in Politics, Wandsworth

Council surgeries revisited

I was emailed yesterday about a post from over a year ago (although coincidentally referenced only a few days ago) on council surgeries and asked – without going into details – if I had any further thoughts that might help another council who were looking at their surgeries.

In the spirit of openness (I have been thinking I don’t so enough thinking, or blogging, out loud on here) I thought I’d post my response.

The short answer is that I still think surgeries are useless. I cannot accept that so many hours spent seeing no-one is a good use of time. I’ll stress this isn’t because I don’t want to see residents, but because I’m not sure who has their life improved by having councillors sat seeing nobody for an hour every Saturday.

The more I think about it the more I’m beginning to think the problem is with the surgery format. It is from a different age and in the twenty-first century people want to access their democratic representatives differently.

Looking back to my original post I mentioned how we’d changed from a ward to a central system. However I didn’t touch on some of the discussions around that change.

It was recognised that people weren’t using surgeries in any great numbers. But the reason was deemed to be things like location and timings rather than format. It was a perfectly reasonable assumption. Every ward ran it’s own surgery in various locations, at various times. I understand my own ward of Shaftesbury held one on something like the second Wednesday of the month two wards over off Battersea Park Road. Quite what the logic was when these were established is beyond me. The second Wednesday of the month is not an easy date to remember (most people would need a calendar) and why on earth were we expecting our residents to traipse half-a-mile down the road to an area we didn’t even represent?

But having made the assumption that it was venue and time the new system was never going to be radical, but an evolutionary, change. The replacement (and it still exists) is better, the time is fixed, every Saturday between 10 and 11am, and the venues central, each of the town centre libraries.

But there was never a question about the format. It was only ever a question about the venues. Even the most ‘radical’ option of using video conferencing was basically the same format: people turning up at a set time and place to talk to a councillor, just that the councillor wouldn’t physically be there, but would be covering several venues from a single location. An interesting idea if only because it already had made the assumption that surgeries wouldn’t be well used and one councillor could safely cover several venues.

But after several years of running I can’t help but feel the format is slightly arrogant. If you have a concern or problem you can come to a venue we’ve chosen at a time we’ve chosen and talk to us about it.

In fact, when people have a problem or concern they, quite rightly, want it resolved. Can you think of any other sector that behaves in that way when it comes to problems? Even those that require you to make an appointment, like the dentist or a garage, aren’t prescriptive, they don’t offer a this or nothing session.

And there’s possibly a problem that we’re not going to places that people use. A very quick (and not at all exhaustive) use of Google showed that in April 2009 the UK had about 12.5 million library users. Around the same time there were 18 million users on Facebook (and since then that number has grown to 27 million, I suspect the library usage has remained about the same).

This isn’t to say that we should put everything on Facebook, but it’s a sign that things have changed dramatically. When I started on the council I didn’t get a Wandsworth email address. Even when I did a year or so later, it actually just forwarded to a council officer whose job was to print out the email and put it in the council’s internal post for us. While the world has moved on we are still using a system that has barely changed in decades.

To me, it’s more about signposting availability where people are already, that might be the local library, but it’s just as likely to be the local cafe and even more likely to be Facebook. Then people can choose when they talk to us. It might be that they choose to meet us at a library, and maybe even decide on 10am on Saturday morning, but at least it would be their choice and not ours.

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