I attended the LGiU’s C’llr Achievement Awards last night. A small event to celebrate the winners (and nominees) of a series of awards recognising their service to their local communities.
A few quotes from the night stuck with me:
Andy Sawford, the Chief Executive of the LGiU observed that being a councillor is “the highest form of community service.“
Caroline Flint, former Shadow Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government commented that councillors are special in being “ordinary enough to be representative, but extraordinary enough to be representatives.” (Confession, she actually said that at last year’s awards, but it’s a fine bit of rhetoric that deserves repeating.)
Eric Pickles, the Secretary of State for Local Government, and a former councillor himself, celebrated that “councillors come with a passion to make a difference to their community.“
The RSA’s report is quite old (it was published in 2010, although I’d not come across it until someone mentioned it to me recently) and I mention it because it is, sadly true. Yet the evidence of last night’s winners shows how much difference councillors can and do make to their communities.
This is not to belittle councillors or postmen – both have their roles – but instead to express a little sadness at the way society views or, more accurately, generally ignores those that undertake public service.
You need only take a moment to think about the huge amount of influence local councillors have over a local area, from keeping the streets clean and parks pleasant, to educating the young and looking after the elderly, it is local councillors who have the biggest direct impact on your local area.
But it often seems that they are overlooked, unless there’s something negative to say about them. And when it comes to electing a local council it’s often what’s happening in Whitehall not the Town Hall that determines people’s votes.
I know full well that, as a country, we give too much weight to the views of the Taxpayers’ Alliance and the Daily Mail. I stood for election knowing that, so can’t complain. But I do wish we sometimes paid a little more attention to the positives, like the very worthy winners of last night’s awards. Congratulations to them all.
Reading through the report, it’s hard to not form the conclusion that an administrative merger has taken place. While politically the three councils remain separate (and legislation would be required to change that) it’s clear that at every other level they are becoming increasingly intertwined.
Three things really stuck out of the report for me.
First, was the political honesty that the tri-borough plans were not universally supported – even within the controlling groups: “there are sceptics in our majority groups about Tri-borough,” the report reads. “Their arguments have been heard and listened to. They have helped make the proposals better and many hours of public and informal discussion on these plans have taken place.” A rare public reference to the internal arguments that happen in pretty much any large organisation, but especially political organisations. Rarely do any proposals spring into life fully formed and with unanimous support. However, many ideas are greatly improved by the internal debate. That debate does, and should, remain private – otherwise it could not take place – but I think we should acknowledge it more often.
Second, and undoubtedly related, is the focus on sovereignty; but I can’t help wondering what sovereignty actually means here. There may be a 19 point ‘Sovereignty Guarantee’, but it’s very hard to imagine how any of the councils could easily extricate themselves from the tri-borough arrangements when so many of their staff will be employed jointly by two or all three of the councils. I’m sure there are examples of organisations seceding from similar partnerships, but I’m finding it hard to think of any. Indeed, such a project becomes self-fulfilling, as more and more staff are appointed jointly and, therefore, have a bigger stake in making the joint arrangements work.
Third, is the success they have had. Their first annual report makes much of the impact of ‘Summer in the City’, a joint campaign, in improving public perception of the councils. But the same can be said of any publicity campaign, much more interesting is the list of savings contained in the appendix. While I’m sure there were all sorts of political arguments when those savings were made, it’s hard to sniff at a group of councils who are running things for £33 million less by removing duplication in their services. I suspect that most residents have noticed little, if any, impact on the services they receive.
My suspicion is that few people really care that much about what happens behind the frontline. Wandsworth has a highly rated library service, for example, but I don’t think have any idea that behind it is the London Library Consortium, through whom we get and manage stock, or that we are looking at jointly running services with Croydon. What most people using a library care about are the facilities it offers and whether they can get the books they want.
There are real gains to be had in removing much of the duplication in services and realising economies of scale to free up resources for the really important stuff that happens locally and makes an area special. Civic pride comes from what happens in their areas, and doesn’t care much about where a council’s human resources or legal services are based.
But the scale of the tri-borough project is something beyond the shared services taking place everywhere else. When I have done work with various partnerships around the country I would always ask focus groups: “Do you work for the council, police (or the health service, voluntary organisation, etc.) or the partnership?” The response was always telling and revealed a lot about the culture.
It would be interesting to see how officers from those three councils respond to a similar question in a few years time.
The central thrust is that allowing a degree of dissent and challenge results in better policy making. The example cited, from Tim Harford’s book Adapt, was from the Iraq war:
US commanders on the ground … discarded their orders and tried something different based on local needs and circumstances. Their counter-insurgency strategies, at a time when the US Defense Secretary was refusing to admit there was an insurgency at all, formed the basis of the eventual moves toward restoring a degree of stability. The US Army never fully embraced the mavericks – but did eventually learn from them.
The lesson: the conventional attributes of the well-functioning big organisation – aligned team; clear big picture vision; organisation dedicated to following the leadership – can lead to some horrible mistakes.
It goes on to refer to some of the institutional examples in the UK where people are licensed to openly dissent from the government that employs them, like the Chief Medical Officer (although it also mentions those that shouldn’t, but sometimes do, dissent like military chiefs).
However, I couldn’t help thinking of the government’s recent ‘U-turns’. Thanks to Margaret Thatcher these have an incredibly bad reputation, but perhaps David Cameron sees them as a deliberate policy. He might not know where the next U-turn will be, but he has the self-confidence to accept he doesn’t know everything and when there’s an uproar he might need to re-think.
Part of the bad reputation U-turns have come from a strange perception that admitting you were wrong is a bad thing; a perception I’ve don’t share (it’s nearly a year since I admitted to being a fan of – controlled – failure). The logical conclusion of a government that never changes its mind is a government that comes to office with an immutable set of beliefs and policies that will never change regardless of circumstances, a patent and dangerous nonsense.
Judging by opinion polls I can’t help wondering if Cameron has slayed the U-turn monster. Shouldn’t the Conservatives be in the polling doldrums, with Ed Miliband seen as the next Prime Minister? The fact that the Labour lead is nothing like what it should be and Ed Miliband is suffering the same sort of chatter that cursed William Hague from the start of his leadership suggests Cameron might have successfully sold the truth that it is possible to admit you’ve re-thought without a massive political penalty.
The risk is that the perception that U-turn equals weakness returns and if the story continues to be repeated U-turns in the face of opposition then return it will. But the easy antidote are a few strong stances: the hard policies that are so important to the government and won’t change. The problem starts when people remember all those malleable policies and none of the hard ones, a position I fear we are drifting towards. The Prime Minister’s saviour may well be coming on Thursday when the Unions give Cameron a high profile battle from which he won’t back down.
Many years ago, possibly before I even became a councillor, I remember wishing that I could observe politics without having such a strong self-interest. I was jealous of those who could be impartial commentators and able to watch events unfold with the disinterest that is only possible if you haven’t hitched yourself to one of the parties.
Of course, one day I will be able to do that. I no longer want to be an MP, I won’t be a councillor forever and having been an activist for over twenty years I can’t help but feel I’ve done my time. However, the alternative vote referendum has given me a little sample of what that life will be like.
Frankly, it’s not appealing.
Not because I found myself desperately wanting to be part of the process (although I inevitably found myself involved in the campaigning), but because I realised that to the observer politics just isn’t that appealing!
Perhaps annoyingly, as someone who believes passionately in the value of debate, this campaign has not served as an example to the world. Recent days – overshadowed by a wedding and a burial at sea as they were – were characterised far more by Huhne’s hissy fits than intellectual debate and argument on electoral reform. It’s been politics and not policy.
I have written before that I’m a supporter of first-past-the-post. But for most of this campaign I’ve been pretty much on the fence. A lot of this is because of my affection for the coalition. It turns out that the world did not stop spinning on its axis when we got a coalition government. In any case, AV is not much a proportional system and barely a change from FPTP – many have pointed out that it would have delivered even more decisive victories in elections like 1997, while last year’s hung parliament would still have been a hung parliament.
In fact, I came to realise that I was a floating voter. While my instincts may have been FPTP I couldn’t totally discount the arguments for AV.
But when I cast my vote today my cross will be in the ‘No’ box. And, if the polls are anything to go by, my experience is not uncommon.
Maybe it’s in my psychological make-up is conservative as well as Conservative so I needed persuading by the Yes campaign to move from a default no vote. But their campaign has been far from persuasive, the argument that a voting system affects the work rate of MPs is so weak as to be laughable. And the charge that there are “wasted votes” seems to suggest that votes only have value if they elect somebody and ignoring that AV, by definition invites up to 49% wastage in any case.
Under the current system we see landslides when they are needed, just as we’ve see second and third terms when they are needed. And while you might claim that AV forces parties and candidates to be more representative you can hardly deny that the past few decades have been dominated by a battle for the middle ground.
In fact it’s the sophistication of the electorate that really matters, not the sophistication of the electoral system. And I happen to think we have a very sophisticated electorate; who cast or with-hold their vote, remain loyal to their party, switch or vote tactically to get the result that the nation collectively wants or needs. And that’s why I’m hoping we stick with first-past-the-post.
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”.
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.
shifts power, data, and opportunities closer to where citizens live, perhaps by reducing bureaucracy, enabling different providers to operate services, or using the web and other means to allow more direct access,
seeks to harness cognitive surplus, presenting tasks and activities in more accessible ways by changing the way we think about them to appeal to our interests and passions,
strengthens social capital (particularly the bridging kind) by encouraging peer to peer activity online and offline,
finds ways to open its governance, funding, and surplus involving employees, members, and users using cooperative or other methods to create a strong sense of group ownership over the venture
Now, the language is not the best, even as someone who rather likes Clay Shirky’s concept of ‘cognitive surplus’ I cannot imagine any circumstance in which I would attempt to use the phrase. But the principle is an interesting one.
Despite some critics, the principle of Maslow is common-sense. Some needs take priority over others: you need air to breath and food to eat. Once you have them you can start thinking about shelter and security. Then onto more fulfilling needs like friends, family and self-development. Even blogging, if that’s a need…
But when you tie that back to government, it’s rooted firmly at the bottom. We’ve all heard variations of “the first duty of government is…” Most often it involves protection or security.
To a degree that has to be right. For example, as a council we have certain statutory duties. We need to protect the vulnerable. We have to provide housing for those that cannot get it themselves. We have to provide education. Perhaps, though, we need to think more about how we help people with those less existential needs.
One of the criteria of the Wandsworth Challenge is that it should improve the quality of life of our residents. I’ve touched on the problem with this before, that people all have different opinions, and what enhances one persons quality of life might diminish another’s. We could plough lots of money into, say, a Wandsworth Opera Company, but that would offer little direct benefit to those who don’t like opera.
A Maslow for government, therefore, should address those crucial needs (care, education, housing) but then act as an enabler. Nat Wei may be on to something – and while the wording needs work – it really needs to a test before decisions are taken, not a rating afterwards.
Having been a little cynical about the value of some meetings I found myself rather enjoying last night’s full council, despite it being a meeting in which I made no contribution other than voting.
The key debate was on the Bolingbroke free school, and free schools more generally. It was fascinating because, for the first time in a long long time we had a debate about policy at a full council meeting. Usually the debates are rather sterile, over a decision the council is taking. And while this was the same to a degree (the council has, of course, bought the Bolingbroke site from the NHS to create the school) it managed to go beyond it into the broader policy of free schools and education.
Before the election both parties were in favour of the free school. That has now changed for the Labour party. Indeed, listening last night I’m not sure they were ever really in favour of free schools, since they had some pretty fundamental objections. And that’s what made for a good debate – it wasn’t over a decision, it was over principle.
I’m a fan of free schools. I think it’s a good policy. I have faith in the individual to know what’s best for them, and their loved ones. So, just as I believe the NHS reforms are better because they are bring key parts of the NHS closer to the patients, I believe education reforms are better because they give more power to parents.
The Labour party line was two-fold. First, that we shouldn’t spend money on a new school when there was a deficit. This, of course, misses the point that purchasing a school site is a one-off, whereas the deficit is something that recurs every single year – we could use the money to plug the gap, but it would be swallowed after something like four months. The school will remain an asset, and one that brings in rental from the school.
The second was that this is an issue of the have and have-nots. The evidence they offered in support of this was that Northcote, where the Bolingbroke is sited, is one of the borough’s more affluent wards.
Actually the distinction is between the wills and will nots.
Edward Lister, responding to the debate, spoke of his ambition of seeing free schools across the borough. The locations of the schools is not defined by the council, but by the parents. If they want a free school, they can start one and the council will support them. There is no compulsion to either set one up or just sit back and use the existing state provision.
It might be valid to comment that, of course, the policy is skewed towards the more affluent, because they have the wherewithal to organise and set up a school. But I’ve always been uncomfortable with this argument, which seems to me a horribly patronising attitude to suggest a whole group of people are capable of nothing else than being meek clients of the state.
It might well be that we haven’t got the necessary support in place to help people set these schools up (it’s a new policy and I think everyone is learning as they go), but that’s a totally different argument.
But as the debate drew towards an end I heard what I think was the most convincing argument in favour of a free school. And it came from Labour’s Andy Gibbons, their education spokesman! The problem, he explained, was about equality. It’s all very well having a school like the proposed academy at Bolingbroke, but it’s just not fair that it would be better than other schools. And that shocked me; shocked me and persuaded me that the free school was the right thing. Equality is one thing, but essentially they were arguing for absolute equality, uniform education and uniform standards, across the borough. An homogenised education system in which everyone succeeds – or fails – at the same level, where schools have no incentive to improve and parents can only exercise real choice if they are lucky enough to be able to afford private education.
We readily accept competition in so many parts of our life. It’s natural, and we see the benefits, it gives us choice; businesses have to ensure they are offering something different (whether that’s on price, quality or experience) that attracts the ‘customer’. We never (well, rarely) hear the argument that segments of society are unable to take advantage of this competition, so we should close Asda, Tesco, Sainsbury’s and Waitrose in favour of a state provided supermarket.
The Bolingbroke Academy enhances the ‘competition’. The benefits are not restricted just to that school, but to all the schools that have to ensure they are attracting pupils. And those benefits are not limited just to the area, but will be realised anywhere that enough parents want to set up their own free school.
It’s a valid question. And not one I’ve ever found an easy answer to. When asked socially I usually find myself fudging; “I work in local government” I’ll mumble, prompting a discussion about bin collections (this is regardless of where the conversation takes place, no-one asks if I work for their local authority or if my job has anything to do with refuse contracts).
I’ve been thinking about it a lot because of the move towards greater local government transparency. You can now look up council spending over £500. I publish the public meetings I attend in my feeble attempt at open data. But do any of these help anyone answer what I do? They certainly don’t help me.
Part of the difficulty is around the unique nature of the political leadership role. As a councillor you help shape the policy that directs the council, but it’s intangible. Everyone understands ‘management’ – you have staff and you tell them what to do. Leadership? That’s different. I might help set or, more realistically, shape policy but it’s hard to firmly illustrate what difference that makes. Always there is the question of whether it would have happened anyway. If you take open data as an example, I’ve been banging on about it for far too long – and while I like to think I might have shaped the council’s approach by, say, ensuring we have an open data licence, who’s to say it wouldn’t have happened anyway?
This post is, partly, prompted by a post on the Local Government Information Unit blog raising the idea of ‘public goal setting’. It annoyed me, because I’d been thinking about doing just that. Now it just looks like I’m idly talking about copying someone else’s idea.
This is especially the case because my thought processes were started by something very similar to the post – the realisation that if you want any idea of what I’m doing as a councillor or executive member in Wandsworth, the very last place you should look is at my meeting attendance on my open data page! The problem with meeting attendance as a measure is that it doesn’t give any indication of the value of that meeting.
A simple test I use is to ask whether anyone’s life was improved by my attendance. All too often the answer is no.
This is not to say that the meetings are useless, or that the meetings I attend are all useless. But some can be. Take, for example, Wandsworth executive meetings. In the Wandsworth system they act as a rubber stamp, since discussion should to take place in the relevant OSC meetings. The only time I actually make a difference at an executive is if my attendance makes the meeting quorate, a situation that happens very rarely. You could argue that a high attendance rate at those meetings is a bad thing, since (theoretically) I could be doing something more valuable elsewhere.
So how do you know what I’m doing as a councillor?
In part this was because we’d consciously decided the best approach was behind the scenes. Of course, I could have posted something along those lines. But even if you assume those old posts would be easily found, it would mean there’d be a lot of short posts made just in case something became an issue.
So my thinking had been not so much the ‘public goals’ as outlined by the LGIU, but a ‘public project list’. Essentially a listing of the things that I was doing (or sometimes not doing) to illustrate that they had my attention.
Of course there are problems. It won’t be a complete list for all sorts of reasons. For a start, I can’t include everything, but where should the cut-off be? How ‘big’ a project should be on there? Should I include casework, suitably anonymised, or are anonymised cases too meaningless to have value? And what about the detail – do I put down ‘Wandsworth Challenge’ as one item, or do the fifty or so ideas currently identified get their own mentions? How do I disentangle those things that all three ward councillors are working on, or show those issues that one of us is handling for the other two? And what about the politics?
The politics are tricky. Because I can see how this becomes a list of nice ideas that just never get delivered, and do I really want to see myself castigated for failing to deliver on ambition? Or do I play it safe, but then get accused of not being ambitious enough?
But one thing that has really attracted me to the idea was acting, once again, as a judge in the LGIU’s ‘C’llr’ awards (which are presented this evening). What really sticks out from them is the difference made by councillors who have absolute clarity on one or two key goals or projects. Their dedication to it, and in dragging along a council (which might not be controlled by their party) makes a huge difference. And that clarity is readily apparent to the people they work with and the people they serve.
In fact, the real killer question, the one that has stopped me actually doing this for so long: how on earth do I illustrate this? It might be a slightly geeky question since I’m thinking about the design, and perhaps even thinking of the software behind it. But I’m also thinking about that clarity. How do I clearly illustrate what’s got my attention as a councillor and what I’m trying to do?
I used the image of a departure board to illustrate this because I think it’s a good metaphor (and inspired by a software company who do something similar): everyone understands the travel metaphor, they can see the destination, they can see the stops on the way. And perhaps all too often they can understand there are delays. Would something similar work for councillors…?
What do you think? Are you actually happy if I just ‘be’ a councillor? Or do you want to know what I ‘do’ instead? And how do you want to be told?
Someone came to my surgery on Saturday, though not as a result of my post (at least they didn’t mention it, if it was). I’m afraid that it doesn’t change my opinion on the value of surgeries, it’s still the first time anyone has attended a surgery session I’ve run for the life of this blog. And while looking through the surgery log it still seems to average about one attendee per session, I still think we could be more imaginative about the way we do these things.
But what really struck me on Saturday was the realisation that I’ve probably had to tell most of the people I’ve seen in 12 years of surgeries that I’m sympathetic, but just can’t help. Why? Not because I’m lazy or unwilling, but because I’d guess the bulk of my visitors at surgeries (like Saturday) are about re-housing. We have well-defined rules and policies when it comes to deal with housing applications, and obviously these can’t bend to suit the will of a councillor. I can check they have been correctly placed in the housing queue (make sure medical conditions or overcrowding have been correctly reflected, for example) but can’t do anything to get them a home any quicker.
What really struck me on Saturday was how the current housing system of secure tenancies fail the people who need them. I’ve touched on the subject before and – without breaking any confidences – the case I saw on Saturday was typical example of how those in need are let down.
It was a family in severely overcrowded accommodation. And, realistically, their only option was to sit and wait.
We know we have properties that are big enough, but we also know that people are reluctant to leave them, even when they don’t need all the rooms, all the time – often they want to keep spare rooms for when family visit. We therefore end up ‘buying’ rooms by offering an incentive payment for people who release a larger property.
The family who are waiting could look to the private sector. But that doesn’t have the same security, and they will inevitably move further down the queue for the large council property they want, so there is little incentive to take the risk. As a result people who do want a smaller property lose out because that hasn’t been freed up.
I’m not sure I have the answer. The council has an important role as a provider of housing, it is de facto the landlord of last resort. But it seems wrong that the secure tenancy means that the system moves so slowly that people can spend most of their life in a home that is the wrong size – first in an overcrowded house, then a few years in a house that’s the right size, then as children leave the home the rest of their lives in a house that’s too big!
I can see why people need to have security. But surely the balance is wrong when it leaves so many people without the home they should have.
I have been a rubbish blogger recently. In my defence the dream of mainly working from (a small) home hasn’t been so dreamlike since the birth of our second child! The result has been that a lot has had to suffer, including this blog. I want to, and will, keep it going, but why? What motivates me? It takes time, generates no income and – while undoubtedly a good thing for someone who’s elected to do – is not essential and I’m first to admit is ignored by far more Wandsworth residents than read it!
I came across this video from the RSA the other day, and was struck by the relevance of it to, well, pretty much anything but particularly the Big Society and Wandsworth Challenge, so it wasn’t that surprising a day later when I read about exactly the same research in Jesse Norman’s book Big Society!
The crux of it is that money is not the motivator it is often thought to be. Once comfortable, other things drive us more (one of the examples used is why on earth anyone would want to play a musical instrument as a hobby, since it brings no income only cost). The research suggests that these are:
Autonomy: The freedom to do things without direction or compulsion
Mastery: The ability to gain proficiency in an activity
Purpose: A reason, a calling, for doing something
All of these are available from the Big Society and the Wandsworth Challenge. People will have the freedom (autonomy) to run services or schemes that benefit their neighbourhoods (purpose) and, of course, the right to run them as well as they can (mastery).
It’s a classic example that there’s more to life than money, and as most people forced to play a musical instrument as a child will testify, it’s a lot more enjoyable when compulsion is replaced with voluntary desire.