Of course I didn’t actually go to the library in my boxers*

But I have discovered that Wandsworth is lending ebooks. Not on any massive scale, and technically it’s the London Libraries Consortium rather than Wandsworth as such. But, whatever, there’s a smallish selection at library.wandsworth.gov.uk

As a geek I’m quite excited about it. But given how much places like Waterstones have been pushing ebook readers over the past year I can’t help thinking there must be others who would use the, thus far, unadvertised service.

The process is a little clunky, although that is largely a consequence of publisher restrictions rather then the libraries. And the selection is, shall I say, eclectic (I guess they need to have something to appeal to everyone, but I’m just not going to be borrowing anything by Jade Goody). And – again because of the publishers – you are limited to readers compatible with Adobe Digital Editions. But all that said I’ve still managed to get a couple of books in less time than it would take me to walk to my local library.

A small start, but is it the future of libraries?

* Actually, I did. Did you really think I’m the sort of guy who goes commando? I’m a Tory for God’s sake. Actually, what business of yours is my underwear?

I’m really rather surprised at the response I got to my post on council surgeries.

There are a few comments on the blog, I’ve had a few emails and the South London Press called to chat about it for a story (which makes me nervous, because I know this can be portrayed negatively). I’ve even had a councillor from another borough (not even London) send me a message saying I was absolutely right – but they couldn’t say so publicly!

What I’ve not had yet it is anyone saying I’m wrong. And that surprises me. While I’m clearly of the opinion that we can do better, I expected some people would say they are important and should be retained as they are (and they might still say that).

I’m really pleased that it’s started a discussion about what we want to do and how we can best do it. And I’m really pleased that it hasn’t turned negative. Quite frankly, if we have the debate and it’s decided that spending an hour on my own in the library is the best way to serve people, I’ll happily do it. I just think councillors can probably do a lot more good with that hour in other places and in other ways.

And to illustrate this, I’d like to share a quote from a parish council newsletter I was sent. The newsletter is a couple of years old, but illustrates the point that we often find ourselves doing things not because they do any good, but because we feel – or someone tells us – we should.

We’ve been running bi-monthly Councillors’ surgeries on Saturday mornings for a year now, and yet we’ve only had one visitor … Some might say surgeries are a waste of time, but the thing is that we’ve got to run them as part of a package of measures necessary to get us Quality Accreditation next year.

I’m going to come right out and say it, it’s a risk, but I’m taking it:  I think council surgeries are a waste of time.  They are a hangover from a bygone age.  And we should look at how we provide them, and even whether we should provide them at all.

I’m going to give you a flavour of what a council surgery is, a little video I shot during my surgery session last Saturday.

I recently discovered that my site is getting more visitors than the ‘Be A Councillor’ website, so I see this as my contribution.  Not everything about being a councillor is glamorous, exciting, or even – as in this case – vaguely interesting.

What is a surgery?
Basically, in a surgery session, you sit in a public building and, hopefully, people will come to you with their problems.  You can listen, offer advice or take details and look into the problem.  It’s seen as one of those things that elected representatives do.  But unfortunately not many people attend.

I vividly remember my first councillor surgery in 1998. I’d been elected less than a month before and had barely started getting to grips with how the council worked and the people I needed to know. I was incredibly nervous, wondering who would turn up, what issues they would raise and how on earth I would deal with them.

No-one came.

And that’s fairly standard. It’s been over a year since I met anyone at a council surgery.

And it’s risky to say this because…?
Simple: politics.

A few years ago the Conservative council introduced the centralised surgery system. Previously each ward would organise their own surgeries, typically once a month. The centralised system was intended to be advertised, simple and consistent, every Saturday between 10-11am there would be a councillor in Battersea, Putney and Tooting libraries. You didn’t have to work out which ward you were in, or when the first Thursday after the new moon was, you just popped along to see the councillor on duty on any Saturday.

A great idea. But no, this was attacked by Labour. We were removing accountability, hiding from the public, acting anti-democratically. That no-one was using the surgeries didn’t get in the way of a convenient vehicle to attack the Tories.

So why raise it now?
Because I don’t think surgeries are the best way to provide a service anymore, and because I think things have moved on and we can have a sensible discussion about how we communicate with people. I believe people value honest debate over political point-scoring.

While I was sat in the library last Saturday I looked through the log-book.  As I said, it’s over a year since I had a case raised at a surgery (the log book only went back to June 2008) and  I’m not the only councillor in that position.  Looking through it’s hard to detect a pattern for people coming to surgeries.  It certainly doesn’t appear that certain councillors always attract attendees.  Nor does it appear that people would attend for a particular political party, I know Labour councillors do attract casework from people who specifically want to deal with a Labour councillor but the logs suggest this isn’t through surgeries.

It simply isn’t an issue about the people, or the political parties, involved. It’s an issue about a system that was an important part of democracy, but has been made increasingly irrelevant by the new ways we communicate.

And if you have a problem with the council…?
Frankly, if you have a problem and want a councillor to take it up – you shouldn’t have to wait until that one hour slot on a Saturday morning when a councillor is sitting in a library. You should be able to raise it straight away.

That’s why you can get my contact details – email, home phone, Twitter and I’m currently looking at some other options to add – from the contact page. If you want, you can even get my home address from the Town Hall so you can write to me!

Yes, there are some people who don’t have email, or might not want to call, and there are a number of people who are regular attenders at surgeries. We need to make sure they aren’t lost by any changes. But I do not think Wandsworth is any better because a group of councillors sit in libraries every Saturday reading the paper or looking out the window. Rather than keeping a system that doesn’t work because we’ve always had it, we should be finding the best way to serve Wandsworth residents.

So what do you think? How do you want councillors to make themselves available? Have you ever been to a surgery? Can you think of a better way?

I was really pleased to see that Jane Allen, who recently retired as the head of libraries in Wandsworth has been given Membership of the Order of the British Empire and becomes Jane Allen MBE.

Wandsworth has an excellent libraries service (and going to get better with the Tooting Library refurbishment and new Wandsworth town centre library) so it’s a well deserved honour.