The sound of silence in Greenwich

(This post was updated at 10.10am on Wednesday 8 April to include a Labour councillor’s hitherto unknown blog – major changes are in italics. Thank you for the tip-off- that’s two out of 51!)

My eye was caught this morning by a Twitter message from a pal lauding the mayor of Lambeth. No, really.

Jason_Cobb The tweeting @mayoroflambeth – good on you, Sir. It’s not exactly breaking news, but great that local democracy is at least engaging.

Yup, Christopher Wellbelove has not only got himself some nifty gold chains but also a Twitter account as he struts his stuff as the south London borough’s first citizen. Is it really that gripping that he’s attending the West Norwood Townswomens Guild 50th birthday celebrations? Probably not, but it does mean that from West Norwood up to Waterloo, people are able to keep an eye on what he’s up to and communicate back to him. And, hey, if you were the West Norwood Townswomens’ Guild, you’d be delighted with the mention, wouldn’t you?

bin1In Greenwich… (bet you saw that coming)… things are different. They’re both Labour councils, but their approaches to dealing directly with the people who pay for them are wildly different. Even in traditional media, they just can’t manage it. Yesterday I found myself swerving around the streets on the weekly Wheelie Bin Slalom; the mess the streets are left in during (and often after) the bin collections. Except this one was different. A load of recycling bins hadn’t been touched, except for the addition of a red tag.

“Your bin has not been emptied as it contains the wrong type of waste. Please leave it at the edge of your property, leaving the label on to identify it for collection. We will return later today to empty it. Thank you. Visit http://www.greenwich.gov.uk to see what you can put in your bins.”

Huh? A cursory glance at the bags squeezed under the bulging lids seemed to indicate all was well – they were all full of probably-recyclable stuff. What struck me more was the “we will return later today to collect it” message – a fat load of good when many residents are out of their homes for 12 hours or more each day. I used to be one of them. It’s interesting what you miss.

An hour or so later, it dawned on me what was so wrong – the recycled rubbish had not been placed in clear bags. And I dimly remembered a leaflet from the council arriving while I was on holiday which mentioned something about recycled rubbish going in clear bags, which I hadn’t taken much notice of. Not that they’d sent me any clear bags with which to comply with this. And, along my travel, some houses had been left with clear bags, others hadn’t. This was going to confuse the hell out of a lot of people, and get a lot of people’s backs up. As someone that believes in recycling and reducing waste, my heart sank – the council had scored another own goal, and given more ammunition to the kind of people who can’t be bothered to look after their own environment. (Clear sacks can be obtained from the council by calling 020 8921 4661, but it doesn’t mention this on its website.)

And this is why so many people moan about Greenwich Council – it simply can’t communicate properly. It funds a weekly, folksy propaganda newspaper, Greenwich Time, has a lousy website, an awful e-news mailout full of rubbish propaganda about school results, and everything else is a bit piecemeal. The leaflet I got while on holiday should have had something about clear sacks, right at the top – maybe even been delievered with a bundle. But no, so people are left scratching their heads and wondering why they bother. It’s an authority that prefers to issue commands from on high, rather than engage with people on the streets.

Surely, as the Tweeting mayor of Lambeth shows, this attitude is running out of time? Not yet. As mentioned before, only one two out of 51 Greenwich councillors bother to keep a blog – one is Eltham North Conservative Nigel Fletcher, who occasionally shines a light on local matters, but usually seems too in awe of life in Westminster, where he works. And when I asked him where the Tories would save us some cash, he didn’t reply. Another Tory, wannabe councillor Simon Emmett – who used to write a blog called The Last Boy Scout – is a bit more frequent, but still seems too full of righteous anger at the national government to realise he’s actually only standing for a single council ward, Shooters Hill. A second national humilation? It’s a long way from Red Lion Lane.

The other, I discovered the day after writing this, is Peninsula councillor Mary Mills – much loved by Greenwich Phantom readers and a respected local historian – who keeps an occasional, chatty diary and also compiles an e-mail newsletter for her and her Labour colleagues.

The two Lib Dem councillors don’t blog but funnel stuff through a party website, and the Greens don’t have any councillors but have a new website (full disclosure: which I helped put together).

But what about the other 35 Labour councillors? I did hear somewhere years back that they were forbidden from blogging – I’ve no idea if this is true or not, although it does ring true. (Although perhaps not now I’ve found one.) I do know some councillors do engage with local bloggers offline – credit to them for doing that, but without actually putting their heads above the parapet and engaging with a wider public online, they simply aren’t going to get their message across. Perhaps they want to avoid difficult discussions about the Olympics, or the widely unpopular planned move of John Roan school – but when you charge hundreds of pounds a year and can’t even get a simple message about recycling rubbish right, it’s nowhere near good enough.

But just gettting a blog
, even responding publicly on one, or joining Twitter, would be a start. Sure, these people hold down jobs too, and we don’t want to know what they had for breakfast. But even just a weekly message – what’s on residents’ minds, what’s going on down at the town hall, will my street ever get swept – would transform the council. And, who knows? It might help them do their job.

Any tips on coaxing them out of their silence would be appreciated…

7 comments

  1. Several Lambeth Labour councillors are on Twitter; I follow a couple but mainly because they are old old friends (disclosure)

    The Councillor’s blog is a difficult one. Too many of the ‘I did this I went there’ can be a real turn-off and/or look like blatant spin/electioneering. It is difficult for local councillors not to get involved in national politics partly because they are, almost by definition, politically involved, and, anyway, it is difficult and futile to make a clear divide between local, regional and national issues. Also a conscientious or ambitious ocuncillor is unlikely to stray far from the party line.

    Many councillors do have jobs, often full time ones, and private/family/social lives, too. I have to say that I am not convinced of the benefits of councillors using blogs, Facebook, Twitter etc as a means of communication; they are only speaking to the politically involved, probably just a few dozen, or considerably fewer. I would be reluctant to ‘demand’ that councillors blog. Some people are natural communicators and can write quickly, but even they can be defeated by a sense of obligation; the time given to blogging is time not given to scrutiny or casework.

    But I do think it is the responsibility of every council to have a website that is full of useful usable information.

    Eg a few years ago, I wanted to contact Lambeth’s noise pollution people. For reasons I can’t remember now I wanted to do it by means other than telephone. I discovered that I could do so by downloading ie printing a form, filling it in by hand, and posting it.

    Now, I can email them direct from the website. It seems to make sense to all sorts of organisations to facilitate email or webform contact, especially if the matter os not of immediate urgency.

    The public/customer can contact them at their convenience; there’s no waiting on hold at busy times, and workflow can be managed. Also, it reduces the chances for abusive customers, or for frustrated customers who are at the end of their tether.

  2. I agree with you in general, and clearly some people are better communicators than others, it can be full of bear-traps and it runs the risk of being a bit of a minority activity.

    But even a I did this/ I went there record is proof that people are getting something for their money. If three councillors represent a ward, surely it isn’t too much to ask that once a fortnight one of them pens 500 words on what they’ve been up to?

    Also, in a world where local media as we know it is dying (and council meetings already go uncovered by local papers) elected representatives will need to be more adept in getting their messsages across directly.

    And on a non-political level, usable websites are a must. Shame I’m lumbered with one that’s a mess…

  3. How to coax them out of silence? hmmm. They have weekly surgeries which they operate on a rota basis. You could propose that on the fourth week of the month they answer or respond to online queries on some form of blog. Ok, it would only be once a month, but it could be incorporated into what they already do and be convenient for them too and be better than nothing. It would also encourage people to engage with ( and scrutinize) their councillors and could be a way to enter into a dialogue will people via e-mail. Realistically, not all councillors will join the online revolution and engage with people in that way but a few progressive councillors communicating online could help. They might also be able to make up for the lack of information on the Greenwich Council website which is in serious need of an overhaul.

  4. […] down there on Saturday and it was a horrible mess. Then, like me, he finds the way to deal with Greenwich Council’s hopeless communication skills is by e-mailing right to the top; in this case council leader Chris […]

  5. Thanks for the mention. I will be twittering and blogging as Mayor over the next year and hope that some will discover more about the Mayoralty, however more importantly raise awareness of organisations such as the Townswomens Guild.

    Lots of people work tirelessly without financial reward for others and if my small efforts can do anything to raise awareness of their work then those small efforts will be worth those 140 characters.

    The good thing about sites such as Twitter is that the information is not forced on you. You choose who you follow and if what they say is of no interest you stop.

    The women at West Norwood Townswomens Guild were wonderful. I heard of great friendships built through the guild and for some this is one of very few places they get to socialise, for others it further extends their network of friends. I hope that my posting might reach out to women who are currently not members who may then go along, meet new people and make new friendships of their own.

    From on-line followers to real life friendships, thats got to be a good thing.

    http://www.townswomen.org.uk/

    Christopher

  6. I’m sorry if I didn’t reply to your question about savings in Labour’s budget. Our budget amendments reallocated funds from a new Greenwich advisory service which we believed hadn’t been properly defined (and anyway, would YOU take advice from Greenwich Council?) to pay for a new police safer neighbourhood team, and some funds from an economic regeneration fund to pay for a Council Tax reduction, putting money directly back in people’s pockets. We would also of course make large savings on the Council’s propoganda budget, and scrapping the Greenwich Time “newspaper”. Thanks for your other comments – hopefully you’ll notice an increased number of posts on local issues, as I will be splitting off the national comments soon to another blog.

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