For the first time ever I got a performance report on councillor correspondence.

I had been emailed—I suspected with lots of others—by a business looking for a trading location. It was a fairly simple email to deal with, I replied, unable to immediately think of anywhere suitable but also forwarded their enquiry to the council’s economic development team (they have also followed up with the business).

Today the business emailed again with a thank-you for the response and the fascinating information that they had emailed 227 councillors and had 33 responses (a 14½% response rate). I have no idea who the 227 or the 33 were, and since the time between the two emails was fairly short I’m sure more would have subsequently replied.

But it set me wondering what people think are acceptable standards for councillors responses. Most public (and private) bodies will have targets for responding to enquiries and even as a councillor, rather than dealing with the relevant officers, I have to channel most enquiries through a central team who issue me with a reference number and a target date for a response. This type of behaviour must set an expectation of standards of service from public servants.

I certainly try to acknowledge emails within a few days but actually answering can take longer if I need to investigate something. The WriteToThem.com zeitgeist suggests councillors do pretty well at responding (considering they would be the only category on the list who don’t have dedicated staff to handle correspondence coming 2% behind MPs is good going). But I can’t help wondering if members of the public would agree 53% is good.

Room 123, Wandsworth Town Hall
One of the centres of Wandsworth democracy, room 123.

Today is #ourday on Twitter. It’s an old trick used by plenty of other organisations before, and highlights the astonishing variety of work often undertaken by councils but equally often unnoticed by residents. While there are a few using the hashtag for a bit of local government bashing I think there is huge value in illustrating how exactly how much a typical council does for its residents, individually or collectively, each day.

I’m sure there are plenty of councillors taking part, I will not be one of them but it has made me think about what a councillor actually is, and what residents expect of their councillors. In some whats it is easier to say what a councillor isn’t.

I am not responsible for housing allocations. I can take up issues with the housing department, but can’t get you a house any quicker or get you a bigger house than you’ve been assessed as needing.

I cannot really help with parking tickets. If they’ve been issued, you’ll have to go through the formal appeal process; I can guide you, but it won’t make any difference to your chances.

I’m not a schools admissions officer. Generally the schools themselves decide their admissions policy and they are applied scrupulously; as a parent I have to take my chances the same as anyone else.

I have no control over planning, I can represent residents at a planning committee, but the decision will be up to the committee I can’t get applications approved or rejected.

And these shortcomings can’t be rectified with cash, whatever you think about politicians.[1]

In short, as a councillor I have no power.

So what can I do? Well, I hope I have helped guide many residents through some of those council procedures and policies, sometimes successfully, sometimes not, but always ensuring they get a fair crack of the whip. And I hope I’ve ensured that issues are raised and fully aired, even if that sometimes means helping both sides of an argument or helping promote a view with which I disagree.

And, of course, I have been a part in approving those policies and–from time to time–shaping or creating them. But it’s always as part of a collective process. One of the strengths of local government is in that collective process: two heads are better than one, and in Wandsworth there are 60 heads all bringing different expertise and experience to the issues.

And if, after all that, you are wondering what attracted me to being a councillor when there is no power the answer is simple: I do it for the glamour.


  1. To be fair I’m only aware of two occasions in my fifteen years as a councillor when it seemed someone was offering me a bribe to get something done.  ↩

A leaflet produced by the City and County of Swansea on the different roles of local councillors
Swansea’s take on being a councillor (click to see full-size)

I’ve thought rather a lot about this leaflet from Swansea council since I saw it on the Localopolis blog in the middle of last month. Part of that is because, despite its simplicity, it’s a good assessment of what a councillor actually is (or could be).

But moving past the desire to self-evaluate I was drawn to a contradiction. As a councillor I’m most drawn to the campaigner role (though probably score poorly, at least publicly, on that): thinking to the few times I was on the judging panel for the LGiU’s Cllr Awards it was always the campaigners that tended to impress. They showed a passion and a dogged determination for their causes that got results. The problem was that those causes were often sectional, like environmental issues or aiding a small group within their community.

However, do most members of the public really want that? Aren’t they more interested in the caseworker, or the signposter? My guess is that you can put these six roles on a spectrum (probably in the same order as on the leaflet) and that’s what people expect of their councillors, and politicians generally. Whereas I’d probably rank them in the reverse order (except with a high-ranking for ‘decision maker’).

These roles aren’t exclusive, of course, being a campaigning councillor doesn’t mean you aren’t also a caseworker – though obviously there are limits on time – but it did leave me wondering if there is a mismatch between the expectations of the elected and the electorate.

Room 123, Wandsworth Town Hall
One of the centres of Wandsworth democracy, room 123.

Is this an annual report? I don’t think so really, not by any stretch of the imagination but last year I posted on my attendance rate at Wandsworth Council meetings. I’m not sure how useful it was, personally, I think rating councillors according to town hall meetings is a poor indication of their effectiveness: would I be better going to 100% and achieving nothing, or just 25% of meetings and getting something out of them?

However, I record the data and I rather like playing with numbers. So, a breakdown of my 2011–2012 council year.

I’m including only some of the meetings I attend, basically the ‘public’ meetings. These represent only a fraction of the meetings I attend, but they form those which are part of the formal decision-making process or those I am appointed as a council representajtive.

Overall

Overall I managed to attend 81% of meetings, missing nine out of 48. This is remarkably similar to last year, when I also managed an 81% attendance rate (missing eleven out of 58). The numerical decrease represents a change to a much less diverse portfolio, indeed, a number of the meetings at the beginning of the municipal year were ‘hang-overs’ from my old job. (One, the hate crime forum, still lingers, but more on that later.)

Council meetings

2011–2012: 89% attendance (eight out of nine meetings).
2010–2011: 90% attendance (nine out of ten meetings).

While these are at the top of the tree in the democratic process they are often rather stale affairs: at the end of the democratic process when most of the arguments have been had. Often I will not play any role in the meeting at all.

Executive

2011–2012: 75% attendance (six out of eight meetings).
2010–2011: 71% attendance (ten out of fourteen meetings).

I’m actually surprised this is that high. Executive meetings tend to be short, rubber-stamp meetings that are often timed in seconds; they are easy to miss.

Adult Care and Health OSC

2011–2012: 100% attendance (one meeting).
2010–2011: 100% attendance (six meetings).

Nothing like a 100% record. But very easy when there’s only one meeting. This is one of those hangover meetings that I attended while my old role was dismantled.

Environment, Culture and Community Safety OSC

2011–2012: 100% attendance (three meetings).
2010–2011: 100% attendance (seven meetings).

This is an odd meeting since only a tiny part of my current role sits within the OSC’s remit (and arguably also sits within another committee’s remit too). I only attend when relevant items are on the agenda which doesn’t happen that often.

Hate Crime Forum

2011–2012: 50% attendance (two out of four meetings).
2010–2011: 100% attendance (three meetings).

This is a lingering meeting from my old council role. I’ve retained the chairmanship of this while it – hopefully – moves to a self-sustaining community-led format. My poor attendance was down to bad luck, with a nasty chest infection and a bout of bad ’flu coinciding with the meetings.

Health and Wellbeing Board

2011–2012: 100% attendance (four meetings).
2010–2011: 100% attendance (two meetings).

Again, a hangover meeting which I attended while my role was dismantled and a suitable replacement council representative found and formally nominated to the membership.

Nine Elms Strategy Board

2011–2012: 80% attendance (four out of five meetings).
2010–2011: not a member.

A new meeting for this year. I missed one because it clashed with my holiday, which had already been booked before my appointment.

Shaftesbury Park Governors

2011–2012: 67% attendance (two out of three meetings).
2010–2011: 0% attendance (none out of three meetings)

I had a shocker with this last year, every meeting clashing with something else. My diary was a lot better this year, I missed one meeting because of a clash, but was able to attend the other two.

South West London NHS Joint Boards

2011–2012: 50% attendance (one out of two meetings).
2010–2011: 100% attendance (two meetings).

Another one of those hangovers. I gave apologies to a formal meeting that was merely convened to ratify the accounts.

Strategic Planning and Transportation OSC

2011–2012: 100% attendance (five meetings).
2010–2011: did not have a relevant portfolio.

This committee’s remit covers the lion’s share of my current role.

Wandsworth Employment and Skills Partnership

2011–2012: 100% attendance (four meetings).
2010–2011: not a member.

Another new meeting.

Wandsworth Local Strategic Partnership

2011–2012: 100% attendance (one meeting).
2010–2011: 75% attendance (three out of four meetings).

An easy 100%, only one meeting to attend! I am still formally a member of this (I think) although it has not met for some time and I suspect will either be wound up or have a much different role in the future.

Wandsworth Police Consultative Committee

2011–2012: 0% attendance (missed one meeting).
2010–2011: 60% attendance (three out of five meetings).

Given that I got a few 100%s from single meetings, it’s only fair I should get a zero somewhere. Another hangover meeting, related to my old portfolio. It clashed with another meeting.

And in conclusion…
Do you have any better idea of what I do as a councillor? Or whether I’m any good at it?I’m guessing no. But what would help you answer those questions?

...and where am I going? (Photo CC licensed on flickr by masochismtango)

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?

The blog might be one way, but it’s far from perfect. Take a comment on a post about the Belleville/Vines issue that, essentially, accused me of jumping on a band-wagon. On reflection, that’s probably how it appeared. There had been one post about the issue before (I don’t know if the commenter had read it), and I’d even corresponded with him last year, but there wasn’t an easily visible trail of what we’d been doing.

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?

A proportionate montage of what a Battersea councillor might have been spending their time on over the past few months.

One of the questions I’ve been asked a few times recently is what a councillor actually does. I don’t think I’ve ever given a satisfactory answer. However, it does provide an excuse to post this.

While I was sat in the library with no-one showing up for my surgery – again – I made a note of the numbers and categories of attendees at previous surgeries. It rather left thinking that my two year run of no-shows was personal, since the average Battersea surgery in the fifteen weeks in the log book was attended by just over one person (just over two if you include the councillor).

I hope I’m not treading on colleagues toes in publishing this (I’m only interested in the attendees), but felt it was vaguely interesting.

Taking the broad category of complaint the numbers broke down as follows:

  • Housing: 6
  • Transport/parking: 3
  • Financial: 3
  • Crime: 2
  • Planning: 2
  • Education: 1

It holds up my theory that housing is the biggest generator of casework for councillors, although it seems, for the Battersea area at least, it’s not quite as big as I thought.

Of course, those broad headings can cover all sorts of cases. And although there’s a fairly clear set of topic categories and sub-categories (28 in total) there’s obviously a lot of grey areas between some of them. For example (and off the top if my head, I don’t know the details of the specific cases above) the ‘crime’ category includes anti-social behaviour, some of which can also be covered by environmental services, for example noise nuisance and might be categorised differently.

I still don’t think it answers the question. But it gives a little flavour, at least.

[Two of the images used were released by their owners under a Creative Commons licence. The money by HowardLake and the plans by MarkyBon]

I’m currently reading “More Blood, More Sweat and More Tea”, the second book from the Random Acts of Reality blog of an east London emergency medical technician (ambulance driver, to most, although he’s in the process of moving back to nursing).

While it’s strange reading a blog in that way (and both his books are available for free in the iBooks store if you have an iPhone/Pad/Pod Touch) it did make me realise that I don’t actually do blog posts about ‘being’ a councillor.

I’m not sure if this is a good or a bad thing.

I’ve always seen this as primarily a personal blog, but clearly a lot is focused on the things I’m doing as a councillor and there isn’t that much ‘personal’ posting. Oddly my Twitter stream is quite different. Last night, for example, I posted two (tongue-in-cheek) Tweets about how being a councillor is a bad thing.

The first a ‘complaint’ when I was en route to the Town Hall facing a long night but seeing hordes of people enjoying themselves in the bars and restaurants of Lavender and St John’s Hills.

The second shortly after midnight when I’d only just got home straight from the meeting, not via a pub!

(By way of balance I’m compelled to offer a link to the ‘Be A Councillor’ campaign.)

Of course, I can’t really moan about what I’m doing. I’ve volunteered for it on four separate occasions, most recently this May. It’s not as if I’ve been conscripted or not had the opportunity to think about whether what I do is worthwhile or enjoyable.

But I rarely, if ever, blog about any of those feelings or thought processes. In part because I worry about confidentiality (should I blog about casework, even if the names and details are changed to provide anonymity?). The main reason, however, is because I imagine that everyone else would find it dull. It’s like any ‘job’ in that it has its up and down but what it certainly doesn’t have is the drama or human interest that a job in the emergency services can offer a blog. And as a self-described politician-lite I can’t offer any insight that would thrill an audience used to The West Wing or even The Thick of It.

So I’ve unconsciously made the decision that no-one would be interested and have ended up writing a personal blog that actually isn’t all that personal. But should that change?

I seem to have stopped taking photos this year – so the cup of tea is getting a few outings – not that photos of meetings or a fairly damp and dreary London are any more exciting.

Councillor Awards
I started the week off acting as a judge for the Local Government Information Unit’s first national councillor awards. While I’ve judged a few things in Wandsworth (most recenty the SNT award) this is the first time I’ve been part of a national award’s judging panel.

It was certainly a fascinating, and humbling, experience – and a real privilege to be asked. Seeing what councillors and local government around the country are achieving was an inspiration.

While the winners aren’t announced for a few weeks (they all find out at a conference at the Emirates next month) I can, of course, start acting on that inspiration.

Wandsworth LSP
The Local Strategic Partnership is one of those bodies that exist in every local authority that no-one actually knows about.

The name gives away what it is (or should be) it’s a high level partnership of everyone involved in the local area – the council is an obvious member, but they are joined by the police, local health service, local businesses and charities to help set the overall direction of the area. The partnership in Wandsworth works remarkably well, and has certainly improved enormously since I first joined (that is a function of a change in the partners around the table, rather than my joining).

One interesting point that came up (I think from one of the health service representatives) was the amount of work we can create for local businesses when tendering contracts.

Until fairly recently it would have been illegal to consider bids on anything but price and quality, though this has relaxed recently, but is an issue that I’ve been looking at over the years. One thing I wouldn’t want to do is start putting a price on location. Is being Wandsworth based worth a £1,000 or £10,000? And what happens if a company moved mid-contract?

The key problem, though, is that Wandsworth is predominantly a small business economy and the public sector is forced to be quite restrictive. For example, we require significant financial guarantees and will look through a company’s accounts to ensure the public money we are spending is at as little risk as possible. These have certainly deterred businesses in the past and often a small company just won’t have been in existence long enough to meet these requirements.

But we can improve access for local businesses by advertising the opportunities and providing advice on how to bid and this is something we are starting to improve. We have long been accessible to local businesses (through things like the Wandsworth Business Forum, the next one being on Monday) and are always willing to advise and help a business compete for our contracts.

Nine Elms Opportunity Board
My last meeting of the week was the Nine Elms Opportunity Board. Now that the area is finally starting to develop this is becoming an exciting meeting again (for years its meetings seemed to be just to discuss what wasn’t happening).

The body was initially formed to try and maximise the benefits to local residents of the development of the Power Station site and the report from Job Centre Plus was interesting. Yesterday I highlighted the small drop in Wandsworth’s JSA claims, but apparently the movement in the market is considerably higher than this time last year. So while there were only a few job vacancies being reported at the beginning to 2009 there are plenty being reported and filled this year. Perhaps we can start being a little more confident about the end of the recession.

Back in 2003 we were delighted the overgrowth had been cut back to reveal mud for everyone to enjoy
Back in 2003 we were delighted the overgrowth had been cut back to reveal mud for everyone to enjoy

It is not without hypocrisy that I point you towards Glum Councillors – a collection of hard-working councillors working hard at pointing out potholes. I confess I was impressed by the care taken by some in donning high-visibility clothing before venturing onto the road.

The ‘councillors points at pothole’ is a classic, and seems to be something of a Lib Dem favourite. Some cynically suggest they even get lists of work programmes from their local councils to take photos just before they are repaired. But however it’s done, you can’t deny it presents a, um, memorable image.

I don’t think I’ve ever pointed at a pothole, but I’m sure I’ve committed other councillor photography sins (I’ve certainly watched a phone box being removed, and recently stood on the side of a road before a new safety scheme was installed). My favourite, however, is the one featured here…

We’d managed to get a fairly grubby patch of land on Falcon Lane (the road that runs between Lavender Hill and Falcon Road past Asda) cleaned up. And what better way to celebrate this than have three men stand on the now clear patch of mud. In front of an ‘Out of Service’ bus.

Man in nappyOh, and what’s the in the background. That ad on the side of the bus passing on Lavender Hill. Yes, a man in a nappy, that will really sum up the joy we feel about the cleanup.

(Incidentally, I recall the ad on the bus was for a TV channel or show, the concept being that you wouldn’t want to miss a second, so you’d wear a nappy.  I did try and find out and did a Google for ‘man in nappy advert’.  I wouldn’t recommend you try it.)

After I asked for suggestions on where I might take the blog yesterday one of the comments expressed disappointment that it wasn’t asking what issues I might take up!

So now I’m asking, are there any issues, concerns or problems with which I can help?

I make the offer from time to time and usually get a few responses as a result, but it’s a standing invitation.  You can get in touch at any time.  Full contact details are on my contact page, but, to save you going there you can email me at cllr@jamescousins.com, find me on twitter as @jamescousins or, if you want, leave a comment below.

But please remember, you don’t need to wait for an invitation!