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Council in danger of being as outdated as ‘quill pens and gas lamps’

Council in danger of being as outdated as ‘quill pens and gas lamps’

🕔22.Jan 2014

There will be many pressing issues waiting in the in-tray of Birmingham city council’s new chief executive Mark Rogers when he takes up his post in a few weeks’ time.

Reshaping Britain’s largest local authority in an era of unprecedented public spending cuts is an obvious priority, as is dealing with a vast equal pay compensation bill, and transforming the city’s failing children’s social services.

But underlying all of this is an issue of huge strategic importance. Put simply, Mr Rogers must demand  a culture change in the way Birmingham City Council goes about its business, by replacing more than a century of obdurate secrecy and a stifling, ‘nanny knows best’ attitude in favour of a local government model that is fit for public participation the 21st century.

That is to say, develop a model where the council increasingly becomes a facilitator and commissioner of services rather than a provider, and reacts to what people actually want rather imposing from on high whatever it may be that Council House bureaucrats think is good for people.

This is already happening in some areas, notably adult social services where power is gradually being transferred into the hands of service users in the shape of personal care packages. Those in receipt of social care can now decide how the money allocated to them should be spent rather than, as happened in the past, being told what they are and are not going to be given.

The culture change also means recognising that people have a right to know what their council is doing, what it is spending, and that it will be a very rare event indeed to withhold information.

Sadly, for every inch of progress there is a yard or more of retrenchment into a sadly predictable default position. This remains an organisation that seemingly just can’t move away from a starting point of declaring why ‘something should not be done’ or why information cannot be handed over rather than finding ways to allow something to happen.

The latest example of this concerns an attempt to draw up a ‘protocol’ for members of the public, bloggers and journalists, who wish to film council meetings, usually on mobile phones or iPads.  This was sparked off after a blogger had the temerity to film councillors at a full council meeting and had her conduct questioned by the Lord Mayor.

Actually, no new protocol is required since there is already a convention in place that allows filming as long as the chairman of the meeting is told in advance. This sensible rule reflects advice given by Communities Secretary Eric Pickles, and will soon be enshrined in legislation.

Birmingham’s new protocol was hastily drafted by the council’s chief legal officer David Tatlow, and was soon exposed as something that seems to be adrift of the spirit of Mr Pickles’s guidance.

Mr Tatlow’s starting point is that where the council already provides live webstreaming of meetings “it should not be necessary for the press or members of the public to additionally record or photograph council meetings and therefore any such recording is not permitted”.

Recording of other meetings may be allowed but permission must be obtained in advance, Mr Tatlow proposed. His draft protocol read: “Permission will not be unreasonably withheld if sufficient time is available to make the necessary arrangements”.

There was no explanation as to what ‘sufficient time’ means, or indeed just what ‘necessary arrangements’ might have to be made to allow a blogger to whip out a mobile phone and snatch a few minutes of coverage.

It became clear when the Council Business Management Committee met to this that Mr Tatlow’s protocol was not going to be approved in its current form.

Quite why the highly paid chief legal officer should be spending time attempting to regulate bloggers escapes me, as does the suggestion that a council officer can loftily declare it “is not necessary” for members of the public to film council meetings.

But it would be harsh to blame the officers entirely. They are reacting just as they are hard-wired to react, in the local government way of ‘regulation’. What is required, of course, is a strong political lead to hammer home the need for a culture change.

The council’s Labour leadership appears to have latched on at a late stage to the problems flowing from the proposed protocol. Deputy council leader Ian Ward noted that Mr Tatlow had “got it the wrong way around” and that filming of meetings should always be allowed unless there were exceptional reasons why not. Only people who abused the process should be banned from filming.

Such common sense from Cllr Ward is welcome, but the question remains as to how Mr Tatlow’s report got on to the committee agenda in the first place? Did Cllr Ward and his colleagues not read and understand the implications of the report before it was published? It would appear not, since Cllr Ward’s announcement of further consultation on the protocol had a last-minute flavour to it.

RJF Public Affairs, publisher of the Chamberlain Files, has already written to Councillor Ward underlining its commitment to the consultation process. Files editor Kevin Johnson said: “As well as addressing [the Protocol], I would urge you along with Sir Albert and your incoming Chief Executive to ensure that the starting point for all officers is how to make the Council more open to the public and media rather than how best to manage access.”

All too often in Birmingham elected councillors appear to be powerless in the hands of the legal profession. A campaign to have details of a £120 million contract with Capita published has been bogged down since last September in negotiations between lawyers for the council and Capita, leaving the politicians to wring their hands and claim ‘there’s nothing we can do about it’.

The filming protocol, though, is a trivial matter when compared with Capita. In making a pig’s ear out of it the council gives the impression of raging against technology that is changing so quickly that the current debate will appear even more laughable in a few years’ time than it is now.

There is a common misconception that the legendary King Canute vainly attempted to show off his mystical powers by holding back the tide, and failing. In fact, Canute was attempting to demonstrate the opposite; that even a King could not hold back the tide.

A protocol based on the premise that permission must be sought, and might possibly be granted, to film Birmingham council meetings will not hold back the tide of new technology. It will, though, make the council appear as outdated as quill pens and gas lamps at a time when news can spread across the world in the time it takes to press ‘send’ on a phone.


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