I worry that local government and transparency interest me so much. There are better things for a man of my age to be interested in, surely. But this example of how not to do it from Wales and now on YouTube intrigued me. (Which I found via Richard Wilson’s blog)

To give a short version:

  1. Member of the public starts filming council meeting
  2. Chairman asks her to stop, she refuses
  3. Chairman adjourns meeting and calls the police, she is arrested.

There is clearly history between the council and the campaigner, and I don’t think I’m being unfair in saying that she probably could have handled it better (ultimately, you have to respect the chairman’s decision: it’s the way meetings work). But it’s so contrary to common sense to stop someone unobtrusively, but not secretly, recording a public meeting of democratically elected members.

It’s particularly odd coming only a few months after well-publicised calls from the Secretary of State for councils to allow such recordings to be made and to give bloggers the same level of access as traditional journalists.

As far as I’m aware no-one has bothered recording a Wandsworth council meeting, but I hope we handle it a lot better if they do.

Correction (of sorts): Dafydd Vaughan has pointed out that Eric Pickles has no jurisdiction in Wales, as it’s a devolved matter. It’s perhaps a reflection of a London-centric view that I hadn’t thought about that when originally writing. However, it’s also true that Pickles doesn’t have jurisdiction over English councils on this matter; and I think the moral pressure his statements represented are as applicable in Wales as they are in England.

Irrelevant photo: but does a photo this good need any justification?

Ten years ago today I was soundly beaten at the ballot box.

I might have suffered a crushing defeat in the 2001 election, but I was brimming with confidence. I’d thoroughly enjoyed the campaign, I’d held second place despite a fierce campaign from the Liberal Democrats and had a bright future, this was when there was still something of the expectation that wannabe MPs fight ‘their unwinnable’ before looking for a better seat.

But I never applied for another seat and now write with the perspective of being at the pinnacle of my political career. It is, admittedly, something of a stretch to call it either political or a career. And frankly pinnacle is a massive exaggeration, hillock is more than generous. But I’ve used that joke for far too long to be stopped by such quibbles.

And what has this to do with ‘rebooting’ my blog? Not that much, other than the human instinct to look for and find patterns, symbolism and relevance where none exists. So when I realised yesterday that it was close to the tenth anniversary of the 2001 election the symmetry of posting attracted me: just as 2001 could be seen as a change in my political ambition, today’s anniversary could be seen as a change for my blog.

It’s needed a reboot since before my month-long silence since referendum day, during which I couldn’t even cobble together a few words reflecting on the result, or even some strange sort of boast of how I’d managed to some reflect public opinion with my somewhat detached and variable opinion on electoral reform.

But it was doomed before then. I’m not sure when I first realised it, but I was certainly well aware when I snapped a photo and realised I’d be writing about dog poo that I was engaging in the worst type of blogging councillor self-abuse. Like Congressman Weiner I am “deeply ashamed of my terrible judgement”, although, unlike him, I’m not resigning.

Maybe writing about dog poo isn’t as bad as accidentally publicly posting revealing pictures intended for women you hardly know; but if a blog (or any social media) is an internet-accessible representation of your persona, then my persona was tired and lacking direction. It had meandered around subjects and not really offered anything. It reflected that, for various reasons, blogging was not the most comfortable thing I could be doing.

So it’s time for a reboot. I’m not quite sure what that reboot will bring. Will it revive the blog in the way that Star Trek or Batman Begins refreshed (and darkened) their respective franchises? Or will it be a Lost in Space which did Irwin Allen’s concept no favours despite having Heather Graham and that guy from Friends in it?

I’ll be honest, I have no idea, partly because I’m adopting a ‘just do it’ attitude and not thinking too deeply about what a revived blog will look like. I know there are some areas I previously covered that won’t get any more airings. And I know there are some things that I will be covering that I never really touched on before.

But the overall picture? That won’t be apparent for a while. I’ll be a less-talented Rolf Harris, seemingly directionless until I can suddenly ask “do you know what it is yet?” and hopefully you, and I, will.

An empty press table (for illustration only, taken after the meeting to comply with council Standing Orders!)

Last night was the council tax setting meeting. If the council has anything like a set-piece debate in its calendar it must surely be the council tax setting. It’s as close as we get to a Queen’s speech or a budget.

For the record we froze council tax again – though this year it seems we’ve been joined by most other councils in following that route (I read the other day that this is the first year in 18 that nationally the average council tax has decreased).

But what troubled me is how poorly attended it was.

Despite all the controversy about cuts, deficits and everything else relatively few people attended, even though the Battersea and Wandsworth Trades Union Council were organising a demonstration. When I arrived there were only about a dozen people there, I think most as part of the union protest (basing my assumption on the fact most had union banners and placards).

This isn’t a criticism of protest turnout. When the council serves nearly 300,000 residents even if they had hundreds protesting it would arguably be “poorly attended”.

Instead it set me thinking about transparency and public accountability: specifically about Eric Pickles recent call that bloggers be let into Town Halls.

Because what really got me was not that relatively few residents were there to see the council making decisions, but that no press were there either. Last night’s agenda had three main items: the council tax, a debate about libraries (and specifically York Gardens) and a debate about the purchase of the Bolingbroke site for a free school.

Probably the three biggest political issues the council has but, as usual, the press desk in the council chamber was empty.

Sitting just a few yards from the empty press desk for three hours of debates it made me realise exactly why Eric Pickles is right about broadening access beyond the traditional media. Given that the local press can only rely on second-hand (and necessarily biased) accounts of the meeting, it’s hard to see who they can offer independent challenge.

Of course, like many councils, our standing orders are not naturally friendly towards blogging, a consequence of largely being written in an age before mobile telephones, let alone YouTube. And I’ll be honest, I don’t know any Wandsworth-focussed bloggers who might want a space at the press table, which is a far bigger problem.

But like so many things, if you don’t ask, you don’t get – and even if a blogger covers just one meeting a year, that’s better than the current arrangement of the traditional press not covering any meetings.

Toes all present and correct

I’m really really proud to be able to announce that my wife and I had our second child yesterday, a girl, to be known on this blog and twitter as MiniHer!

Born at 17:01 at 8lb 6oz (tiny compared to her older brother MiniMe). Mother and child are well and father is as pleased as punch.

I don’t post personal topics that often. But today I can’t help myself.

While it seems the rest of the world are getting their new iPhones I, sadly, am not. This is largely HSBC’s fault, as they flagged my attempt to purchase one as fraud and I didn’t manage to get them to reverse their decision until after the initial stock had sold out.

(As as aside, it seems HSBC are a little trigger happy in spotting card fraud, someone told me of twice having their card stopped for suspicious transactions while on holiday, despite having told the bank they were going and someone else had the horror story of having their hotel cancelled while they were flying abroad because of HSBC’s fraud department causing a false alarm!)

The odd thing is that, as an Apple lover and self-confessed early adopter, it doesn’t actually feel bad. In fact, I’m not that bothered at all.

Some would say that HSBC was spot on and stopped me getting ripped off by an incredibly expensive phone. And perhaps they would be right. But the realisation that, actually, not getting it on launch day isn’t all that bad after all is a sign that I’m not as much of a geek as I perhaps thought and that does make me just a little sad.

I love freedom of information. Not so much the right for individuals to demand information from public authorities, important though that is (even though, in the council’s case, seems to be mainly used by people trying to get out of parking tickets and recruitment consultants building their contacts list). Instead I love seeing what happens when information is published, in an open format, so people can – well – do things with it. And, perhaps surprisingly, people are doing things with it.

What they do with it is up to them, but as a public body it is – really – their information to do with what they want. What is interesting is how the information is used creatively and to provide public services.

The example that I currently like is OpenlyLocal – which is compiling useful information about boroughs by taking data from various websites and publishing them in a single place. While may this is useful in and of itself, it is doing so in a way that can easily be used by other websites. So if you are running a locally based website, you can easily grab data from there about forthcoming meetings and add it in. (Shamefully, I’ve not done anything with it here, something I should rectify.)

You can even see what meetings I should be at in coming weeks. Does this benefit anyone? Possibly not on its own, but it does have the potential of increasing accountability.

The odd thing is how closed off data is in this country. It is a little hobby-horse of mine and something I gently push in the areas in which I have some say, but there are two problems.

The first is operational. As a council we are here to deliver services, not data, so often the data we are collecting is not in a format that is easily published.

The second is much more pernicious. There is an overwhelming presumption that data is private or copyright. To give an example, few are worse than the postcode, possibly the most important bit of data when it comes to anything geographical. Yet locked down to the extent it is useless.

So when I was keen to publish coverage of the borough by Neighbourhood Watch using postcodes it didn’t happen. We could only, for example, say SW11 5, which cover around one-sixth of the SW11 postcode area, has some Neighbourhood Watches, a piece of information so vague as to be useless.

However, to say that the 30 or so houses in SW11 5LG – the stretch of road I live – would breach privacy; even though we have street signs up and window stickers announcing to anyone who cares to look that it’s a watch area. In fact, one of the strengths of Neighbourhood Watch comes from publicising that it is a watch area.

Perhaps we are being over cautious in our interpretation of various privacy legislation, but it speaks volumes that the national culture around data protection means that we don’t publish what is fundamentally useful information. I’m going to take a wild guess that none of my neighbours will be complaining about this particular breach of privacy.

Data publication features quite a lot in the coalition agreement, so hopefully this will change. And I will continue to plug away where I see opportunities, but in the meantime we’re only scratching the surface of what sites like Openly Local, or even Streetbook can do.

I’m not sure if it’s fatherhood or personality or opportunity but I generally think that life is pretty good. I may not have everything, but what I do have fills me with happiness. Whether it was the huge amusement MiniMe found in the game we were playing with his cars yesterday, or being able to type this into a beautiful Apple MacBook (Apple machines give joy in a way that PCs and Windows can’t even imagine) there is so much joy and happiness to be found in any life it’s hard to understand why anyone would be miserable.

But recently I’ve been exposed to mass misery during rush hour commutes.

I’ve been very fortunate in being able to avoid rush hours for most of the past few years. I’ve not had to regularly commute into London by train or tube since 2003. Between 2003 and 2007 my commute was a relatively civilised bus-ride to Westminster and a delightful constitutional from there to St James’. Since 2007 my work has meant that I’ve largely been based at home, or my travel can be timed to avoid rush hours, or at least against the flow. But in the past few weeks I’ve not been able to avoid rush hour, so I’ve found myself crammed into trains, tubes and buses with the rest of humanity far too often for my own liking.

Now this isn’t a complaint about train length, under-investment at Clapham Junction or even 20th century working practices in a 21st century world (how many commuters absolutely need to be in their office rather than working remotely) but about people. About you and me. We are the ones creating rush hour hell twice a day, five days a week.

This morning I just missed a train from Clapham Junction, meaning I was one of a few on a platform and perfectly placed at where the train door would stop. But before the next train arrived the platform filled and by the time the doors opened four or five people managed to get on the train in front of me. Somehow they managed to insert themselves into a gap of just a few feet between me and the train door so they would get on first. In what way is this acceptable? Are there any other situations, like the bank or a post office, in which they would – without a qualm – simply abandon manners and shove in front (there at least they would have the advantage of getting served sooner, there is no advantage in getting on the same train a few seconds earlier, it still reaches the destination at the same time).

And then on the train, we all cram together and share looks of such stoney-faced misery it’s hard to tell if we are victims of Medusa or Medusa herself, forcing everyone else on the train to avert their gaze. From the pushing and shoving, to swearing and cursing, the misery of both the commute to work and the commute to home has left me wondering if people are actually happy about anywhere they are going. And watching young and healthy men sat on the tube studiously looking everywhere but the swollen belly of the obviously pregnant woman just inches in front of their faces makes me realise that if chivalry isn’t dead it most certainly doesn’t have an Oyster card.

What I dislike most of all is that I find myself pontificating on it all, like some sort of awful tabloid columnist. (I’ve even wondered if I should give these musings a title, perhaps make them regular, how about ‘Friday Feorising’, just so we have visual and well as aural alliteration?) In a bid to be positive about it I’ve been trying to think where the switch is that turns people from being ordinarily polite, happy people into the rude and ignorant. Is there some stage in the journey at which a small change would make all the difference? I assume many of these people are perfectly happy beforehand, perhaps enjoying a family breakfast, or a pleasant stroll to the station. But somewhere it all changes. Maybe if we could find that switch we could stop it being flicked. Maybe we should all be a bit more like Winkworth’s and start offering free hugs to prevent that descent into collective depression and low-level sociopathy.

Perhaps Winkworth’s are the people with the answer and in years to come they won’t be remembered for their prowess at marketing property, but their contribution to the nation’s happiness. Realistically, I know that pinning my hopes on an estate agents isn’t sensible (it’s essentially saying that I think Foxton’s are capable of being a force for good). Instead, we have to be the ones who make the difference. This is something over which we all, collectively, have control; we are the ones who get on our trains and look so miserable it becomes contagious. We might not be able to directly influence Network Rail’s spending plans and we may be doomed to suffer the effects of Gordon Brown’s PPP on the tube for decades to come. But we can exercise control over our moods and our manners. I’m not suggesting we commute with manic grins, but if we at least avoided the Gail Mcintyre false imprisonment look it would make all the difference.

My last post started life as this week’s weekly wrap-up, but then killed it off.

The point of the posts, which I’ve been doing since last May, was to be some sort of ‘report’. I’d started them at the suggestion of a commenter on the blog. But I just don’t think they were adding anything.

And as I got a little carried away ranting about blogging about policy, I realised that pretty much all my council work of the previous week fell into the ‘can’t talk about it’ category. They were policy meetings, or private casework, issues that may well become public, but aren’t quite ready for that yet. The weekly wrap-ups had become, frankly, pointless. They were, in effect, little more than a listing of meetings; a chore to write and dull to read. So last week’s is now the last one.

So while I may still do the occasionally look back on a Friday, it’ll only be when there’s something to say that hasn’t already been said.

I indulged my inner geek last weekend, going along to the second half of the UK GovWeb barcamp (essentially an informal conference about technology in the government sector). I always feel a little bit like the token sceptic at these things, perhaps because I am one of the few politicians who goes and find my geekish enthusiasm somewhat self-censored by political realities.

However, one of the sessions I attended was about the state of blogging in government to discuss policy development. The conclusion was that there isn’t that much. I think that’s a consequence of politics: civil servants and council officers keep their counsel private (that’s their job) and politicians like to present fully formed and defendable policies to the public (that’s, arguably, their job). The result is neither want to cast light on their policy development role.

And it set me thinking about the way I work in Wandsworth. My time in my current council role is littered with cast-off ideas that didn’t make the cut. Why? Because they were impractical, or because they didn’t really help us with any of our priorities, or because they were too expensive, or because my colleagues just hated them, or any number of other reasons.

That isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It’s far better to have ideas and kick them about to see if anything can come of them than just assuming nothing will happen and never seeing the one in ten (or one in a hundred, or a thousand, or a million) that will make it all the way to the end and become a useful policy.

But why can’t we do it in public? There are few times when the collective wisdom of everyone in a room isn’t greater than any individuals, so why not expand that room through something like the internet? Why can’t we start having a few policies put out for public consideration at an early stage, with everyone knowing that most will eventually fall by the wayside, but that some will emerge at the other end much stronger for the collective scrutiny and input they receive?

For example, my idea to develop the technology sector in Wandsworth by staging a manned lunar mission might not be viable – but as we go through the process of discovering that we might come up with great ideas that do work (velcro, anyone?).

Being a politician, however, I immediately see the downside: unless the idea is successful it is merely knocking copy for the other side. And that is where my geekish enthusiasm is self-censored.

So what will I do with my next exciting idea? I’m afraid I’ll probably discuss it with officers and take it though the usual process.

I’ve been in reflective mood about this blog recently. Perhaps because it’s New Year, perhaps because it hit one year old last month. Whatever the reason, I’ve been thinking about it’s future. I set it up as an experiment, and for the first three months was surprised at its success and the size of its readership – enough that I carried on writing it. And while that surprise has continued I didn’t continue the rather detached analysis of the blog’s development.

The consequence has been an evolution, rather than a development. For example I tend to post about things in which I have an interest – regeneration and community safety are the obvious ones, because they form my portfolio – but that means huge areas of council activity go uncommented. And I have tended not to write about things that are not council related, so you have been spared my fondness for Apple products, or my (non-trainspotter) excitement at using a sleeper train last week. But this has just happened rather than being a conscious choice.

Evolution is not a bad thing, of course. It hasn’t done too badly for homo sapiens and I’m obviously more likely to keep this going writing about things which interest me. But I think it’s valuable to take a step back from time to time to analyse and assess. It might not (and I don’t expect it to) result in a major change of direction but it will mean I’ve checked it against what I want it to do.

And part of that is asking you. I still see the prime purpose as being a ‘council’ blog. But is the balance right? Should I try to reflect the broader range of council activity, or as a personal councillor blog is it reasonable just to cover my personal work and interests? As a personal councillor blog should I include a bit more of the personal as well as the councillor (I am human after all)? Do I need to think about the balance between national, local (Wandsworth) and hyperlocal (Shaftesbury ward)? Is it responsive enough, or should I invite suggestions for topics rather than driving the agenda myself? Is there anything I’ve not even thought of?

I’d be fascinated to hear your thoughts (and please don’t force me to dig out the ‘tumbleweed and tolling bell’ track on my BBC Sound Effect Department 101 Clich├ęd Essentials CD) – you can use the comments, which can remain anonymous, email me or even use Twitter – there are all sorts of ways of contacting me