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.
  • And finally, although not at last night’s event, the RSA in their report Connected Communities (PDF) state: “more people recognise and find value in their postman than their local councillor.

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.

John Redwood is not everyone’s cup of tea, even within the Conservative Party, and while I don’t read his blog that often he has an interesting post today.

Asking (but not answering) the question Do Councillors want to be free? he discusses the problems of officer led authorities:

Labour arrived in office in 1997 keen to give Councils more powers, only to sink them under the biggest weight of circulars, regulations , controls and money with strings attached that local government has ever seen. By April 2010 local government in the UK was just the outpost of Whitehall in each community, implementing Labour’s policies across the board… there is a generation of senior officers in local government who only know how to work under Labour’s top down down target driven highly bureaucratic system. Their first impulse when they hear of the Coalition’s changes is to ask “What have they put in place of whatever the government is scrapping?” “What does the government want us to do instead?”

And he’s absolutely right. There’s a real problem with officer-led authorities that don’t, by definition, react well to political change. Time and time again you see council’s change political complexion because of an unpopular administration, only for the incoming party to do pretty much the same and be just as unpopular. The reason is often because the officers are in charge and the politicians haven’t got a grip.

Wandsworth is almost unique in managing, all the way back in 1978, to wield political authority of councillors over officers and making the council different enough for people to have a good reason to vote Conservative, rather than going back to Labour, in the 80s. But for every Wandsworth there are dozens of other councils where it doesn’t matter who wins the election, the officers are still in charge.

But part of the problem, to answer his question, is that I think many councillors do not want to be free. If you’ve just got your feet under the desk after years in opposition it must be incredibly daunting. There will be a certain comfort in following the advice of officers, they are, after all, the experts. And soon you’ll have got on top of things and can take control.

The problem is that your window of opportunity is small. While I have faith in the government to continue its localising agenda I also know that the lesson of history is that every government centralises.

After removing the ring-fences of so many grants Monday saw the announcement of, yes, a ring-fenced budget. Once the health reforms are through public health spending will be ring-fenced.

Hopefully not a sign of things to come, but perhaps a warning to newly elected leaders that they shouldn’t waste a second in making their marks.

Last night gave us the first taste of what the new council is going to be like with our first full (if not ordinary) council meeting since the election.

While the meeting was a ‘special’ council there was still enough there to give a flavour of the next four years. The agenda was fairly light, approval of the new committee structure and executive (I’m now the inelegantly and tautologically titled cabinet member for health, community safety and partnerships) and a bit of a discussion on the reduced fee for Big Lunch street parties. But that was still enough for a couple of maiden speeches and questions from the new members.

And impressive they were, even on the Labour side! It was clear that Labour are no longer reliant on Tony Belton (for whom I have a great deal of respect) but now have several able and talented councillors to support him. And the contributions from our side also showed that we’ve become stronger as a group and the new intake are going to be a superb addition to the council and the borough.

Of course, just being able to speak at a council meeting doesn’t make someone a good councillor. But chatting with colleagues (new and old) after the meeting confirmed my opinions from the meeting.

The public sector is now into one of the most challenging times it has ever faced, but to match it I think we’ve got the most talented set of councillors I’ve known in my time in Wandsworth.

I have been wondering exactly how you describe the role of a councillor for quite a while. This was partly prompted when a business owner in the borough recently asked where I fitted in relation to their Town Centre Manager (a council employee) and other Economic Development Office staff. And it’s also prompted by a bit of CV writing; being a councillor is not a full-time role, and I try to fill the rest of my time with some freelance work (not helped by the recession) so constantly tinker with my CV.

In turn, this post was prompted by a post on The Local Government Officer that declared ‘local government is a lot like cricket‘ and used the analogy to categorise various types of councillor (thanks to Ingrid Koehler at the Policy and Performance blog for highlighting it).  The comparison is fairly simple, essentially batsman have the vision and drive the council forward, bowlers scrutinise the batsman and keep an eye on what they are doing and fielders are the community based politicians dealing with casework.  It is an interesting analogy.

The MP/Councillor comparison
A more commonly used comparison is with Parliament, and to see councillors as some form of ‘MP lite’.  This always reminds me of the late Tony Banks’ comments on MPs being a “sort of high-powered social worker and perhaps not even a good one,” not because I share his analysis that casework is tedious, but because it always seemed that a goodly chunk of an MP’s casework would be better directed towards councillors.  Indeed, from time to time Martin Linton directed his residents towards me – though this seems to have stopped now he’s defending a small majority.

In many ways the MP comparison is a better one, if only because most people have an understanding of how Parliament and Government work and can translate this to the local level.  Both have Cabinets which are responsible for the overall direction and vision, and Cabinet Members with individual portfolios.  Parliament as a whole scrutinises the work of the Government, in much the same way as councillors scrutinise the work of the council Cabinet.  And finally councillors have a casework load, not as large as an MP’s, because we tend to have a lower profile, but equally we don’t have a staffed office to help process it.

The councillor and officer relationship
What I find harder to explain is the relationship between councillors and officers.  And this relationship is the key relationship when it comes to councillors delivering results to their residents.  Councillors do not repair roads or collect rubbish, that is done by council employees.  I’ve illustrated two possible comparisons for councillors, but struggle to come up with a widely understood comparison for the way councillors ‘lead’ their council.  Primarily our work is based around medium and long term results, rather than initiating immediate actions.  Councillors are sort of non-executive directors, but I don’t think that’s a readily understood comparison, how many people know what a non-executive director does?!

And this creates problems because there is so much a councillor just cannot do.  I cannot, for example, help you with your parking ticket unless I saw the ticket being incorrectly issued.  I cannot help you with your housing problems, I can only raise your case and have it re-examined.  In cases like this I’m limited to the role of advocate; and with good reason, if councillors were able to influence these decisions it would not take a great leap of imagination to see lots of councillors parking with impunity and living in some of the best council properties going.

I don’t know if I just lack imagination in coming up with a simple metaphor, and hope someone will tell me if there is one.  I tend to use the MP/Cabinet member model, but I’m not sure many people fully understand the relationship between politicians and civil servants, and their expectations of central and local government are different in any case.  But in the absence of anything better, it will do because I think for engagement to really work well, there has to be a good understanding of both positions; council and resident.

Last night I Tweeted from Wandsworth’s council tax setting meeting. You can see the Tweets in my last post. As with anything in life, it’s worth a little bit of reflection.

Why I did it
It seemed a worthy experiment, but beyond that I can’t give any really good reasons. I’d seen a few examples of it happening elsewhere, but hadn’t seen any examples that I thought had ‘worked’; none had members of the public had responded or engaged during the meeting, and they seemed one way.  Obviously I don’t know how much interaction took place via direct message or after the event.  I’m sure someone can point me to an example where it did work.

How it went – Engagement
Was it successful ‘engagement’? Did people actually read it? I think the answer is yes. There were at least 4 Wandsworth residents reading and Tweeting during the meeting, and at least one afterwards. It’s obviously impossible to tell how many others read but did not Tweet about it.

Admittedly 4 is not a huge number, but it’s also 4 more than you usually get in the public gallery at a meeting. The argument I would make is that anything that increases involvement and engagement is a good thing. I rather suspect that, overall, far more residents will read those Tweets than will read the council’s minutes.

But do people really want to be involved in the formal decision making processes of the council. This is where I have doubts, last night perhaps had a certain novelty value – but given that hardly anyone bothers with the public gallery isn’t that a message that residents look for their engagement elsewhere, perhaps where they can interact and have their say rather than just listening to councillors?

How it went – doing it
It was much harder work than I expected. There is, clearly, a skill to summarising in 140 characters, giving a flavour of the meeting but not overloading followers with unnecessary Tweets. Perhaps I don’t have that skill, because it took effort to keep the Tweets up to date, respond to incoming Tweets and follow the discussions.

I was speaking in the debate on the council’s response to the recession and decided not to Tweet so I could concentrate on what was being said and plan what I was going to say in response. The consequence was that the most interesting discussion of the evening went untwittered.

Will I do it again?
Probably not. I don’t expect huge waves of disappointment, it was an interesting experiment but not one I’m planning on repeating.

My view would change if there were other councillors, even from the other side, to share the load, but as (currently) the council’s lone Twitterer it is quite a burden. It definitely does change your view and approach to the meeting and leaves you a little detached while you analyse and think of Tweets and that was something I didn’t enjoy.

Additionally, I suspect I might have breached the council’s standing orders by Tweeting during the meeting!

As always, I’m interested in your thoughts, you can always comment below, contact me or even follow me on Twitter.

As an experiment I posted some updates from last night’s council meeting. They follow, in chronological order below, along with a few others that didn’t carry the #wwcnl hashtag. Most notably the shocking revelation that I stayed up to watch Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason when I got back. I am in touch with my feminine side.

It’s worth highlighting the second tweet from me, these will have some political bias.

From: jamescousins at 18:49, Tue 10 Mar
As an experiment I’ll be Tweeting from tonight’s council tax setting. Feel free to join in, I don’t want to be the only one using #wwcnl

From: mario at 18:51, Tue 10 Mar
RT @jamescousins I’ll be Tweeting from tonight’s council tax setting. Feel free to join in, I don’t want to be the only one using #wwcnl

From: jamescousins at 18:53, Tue 10 Mar
I should add that I’m a Cabinet member and I’m the council’s controlling group, ao won’t be entirely impartial. #wwcnl

From: jamescousins at 19:06, Tue 10 Mar
That’s the first bit out of the way, the Executive have formally recommended a 0% increase. #wwcnl

From: jamescousins at 19:30, Tue 10 Mar
Kicking off the formal meeting now, in the Civic Suite following the roof collapse in the Chamber. #wwcnl

From: jamescousins at 19:47, Tue 10 Mar
Formalities, including tributes to former Cllr Julian Proudman, and a petition from Eccles Road residents done, now onto questions. #wwcnl

From: jamescousins at 20:02, Tue 10 Mar
Fascinating question from the opposition: while don’t you spend a few months consulting on your response to the recession? #wwcnl

From: agentoffortune at 20:04, Tue 10 Mar
@jamescousins Anyone would think that the Labour response to anything is to spend money on consulting. #wwcnl

From: jamescousins at 20:09, Tue 10 Mar
@agentoffortune I did find it bizarre, you can guess the result: would you like the council to do something to help? Y\/N #wwcnl

From: agentoffortune at 20:11, Tue 10 Mar
@jamescousins I was slightly off, the standard procedure should be spend a fortune on consulting, then try and take away civil rights #wwcnl

From: jamescousins at 20:13, Tue 10 Mar
@agentoffortune You missed off setting up a national database! #wwcnl

From: jamescousins at 20:24, Tue 10 Mar
Just noticed two people in the public gallery, bringing the total audience including Twitter, to three! #wwcnl

From: agentoffortune at 20:29, Tue 10 Mar
@jamescousins sorry only 140 chars you see 🙂 I’ve taken the data base as read 🙂 #wwcnl

From: jamescousins at 20:31, Tue 10 Mar
Questions over, first item for discussion are children’s services grant allocations for the coming year. #wwcnl

From: jamescousins at 20:47, Tue 10 Mar
Short debate on awarding a grant to an organisation whose original application was unsuccessful. Lost 38-6. Council tax setting next. #wwcnl

From: jamescousins at 20:50, Tue 10 Mar
Deputy Leader presenting our budget. 0% rise in tax, some extra spending, some money in reserves for when the days get rainier. #wwcnl

From: LouiseBrown at 20:51, Tue 10 Mar
@jamescousins it’s a bad night for the council tax discussion … the liverpool game is AMAZING! #wwcnl

From: jamescousins at 20:53, Tue 10 Mar
Labour presenting their alternative. They’ve been reading Keynes; 0% rise, use reserves to create around 50 jobs & re-visit charges. #wwcnl

From: jamescousins at 20:54, Tue 10 Mar
@LouiseBrown I only watch Liverpool when Grimsby are beating them! #wwcnl

From: jamescousins at 20:58, Tue 10 Mar
Labour takes the pessimism award, comparing the situation to the 30s when it "took a world war to fix the economy". Brown’s plan B? #wwcnl

From: agentoffortune at 21:02, Tue 10 Mar
@jamescousins Wow Brown has a plan B? I think he would be relieved if you could get in touch and let him know what it was. #wwcnl

From: jamescousins at 21:04, Tue 10 Mar
We’re getting into discussion on Friedman and John Maynard now – it’s Milton Keynes! (sorry, couldn’t resist). #wwcnl

From: ingridk at 21:06, Tue 10 Mar
@jamescousins is tweeting a Wandsworth Council meeting #wwcnl and making bad economist puns.

From: jamescousins at 21:06, Tue 10 Mar
@agentoffortune Well, from tonight’s discussion it seems to be 10 years of depression and 6 of world war. Might keep that to myself! #wwcnl

From: agentoffortune at 21:10, Tue 10 Mar
@jamescousins The annoying thing is that if the govt announced that as the plan I’d feel a bit better cos at least they had a plan. #wwcnl

From: jamescousins at 21:19, Tue 10 Mar
There are some odd arguments coming from Labour, we should have higher tax and spend more, but also lower tax to stimulate spending. #wwcnl

From: jamescousins at 21:29, Tue 10 Mar
Moving to a vote, Labour’s proposal loses 44-6. Tory 0% rise approved 44-6. So no rise in tax for Wandsworth residents this year. #wwcnl

From: agentoffortune at 21:30, Tue 10 Mar
@jamescousins I love the idea that Labour want to raise taxes. They really are out of ideas. #wwcnl

From: jamescousins at 21:32, Tue 10 Mar
Recession debate. Apparently we should have a credit crunch task force. Wow. #wwcnl

From: jamescousins at 21:32, Tue 10 Mar
@agentoffortune Hmmm, but they are also open to lowering taxes. One person suggested both. #wwcnl

From: jamescousins at 21:37, Tue 10 Mar
Another suggestion from Labour that we should be reducing tax. Why can’t they at least be consistent? #wwcnl

From: agentoffortune at 21:41, Tue 10 Mar
@jamescousins I’m so glad I’m not there. I certainly don’t have the tact or patience for local politics. #wwcnl

From: jamescousins at 21:44, Tue 10 Mar
@agentoffortune I sometimes wonder if I do! #wwcnl

From: jamescousins at 21:45, Tue 10 Mar
A lull in Tweeting, have to speak later on in this debate, although the arguments I’m answering are fairly incoherent. #wwcnl

From: jamescousins at 22:00, Tue 10 Mar
Well, my speech went down well, rapturous applause & a standing ovation (if only). Now for the opposition leader to have a go at me. #wwcnl

From: peterholt99 at 22:00, Tue 10 Mar
@jamescousins (even!) – sod the tweeting about the agenda – what the hell did you do to cause the roof to collapse?

From: jamescousins at 22:03, Tue 10 Mar
@peterholt99 Apparently it was just old age (the roof’s, not mine). It’s been there since the 30s and decided enough is enough. #wwcnl

From: jamescousins at 22:14, Tue 10 Mar
And the last vote: council’s recession package approved 44-6. Apparently Labour don’t think we should do anything to help. #wwcnl

From: jamescousins at 22:16, Tue 10 Mar
And that’s that. Meeting over, let me know if you enjoyed it. Or not. #wwcnl

From: agentoffortune at 22:19, Tue 10 Mar
@jamescousins Labour don’t want to help apart from rasing and cuting taxes whilst consulting to see what can be done? #wwcnl

From: wandsworthdog at 22:32, Tue 10 Mar
@jamescousins Thanks. Did other councillors think you were txting the whole evening?

From: jamescousins at 22:48, Tue 10 Mar
@drodeh I can’t say they put forward the most coherent arguments. But I have a little bias, I suppose. #wwcnl

From: jamescousins at 22:49, Tue 10 Mar
@wandsworthdog I think I’ve probably breached council standing orders and did feel a little self-conscious. But was it worth it? #wwcnl

From: jamescousins at 22:52, Tue 10 Mar
@agentoffortune Well, it isn’t my job to put them in a good light, but yes, it was opposition, rather than constructive debate. #wwcnl

From: mario at 22:54, Tue 10 Mar
@jamescousins interesting following your tweets from #wwcnl tonight. not on your side politically but appreciate you pushing the envelope!

From: jamescousins at 22:57, Tue 10 Mar
@mario Thanks. Thought it was worth a go. I’m not sure about the benefit, to you, the council or democratic engagement, but we’ll see #wwcnl

From: jesscousins at 23:36, Tue 10 Mar
RT @jamescousins Well, home from the meeting, and my wife is watching Bridget Jones. Should have gone to the pub!

From: jesscousins at 23:37, Tue 10 Mar
I’m off to bed. My husband is staying up to watch the rest of Bridget Jones!

From: sliah at 7:31, Wed 11 Mar
Yah! Sorry catching up on tweets, am at the no rise in council tax one

From: sliah at 7:36, Wed 11 Mar
@jamescousins my last tweet was in response to your no council tax rise tweet (yah), hmm found the twmeeting somewhat interesting from afar

From: LouiseBrown at 9:52, Wed 11 Mar
@jamescousins thanks for tweeting from #wwcnl last night, between you, @sadiqkhan and other Wands people i’m feeling much more connected

twitter logoI’ve written a very short piece for first magazine on my use of Twitter.  They are doing a feature on councillors using social media and asked me for a short contribution on Twitter, which I’ve pasted below.

(If you want to follow me on Twitter just go to my Twitter page and click follow.  It really is worthwhile, and if you want a helping hand just send me a message.)

Twitter is often portrayed in the media as a festival of celebrity banality but it is a valuable medium, where diverse people congregate, contribute and discuss.  I first became aware of its power through Twitter conversations about local government engagement, and from there is was an obvious step to use it as a councillor.

My approach, in short, has been to ‘be human’.  I use my personal account and try to avoid too much about the Town Hall, which I suspect even I would find dull.  Instead I try to make my Tweets either encourage discussion or be informative, but that doesn’t stop me discussing TV or celebrating my team’s rare wins.

What is surprising is not just how many local people were Tweeting, but how many were eager to engage and use Twitter to communicate with their councillor.  While I often sit in a draughty library with no-one attending my surgery it is quite the reverse in the Twitterverse where people are keen to ask questions or air local issues with me.  In the past week alone parks, parking, traffic, policing and business issues have all been raised with me via Twitter.

Like any dialogue, you get out what you put in.  For me, Twitter has been incredibly rewarding.