I’m representing the council at the Balham and Tooting Community Association Open Forum tonight.

The meeting is being held at St Augustine’s Church Hall, Broadwater Road, SW17 0EF at 7.30pm and is scheduled to last for two hours.  It’s a large panel – along with me are Cheif Superintendant Stewart Low, the Wandsworth Borough Commander, Sadiq Khan the Labour MP for Tooting, Lucy Neal from Transition Town Tooting, Roger Reid from Street Pastors and Jabu Siphika a youth organiser.

As well as a Q&A I understand the session will involve some workshops, so you have the opportunity to feed back your concerns and ideas.

I just do not understand why it has taken so long.

One of my recurrent themes is ‘being human’.  For some reason politicians often seem to equate signs of humanity as signs of weakness.  So when the Prime Minister’s staff were planning smear campaigns it took him days to do what any decent human being would do, and say sorry.

As a total aside I did a little spot on engagement for the Improvement and Development Agency in which I suggested the Muppet-Superman continuum on which politicians are judged (the description comes in at 2:05):

This video is also available on YouTube.

This whole episode reminded me of Margaret Thatcher’s household budgeting analogy, and for some reason I couldn’t help but bring it down to a household level. If your children had accidentally damaged your neighbour’s property, say a football through a window, the first thing you would do is march them round, apologise and make the child apologise and offer to make amends.

So it wasn’t actually that much of a surprise to come across Matthew Parris’ column in today’s Times. Her approach, when an aide had offended a member of the public, was to demand an apology immediately. Obviously, politics played their part, but behind it is a realisation that sometimes saying sorry is both appropriate and necessary.

Unfortunately it’s not something the Prime Minister has worked out and he, instead, behaves like a petulant child refusing to accept that something is very wrong in his government. I can’t believe I’m saying it, but I find myself wishing we had Blair back.

And this is where the Muppet-Superman continuum comes in. Brown has spent years portraying himself as the ‘Iron Chancellor’, a son of the manse, straightforward and honest. A sort of super politician who would provide competent, unshowy, government with principle after the years of Blair/Campbell spin.

And instead we have a muppet, a Prime Minister who sort of co-ordinates the show, but without the hilarity and, most definitely, without Kermit’s charm.

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.

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.


twitter logoTwittering is a form of microblogging which, along with this blog, I started as a bit of an experiment.  I will freely admit that it hasn’t taken the course I expected – but there are some fascinating conversations taking place on there, especially around subjects of democratic and social engagement, so it is something I will definitely be continuing.

Wandsworth Council is now twittering, so if you are already on twitter (if you aren’t, you can get an account for free at twitter.com) you can follow the council – @wandbc.

My tweets are featured on this blog, although over Christmas I’ve spent too much time on the sofa and doing my ‘real’ job, so they have been a bit light of late.  Feel free to follow me, @jamescousins, if you want to find out what I’m up to or, like today, my thoughts on Karate Kid III!