in Politics

Government by those who turn up?

Ages ago I commented on the uselessness of council surgeries. While I got a bit of criticism for it I stand by those comments.

Since then I still haven’t met anyone at a surgery. For most it clearly isn’t the preferred means of contacting a councillor.

I started thinking about this last night at the Shaftesbury Safer Neighbourhood Team meeting. While it was well attended there’s no getting away from the fact that any meeting of this nature only attracts a very small proportion of people.

But I can provide a catalogue of similar(ish) meetings that attract a tiny proportion of the potential audience. So for example, ward report backs, a public meeting held in each ward every other year or so tend to attract only a relatively small proportion of the population. The last one in Shaftesbury probably had 60-70 people along. Not bad, but from a population of over 10,000 not great either.

For another example, the Face the Public meeting I attended earlier this year was incredibly sparsely attended. You could round the attendence down to 0% of the 280,000 population of Wandsworth! And this is on the issue of crime, consistently one of the biggest residents concerns in any survey.

Following on from that we did a bit of work to find out why people didn’t come. The answer were interesting. Most people thought the venue convenient. They were happy with the date and time. They were interested in the topic. But they just didn’t come.

Now there is no reason why they should come, I’m not making any comment on the decisions people take on whether to attend or not attend a particular public meeting. Nor am I particularly saying that we shouldn’t have public meetings or surgeries. They do have a place.

And it isn’t to suggest that we should be moving online. While I can confidently say that I’ve had more people contact me through this blog in the past year than I have at surgeries in the past 12 years as a councillor (and the same is probably true for Twitter) I recognise that it is still viewed by a minority: too often people confused viewable by the whole world and viewed by the whole world.

In days gone by it didn’t matter so much because services were delivered by the state, or a local authority. They were run by paid officers and directed by politicians elected every four years or so. In between those elections the public, arguably, had very little say.

But if we really want a Big Society part of that is having an engaged population. I don’t know what the answer is; I don’t think a few thousand people reading a blog post necessarily has more weight than a few dozen at a public meeting. But hopefully the answer will be found so we aren’t creating a Big Society of just a few who turn up.

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