Google is frankly useless in providing an image for coffee with a copper
Google is frankly useless in providing an image for coffee with a copper
Battersea sector police (which covers Shaftesbury ward, among many others) are hosting one of their ‘coffee with a copper’ events at McDonald’s on St John’s Road today.

If you want to let them know about your views on local policing or find out what the priority crimes in the area (as well as get crime prevention advice from them) they will be in McDonald’s from noon until 4.00pm.

Let's Talk (previously Listening to You, but that's probably a bit close to The Thick of It's 'Here to Hear')
Let’s Talk (previously Listening to You, but that’s probably a bit close to The Thick of It‘s ‘Here to Hear’)

The Shaftesbury ward ‘Let’s Talk’ event takes place a week today, Thursday, 21 March from 7.30pm at Shaftesbury Park school.

The meetings are an opportunity for residents to come and tell local councillors and council officers what is important to them. There’s no need to register so you can just come along.

Having advertised it I am, as I did last time, going to say that I’m not a great fan of them. They seem somehow dated and not representative of the way I think councils and councillors should do business. Is a public meeting really the sort of place that people want to come to raise their concerns? Or would they prefer more direct contact where there is dialogue and the opportunity to discuss detail without everyone else in the room having to listen in?

As I wrote after the last meeting:

The large (or small, in this case) public meeting … is probably the best way to handle a single issue with significant public interest and are useful when the flow of information is largely from the platform to the public. However, in my opinion it just doesn’t work for the sort of session Listening to You [the old branding for the sessions] should be, a dialogue between council and residents, and an opportunity for people to raise specific issues …

But I can’t help reflecting that, with around 30 people attending, it represented 0.00% (rounded to 2 decimal places) of the ward population [and] we are missing some tricks in the way we engage (or don’t engage) with residents and that leaves the council poorer: because if last night was a positive experience with around 0.0025% of the population, imagine what could come from 99.9975% of the population.

But having dealt with my negativity, there is always the opportunity to talk directly with councillors or officers before or after the meeting, and if numbers permit I would hope we follow the pattern that happened last time with a short formal session followed by a much longer, and much more productive, session of mingling, talking about and dealing with the issues and concerns of local residents.

There are some (but not much) more details on the council’s flyer for the event.

A few more people attended in the end... but there were still plenty of empty seats.

I was a little cynical going to the Shaftesbury Listening to You session last night. I may as well lay my cards on the table, I have never liked the meetings. Not because of any reluctance to be accountable or to discuss council issues, but because I do not think they are very good examples of engagement.

The large (or small, in this case) public meeting may have its place. It is probably the best way to handle a single issue with significant public interest and are useful when the flow of information is largely from the platform to the public. However, in my opinion it just doesn’t work for the sort of session Listening to You should be, a dialogue between council and residents, and an opportunity for people to raise specific issues.

I was pleased when we decided, quite early on, to suggest to the audience that we break up and ‘mingle’ rather than stick with the platform/audience set-up. It worked well and I managed to speak to plenty of people on a variety of issues: from housing to litter, from BAC to the Lavender Hill Festival. A couple of people even made suggestions on how the Listening to You sessions could be improved.

I think everyone, residents, councillors and officers left feeling positive about their interactions. And in the case of councillors and officers, with plenty of things to follow-up on.

But I can’t help reflecting that, with around 30 people attending, it represented 0.00% (rounded to 2 decimal places) of the ward population of 12,962 (the latest Office of National Statistics estimate)!

You could argue that it shows everyone is happy with the council, so felt no need to come along. Or that it was raining, which put people off. And there will be some truth in both. But I still can’t help feeling we are missing some tricks in the way we engage (or don’t engage) with residents and that leaves the council poorer: because if last night was a positive experience with around 0.0025% of the population, imagine what could come from 99.9975% of the population.

I also know I need to improve personally, someone last night commented on my absence from Streetlife, and while I’m on Twitter and have this blog the former is mainly personal and the latter isn’t what it once was.

What should I and the council do to better engage with residents? Or are you happy not talking to us?

A last-minute reminder that tonight is the Shaftesbury Listening to You session, so if you like sitting in school halls for public meeting type things you should get along to John Burn’s school for 7.30pm tonight. And you never know, we might try something other than a traditional public meeting format (fingers crossed).

You can get full details from the Listening to You leaflet.

At tonight’s council meeting I’ll formally lose my responsibility for community safety in Wandsworth. While I’ve not had de facto responsibility for some time (indeed, since before the annual council meeting) the formality is a milestone.

But as a leaving present we have finally gone live with a social media presence for community safety in Wandsworth.

If you are on Facebook you can ‘like’ the Safer Wandsworth page.

And if you are on Twitter you can follow Safer Wandsworth.

Both are new, but there are big plans for both (and for more) and they will become excellent ways of keeping up-to-date with what’s happening to keep Wandsworth as inner London’s safest borough.

While I’ve often complained that surgeries are not that useful I still do them. So if you want to be my first visitor in something like two years I’ll be manning the councillor surgery session in Battersea Library tomorrow (Saturday 21 August) from 10am to 11am. No appointment necessary, just show up.

Like the Filipino politician (featured on the Independent‘s website) I can’t promise anything, but if you have any council related issues or problems I can try and help resolve them.

If you can’t make it don’t worry, I’ll have a book to read and there are plenty of other, more convenient, ways to get in touch.

It has always puzzled me how local democracy, while incredibly important to everyone’s day-to-day lives barely impinges on people’s consciousness.

I’ve never quite been sure whether that’s because we don’t do enough to publicise it (although politically and administratively I think we’re good at communications) or because people just don’t care. And I’m not sure which of those I would rather it be. While it’s not great to think we’re not doing something well, would that be preferable to people just not caring?

Of course, there is the argument that when things are going well, people just aren’t going to complain. There is some truth in that, and experience shows that people are quick to raise issues, complain and campaign if the council is doing something wrong or they don’t like.

The problem with this approach is that it just supposes that councils are there to provide services, that it exists with a set of fairly binary functions rather than to create the sort of areas we live in. Actually, when you look at the decisions made in Wandsworth ten, twenty or thirty years ago you can start to see that they helped shape the Wandsworth we live in today.

I was blundering around that subject with a post about the Wandsworth sausage the other week: while we do provide those sorts of services, cumulatively they create something that’s not quite as easy to measure or assess. Subtle variations in the services we do (or don’t) provide add up to make the borough we live in. And obviously something is guiding those choices towards, hopefully, that bigger picture.

Last night was a meeting of the Local Strategic Partnership. This is one of those bodies that few outside the public sector know about, but which theoretically wields a huge amount of power over a local area. Everyone there is signed up to ‘Our Wandsworth’, our sustainable community strategy and, therefore, it guides the council, police, NHS, Jobcentre Plus and many others in their binary choices today that collectively building the Wandsworth we want to see in 2018.

The report was just a progress update on how well the medium term targets were progressing. A refresh of the strategy takes place next year, but given my pessimism will anyone outside the public sector contribute their view on the Wandsworth they want to see? Or are we doomed to live in a set of neighbourhoods that are formed as a reflection of the major public sector organisations that serve them? I hope to God not.

I was disappointed at the lack of response to my sausage post. Perhaps it was because of the Carry On innuendo. Or maybe people were disappointed it wasn’t about actual sausages. I’m hopeful it isn’t because people don’t actually care. When I’ve posed similar questions in the past I’ve had plenty of responses, so it was perhaps a poor attempt at engagement by me…

But if I can’t engage people with sausages, what can I engage people with?

At the risk of precipitating electoral disaster for the Conservative Party I got my hair cut today (to give an indication of how bad it was I was told that it was five months since I’d last been for a cut).

Hair cuts, like taxi rides, are one of those scenarios I dislike because of the small talk, not because of the clichéd conversations – “booked your holiday yet?” or the multi-purpose “been busy?” – but because of the pressure I feel to avoid the clichés. It’s largely a function of mood, but I can usually be successful and have enjoyed speculative discussions on the finer points of animal husbandry (of which neither cutter or cuttee had any experience) and how much better the world would be if evolution hadn’t robbed our tails (we both agreed it would be a much better place).

But a subject that didn’t come up was the election. And thinking about to haircuts of the past, I can’t recall ever discussing politics, so I’m not sure why I even imagined the deficit might accompany a hairwash, or that expenses would be the obvious discussion while trimming my sideburns, or debate the merits of Osborne, Darling and Cable while ‘product’ was applied.

While in there I also flicked through a copy of GQ I was given as an additional insurance incase the conversation petered out. This in itself was interesting in its approach to politics, containing a few articles of a political bent each separated by a dozen or so pages of fashion adverts. But these were, frankly, not that illuminating and it almost seemed that the editorial team had gone out of their way to make them less attractive than the rest of the content; the longest article consisted of four or five pages of text with no illustration, a stark contrast with a magazine that relies heavily on accompanying visuals and perhaps a handy camouflage for the fact that the article didn’t actually say anything of any substance. Then again, I’m not the target market for magazines like GQ (I’ve bought one copy in my life, while at university in the mid-nineties, and that solely because it had a feature on Estelle Skornik).

So while I can ponder at the lack of impact the impending election is having on magazines and barbershop (I pretend I’m manly, but actually it was a stylist) discussion the fact is that I’m not really a normal person. This morning I was out in fairly poor weather delivering leaflets knowing that many will be binned unread and knowing that most of those that are read will be forgotten in days. This is not the behaviour of a normal person. The behaviour of a normal person involves having a proper job, not going out every night to a meeting at the town hall or some sort of campaigning. And it certainly doesn’t involve sacrificing weekends with the family to pace the halls, corridors and balconies of council estates.

The fact is most people, most of the time, are mostly disengaged from politics.

As someone who is very engaged in politics I’m really not sure what I think about this. Should everyone be deeply connected with the political process? Or, actually, is it a sign of a healthy democracy that most of the time people don’t need to care. I’m really not sure. But I do know I’m better for having had a haircut.

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 Clichéd 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

As I have mentioned summer is a quieter time on the council than the rest of the year. While last week saw no trips to the Town Hall this week saw only one for my regular briefing and policy meeting with officers.

Much of the rest of the week has been, not to put to fine a point on it, slightly geeky.

Managing conversations
The week started meeting a couple of guys who are developing a product that (and I can’t think of a better way to put this) manages and centralises conversations. So, for example, the debate about CCTV or councillor surgeries took place over a number of blog posts and on Twitter, making it difficult to follow unless you were watching both – this would mean there would be a central place to see them all. It’s quite an exciting idea and I’m hoping to try it out in the near-ish future.

Battersea Poems
Another meeting was about a scheme called ‘Battersea Poems’ which will be part of the SW11 Literary Festival. Poetry itself isn’t geeky, of course, but Battersea Poems is a scheme whereby individuals can text their poetry in. The poems will be visible on a website and later this year the best will be chosen for publication in an anthology.

Google Localgov
And today I’m at Google’s London offices for their ‘Localgov’ event. It has, so far, been interesting – but the afternoon promises to be much better, looking at some of the creative options Google offer. I’m hoping to pick up some things to bore visitors to this blog with!