Thursday, 9 May 2013

A tale of five councils

I have often wondered who "sets the tone" in a local authority with regard to the way it relates to those who live within its boundary.  It never ceases to surprise me how different councils can be, even those in adjoining areas under the same political leadership. Do the Officers set the tone, and if so, what influence or control do the elected members actually have (bearing in mind they appoint the senior officers). Or is the tone set by the political leadership, and if so are some leaders really content with the level of service their council offers its taxpayers?

The three Associations I work for cover five local authorities, and my job brings me into regular contact with all of them, especially their Electoral Services Departments.  All are Conservative controlled and all serve a reasonably compact corner of Kent. They recruit their staff using the same newspapers and serve similar communities. There is therefore no reason why the quality of service should differ?

At the last General Election I was conscious that the instructions being sent to postal voters had changed, as had the format of the paperwork. Previously, the ballot paper, ballot paper envelope and declaration of identity were three separate items. The voter would complete the ballot, place it alone in the ballot paper envelope then complete the declaration, placing the ballot paper envelope and the declaration in the larger envelope to post back. Simple ! Then the system changed; the declaration of identity came attached (along a perforated line) to the flap of the ballot paper envelope. I can see why the change was made; to ensure the declaration didn't become detached from the ballot paper or get left out of the envelope thus invalidating the vote.  However, not all local authorities changed to the new system, as some had a supply of the old envelopes and forms which they wished to use to save additional costs.

At every election political parties contact their supporters who are registered for a postal vote to encourage them to return it; it's a perfectly legitimate activity and part of the democratic process. I was conscious, however, that with differing postal vote systems being used, our letter must match the advice being issued by each local council. If we indicated that the declaration was attached to the envelope when it wasn't (or vice versa) it would cause confusion for the voter, who would then start calling the Council for guidance and causing additional work for them at an already busy time.

I discussed the issue with my Labour opposite number, who had also spotted the likely problem, and we agreed to contact the five local authorities to request an advanced copy of the instructions they were issuing, to ensure nothing we wrote contradicted them. I also suggested to the ERO that they copy their reply to all political agents to ensure fairness and minimise confusion.  It was a pragmatic approach.

Now, as ever, I am not going to cause ill-feeling or start finger-pointing, so let's call the five councils A B C D and E.

Council A responded to my email within 20 minutes, thanking me for my consideration and attaching a copy of their advice to voters letter, with copies sent to all candidates and agents.

Council B did likewise, though their reply came after 3 hours.

Council C took half a day to respond (still very efficient), however their ERO phoned me to clarify why I wanted the information and what I was going to use it for. Once I explained in more detail, he agreed and sent the details to me and the others.

Council D didn't respond that day, but following a gentle reminder, they emailed the details with an apology for the delay.

Which brings us to Council E.  Council E didn't respond that day. Nor did they respond the following day or the day after that or..... for the next two days either.  After five days I telephoned. The ERO wasn't available, but would call me back. No call. The following day (seven days after I originally emailed) I finally got through. No acknowledgement that they had failed to respond or return my calls. I had to explain again what I wanted. Where every other Council obliged, this one couldn't. I was asked if "the Electoral Commission had issued a guidance note to say if I was 'entitled' to see this information? Did the PPERA state that they had an 'legal obligation' to provide it?"  Unless I could demonstrate the legal authority, the request would have to be referred to the Council's Head of Legal Services for an opinion.  In the end, I gave up and sent my letter anyway.

  • What circumstances made Council E so awful in the way it dealt with one of its internal customers?

  • What must be the prevailing attitude in that authority which leads to a culture where a public servant adopts an attitude of "the answer is NO unless the law requires me to say yes?"

  • Why is the level of service so different and does no-one question that difference?

  • Did they do any customer satisfaction reports, and if so was action ever taken? 

  • Given the ERO reports to a Director, does he find this level of service acceptable, and if so, why? If not, what has he done about it (the ERO is still in place and still as bureaucratic and unhelpful as they were three years ago).

  • Does the Cabinet Member responsible not ask or care, or is he so grateful to have an office and a nice desk and be called Councillor that he doesn't want to rock the boat?

  • Do Cabinet Members ever ask themselves 'what is the point of having responsibility without power" and why they seek such power if they are impotent to bring about change?

Rhetorical questions, surely.

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