Far away from the action at a Wandsworth Council meeting.

I found myself, as I tweeted, at the back and on the left at my first proper council meeting on the back benches. It was an interesting experience, I’ve posted before that I often ask myself whose life is improved by various council meetings and recognised that the vast majority of people don’t care about full council meetings. Now my visits to the town hall are comparatively rare it brings those meetings I do attend into sharp focus: with the heavy focus on set-piece debates and whipped votes full council meetings do not add value to the democratic process. They are legally necessary and occasionally fun, but they don’t make the borough better. The meetings that make a difference happen elsewhere.

That’s not to say there aren’t interesting moments. The announcement that an article 4 direction1 would be granted to protect The Wheatsheaf in Tooting from change of use took many by surprise and even now I can’t help wondering if it wasn’t a slip of the tongue or some sort of mass mishearing given the lengthy resistance to article 4.

There were also some interesting speeches, especially the maiden speeches from newly elected councillors which indicate what is to come for the next four years. I was rather intrigued by the remarkably political contribution from Cllr Candida Jones. While it contained some bizarre claims (volunteers are all Labour supporters?) I’m actually a fan of politics, it helps frame arguments and give a clear sense of purpose and direction. Too often local government is too much about arguments over who would be the better managers rather than policy differences.

But I must be egotistical and highlight a question tabled about me. I didn’t realise it was tabled, since neither Peter Carpenter (the questioner) or the Leader (who answered) raised it with me beforehand.

(10) Shaftesbury Councillors: Question asked by Councillor Carpenter of the Leader of the Council –

Would the Leader respond to accusations by his former Cabinet Member, Councillor Cousins, that councillors in the Shaftesbury ward were not “the councillors they should have been over the past four years”? What steps will he be taking to ensure that all his councillors pull their weight over the next four years?


I am pleased to learn that Councillor Carpenter is making a quick recovery from his recent illness. Social media is certainly a learning curve, and many different styles of writing and approach can be found. I rather like the modest, even self-deprecating, approach taken by Councillor Cousins but have looked for inspiration at Councillor Carpenter’s own contributions on Twitter. He adopts a somewhat different style. Councillor Carpenter is strong on ‘selfies’ and expands our cultural horizons with updates on his visits to Glyndebourne and Le Manoir aux Quat’ Saisons. Every councillor is right to adopt their own authentic style, and I rather think our residents might find Councillor Cousins’ approach refreshing and disarming.

Interesting for a few reasons. First because I’ve always assumed none of my colleagues read this (and still assume that’s the case, since the answer may well have been drafted by an officer). As far as I’ve ever been able to tell most people come here searching for ways to control or kill foxes.

But it gives me the opportunity to give my answer. Obviously I stand by my original comments. The fact is that this was a ward with three exec members, two of whom with incredibly important jobs on the council. When there are finite resources of time and energy then something has to give. If anyone is to blame it is me.

The fact is that Shaftesbury didn’t get the attention it deserves. The leader, remarkably astutely, recognised and solved this when he sacked me.

The question is, however, what I do to address that. I’ll be honest, it’s still something I’m mulling, drafting my list of projects I want to tackle and planning on making a start after summer. There are a few things on there, some relatively easy, some much harder. And I’ll be clear that my expectation is that most will falter and fail: it is not my intention to only take on things with guaranteed success. This, in part, is the reason I’m spending so long researching and thinking about them all.

Taking Lavender Hill, for example. I know the traders there are drawing up their wish list, so if I were to want to do something to help, I would want to take account of that. But even then, what would success look like? Where would my efforts be best directed?

Or my sense that there should be more ‘community’ in the ward. Clearly I’ve not done enough to cultivate that. Shaftesbury is the only ward in the borough that has not seen a Big Society Fund application. While this reflects, in part, a relatively low level of community groups, equally I’ve not been pro-active in promoting the fund to those groups that are there. But how does one promote community activity? Indeed, should I even bother, if the community itself had not already done so?

And with some, there’s just a bit of inertia. I’m planning on trying to get a Neighbourhood Watch set up in my road. I’ve spent too long researching best practice in setting up Watches elsewhere and my JFDI instincts are taking over on that one.

Above all, I’m keen to be something different. I’m tempted by the idea of being an ‘open councillor’, following examples like open policy making or open data. Possibly I overthink it, but it’s on its way — I haven’t forgotten the commitment I made to the ward.

  1. An article 4 direction basically requires a planning permission where it would otherwise not be needed. In this case from change of use from a pub to a shop. 

...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?