ surgeries. My instinct, backed up by conversations I’ve had with people who’ve made that choice, is that it’s driven by a belief all government in this country is central government, therefore, and elected politician’s power and ability to help is directly proportional to their distance from Downing Street or Westminster. A councillor at the town hall down the road cannot possibly match the might of an MP who occasionally sits in the same room as the Prime Minister.

But that’s wrong. On council matters the councillor is the one who will have direct access to the relevant officers, he or she might even be the one with executive responsibility. This isn’t to say the MP can’t help, or won’t be able to take up your case, but they won’t be the most direct way to get it addressed.

Communication. Communication. Communication.
And that brings me on to the comment, which suggested that lack of communication is the problem, “there is not enough communication on the work of a councillor,” it says, before continuing “not enough communication on where to meet with them. Not enough communications on the issues of the ward. I would be very interested to know how many people out of 20-50 you stop in Lavender Hill can name their councillors.”

I would disagree. While the egotist in me rather likes the idea the council should put out more information about me and the work I do, perhaps using tax-payers money to print and delivery glossy leaflets in which I smile benevolently and detail everything I do. But the rational side of me knows there are probably much better things to spend your money on. And actually, there’s quite a lot of publicity already.

There’s Brightside, which lists all the councillors after the election and features councillors in every issue. There’s the council directory, delivered to each household listing useful numbers and details of the councillors. Every two years we hold a report-back meeting (which is never that well attended, if I’m honest) and every household will get a leaflet with a lovely picture of me and colleagues and what we’ve been doing. If you walk past Battersea library there’s a poster outside detailing the dates and time of the surgeries. There’s another inside. If you go on the council’s website there’s plenty about the councillors on there with contact details and more details of the surgeries. There’s plenty of leaflets about who we are and what we have been doing pushed through your doors by the political parties. And I can’t not point to this website or my Twitter account.

I think there’s plenty of communication going on. But, it’s competing with the perception that the people at Westminster are the important ones. I won’t pretend that I’d get high name recognition on Lavender Hill. But councillors are the bottom of the pile. Everyone might be able to name Gordon Brown, fewer Alistair Darling, fewer still Martin Linton and probably hardly anyone their councillors. But then again, isn’t that the same with anything? When you are on a Virgin Atlantic plane, you probably know Richard Branson heads the company. You might have remembered the name of the captain. But do you know the name of the stewards and stewardesses bringing you food and drink and most directly responsible for your comfort?

The solution?
There are two issues. First, people are either going to the wrong place with their problems, either through choice or because they are unaware of the right place. Second, the communication we are putting out isn’t getting to everyone.

I’m not sure the solution to either lies with the council. We cannot control people, we can inform, perhaps guide, but we can’t oblige them to attend surgeries. And while we are responsible for the communication, exactly where do we draw the line? We can pump thousands of pounds into leaflets, posters, websites, carrier pigeons and smoke signals – but I’m not sure we can justify that extra expenditure.

The fact is that while there is such a strong perception that central government is the only tier that matters however much we spend communicating our work it’s going to be impossible to counter that view. And to address that we need a government that actually believes in a truly localist agenda – and that means a Cameron-led Conservative government, whatever his views on Twitter.

Leave a Reply

  1. Thanks for the attention to my previous comment. Of course here I will disagree with your disagreement 😉
    “If you walk past Battersea library”, “If you go on the council’s website”… of course, the important word in both sentences is the first, i.e.: “If”.

    Plenty of communication? Maybe that’s a “wrong” communication then… With 33% of voters for local election, one of the lowest score in western countries… I think we should wonder what is wrong in the way local politicians inform the local population…

    And to compare the role of a steward on Virgin Atlantic with a Councillor puzzles me to say the least…

    Anyway, it is deeply disappointing to see that the only hope is to change the central government, and therefore go with those who believe that “all government in this country is central government”.

  2. Let me ask you then. What should we be doing? And how should we pay for it, given the huge pressures there will be on public finances?

    On the second point, I can only disagree with your belief that this country is well served by a Labour government.

  3. You got me wrong on that: “your belief that this country is well served by a Labour government”… assuming that is far too much extrapolation 🙂

    It is not all a question of money.

    What you are doing (and I am not aware of any other Councillor doing the same in the borough) is already a step in the right direction. Brightside could be open to the opposition also, so they could talk about subjects not raised by the majority of the Council (yep, they do that in some countries, it is called democracy). I’ve raised also the topic of publicising specific news with big impact such as developments in Brightside at a recent event organised by the Council… without seeing any enthusiasm from the Councillors/Council officers there.

  4. It would be illegal for the council to use Brightside in that way, since that would mean using public money to promote political parties. In any event, the purpose of Brightside is to publicise the work of the council, and partners, and provide information (which would, and does, include information of major planning applications).

    Politicians are more than capable of promoting themselves. I link to my party in the sidebar you can visit the Labour website at http://www.labourwandsworth.gov.uk/comment/

  5. James> As you should know, and it was confirmed at the planning forum, Brightside does NOT does include proper information of major planning applications.
    So I hope that you will join us asking for a change.

    • I’m afraid (and I say this knowing full well how it will be misrepresented) that I can’t join you in asking for a change.

      Brightside is a magazine for the whole borough, and using it to provide extensive detail of planning applications would detract from its purpose of providing a balance of features of interest to the whole borough. It is far more sensible to flag up issues and provide pointers to fuller information for those who want it.

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