I worry that local government and transparency interest me so much. There are better things for a man of my age to be interested in, surely. But this example of how not to do it from Wales and now on YouTube intrigued me. (Which I found via Richard Wilson’s blog)

To give a short version:

  1. Member of the public starts filming council meeting
  2. Chairman asks her to stop, she refuses
  3. Chairman adjourns meeting and calls the police, she is arrested.

There is clearly history between the council and the campaigner, and I don’t think I’m being unfair in saying that she probably could have handled it better (ultimately, you have to respect the chairman’s decision: it’s the way meetings work). But it’s so contrary to common sense to stop someone unobtrusively, but not secretly, recording a public meeting of democratically elected members.

It’s particularly odd coming only a few months after well-publicised calls from the Secretary of State for councils to allow such recordings to be made and to give bloggers the same level of access as traditional journalists.

As far as I’m aware no-one has bothered recording a Wandsworth council meeting, but I hope we handle it a lot better if they do.

Correction (of sorts): Dafydd Vaughan has pointed out that Eric Pickles has no jurisdiction in Wales, as it’s a devolved matter. It’s perhaps a reflection of a London-centric view that I hadn’t thought about that when originally writing. However, it’s also true that Pickles doesn’t have jurisdiction over English councils on this matter; and I think the moral pressure his statements represented are as applicable in Wales as they are in England.

An empty press table (for illustration only, taken after the meeting to comply with council Standing Orders!)

Last night was the council tax setting meeting. If the council has anything like a set-piece debate in its calendar it must surely be the council tax setting. It’s as close as we get to a Queen’s speech or a budget.

For the record we froze council tax again – though this year it seems we’ve been joined by most other councils in following that route (I read the other day that this is the first year in 18 that nationally the average council tax has decreased).

But what troubled me is how poorly attended it was.

Despite all the controversy about cuts, deficits and everything else relatively few people attended, even though the Battersea and Wandsworth Trades Union Council were organising a demonstration. When I arrived there were only about a dozen people there, I think most as part of the union protest (basing my assumption on the fact most had union banners and placards).

This isn’t a criticism of protest turnout. When the council serves nearly 300,000 residents even if they had hundreds protesting it would arguably be “poorly attended”.

Instead it set me thinking about transparency and public accountability: specifically about Eric Pickles recent call that bloggers be let into Town Halls.

Because what really got me was not that relatively few residents were there to see the council making decisions, but that no press were there either. Last night’s agenda had three main items: the council tax, a debate about libraries (and specifically York Gardens) and a debate about the purchase of the Bolingbroke site for a free school.

Probably the three biggest political issues the council has but, as usual, the press desk in the council chamber was empty.

Sitting just a few yards from the empty press desk for three hours of debates it made me realise exactly why Eric Pickles is right about broadening access beyond the traditional media. Given that the local press can only rely on second-hand (and necessarily biased) accounts of the meeting, it’s hard to see who they can offer independent challenge.

Of course, like many councils, our standing orders are not naturally friendly towards blogging, a consequence of largely being written in an age before mobile telephones, let alone YouTube. And I’ll be honest, I don’t know any Wandsworth-focussed bloggers who might want a space at the press table, which is a far bigger problem.

But like so many things, if you don’t ask, you don’t get – and even if a blogger covers just one meeting a year, that’s better than the current arrangement of the traditional press not covering any meetings.

...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?

Wandsworth has finally launched its open data page (although the content management system lists the data itself on a different page and it’s then a further two clicks to get the actual data!). While bits and pieces of data have been published for a while and have existed throughout the council’s website for a long time, this finally gets it all in one place, under the open data licence (and hopefully, therefore, enough to get us onto OpenlyLocal’s list of fully open councils).

I’m an unashamed fan of open data, and it will be interesting to see how it is all used. I’m rather pleased that my attempt at re-mapping the grit bins is approaching 3,000 views – which I’d bet compares favourably to the number of views the page containing the data has had.

The sad thing is that we will never really know the extent to which its used, because it’s there for others to take, without having to ask for it or tell us what they are doing with it – but if public data is getting out there then it can’t be a bad thing. Indeed, I’d bet that, in a year or two, we’ll have applications on our phones and the web using data from councils across the country and wonder why on earth it took us so long.

I am excited to see the Wandsworth Challenge finally launch a public face this week. I know that some might be sceptical, even cynical, about it; but I’m not one of them.

I’m excited in large part because it marks a new way of working for the council. Wandsworth has been remarkably successful at running a strongly managed council over the years, but as times – and people – change so must the council. They may be fads to some, but the latest thinking on things like nudge, the impact of our social network, or collective wisdom can only add to the strong foundation of effective management and financial control.

I’m also excited because there has been some interest expressed already. It may be that I’m more aware of it but I don’t recall any other time while I’ve been on the council that I’ve had such extensive conversations with people about how the council works.

And part of my excitement is because I believe in the Big Society. Let’s be clear, Wandsworth Challenge is not the Big Society, but there are considerable overlaps and you it’s possible to consider one a subset of the other (or as two parallel policies). That we have launched a Big Society fund adds to the potential for small projects to take off.

But if anything troubles me it is the what the public response will be. Will it consist mainly of accusatory suggestions (sack Town Hall fat cats?), or ideas that are entirely outside of our remit (bring back hanging, or at least hard labour), or will it be the worst of all: a deafening silence (because people are so used to the public sector doing everything, they do not see any value in contributing).

One of the key success criteria will be the amount of workable ideas that come from frontline staff and the public. I’ve spent time today hopefully encouraging one of the teams in my portfolio to throw themselves into the Challenge. And something I’ve given a lot of thought too (and had a lot of good advice from others, but still not fully reconciled) is how we make the process transparent; there can’t be anything worse than seeing your idea disappear into a black hole never to return.

But there must be hundreds, thousands of good ideas out there. Some may be radical, some might be simple. Some impossible to implement and some done in a day. But every single one of us has been in the situation of dealing with a public service and thinking “this would be so much better if only…”

So what are your experiences? Is there a small tweak or a radical overhaul would make your dealings with the council better?

One of my concerns about the rush towards spending transparency for councils (Wandsworth publishes spending by vendor by month) are the unintended consequences. The We Love Local Government blog raises the question of whether it is actually more likely to lead to bad, rather than good, spending decisions.

The rationale is fairly simple; because there is a fear of published spending being criticised councils go for options that may be cheaper, but worse value. The example cited is of using a cheaper hotel, but then losing the saving in transport costs because of the hotel’s location. While I’ll use this example in this post but there will be many many similar situations across the country. I know that £500 has become a psychology spending limit for many, not because of any explicit instruction, but because of the knowledge that spending will be published.The result risks false economies. £510 on hotels hits the limit and is published. But £490 on hotels and £100 on taxis does not.

I think there’s a very simple way to tackle this and retain transparency: lower the publishing limit to zero. Then there aren’t the unintended consequences of people trying to spend below arbitrary limits on single items and all spending may need justifying to the public. This moves the whole thought process from “how can I keep all the individual spending below the publishing radar” to “how can I justify the total cost.”

And while it will require a culture change (for a time the Taxpayers Alliance will have a field day) when that happens I’m optimistic enough to think there will be scope for much more intelligent debate about the role and quality of local government. Instead of knee-jerk reactions to council officials living a ‘high-life’ in a hotels would it be too much for the reaction not to about whether the trip brought as much value to the borough as it cost?

It is only marginally related, but Greater Manchester Police’s decision to tweet all their calls is an example of this. There were, predictably, outbursts that such activity was a waste of money and the police should have been on the streets (no prizes for guessing it was the Taxpayer’s Alliance seeing their blood pressure rise again). But at the end there were huge numbers of people aware of what a police force actually finds itself doing, and I suspect a lot of people in Manchester suddenly much better informed about the true level of crime and disorder in their city. It’s a fair bet that a reduction in unnecessary calls will pay for the ‘experiment’ many times over. But most

I can’t help thinking that while the initial transition may be hard – resisted by some and lead to criticism from others – the more transparency and openness there is the better for everyone.