Are councillors 'buffers' between citizens and officers?

  • OPEN EMAIL - to be posted on the Citycyclingglasgow forum and sent to all councillors to promote discussion.

    Dear Coun. Richardson,
    Thank you for taking the time to address the GoBike cycling meeting. In an interesting presentation you expressed concern about people making direct criticism of council officers and asked emphatically for criticism to be addressed to councillors who are the "buffer". I don't think councillors should be telling cyclists this is what they should do when they are dissatisfied with council actions. I don't consider this is always the most effective way to press for change in policy and improve the quality of what is being delivered.

    I understand councillors make policy and officers are responsible for delivery. Information concerning delivery by officers should be transparent (subject to certain exclusions such as commercial dealing, personal data, etc.). The Freedom of Information Act has been enacted to empower people to access information about delivery of policy. Requests for information under the act are made to officers (the chief executive manages an FOI Team), not to councillors. The FOI procedure does not involve councillors, whether it be a request for information, or for a review of inadequate response or a final appeal to the Information Commissioner. That is because officers have a legal responsibility to deal with requests for information about council matters.

    As regards cycling issues: if an officer does the following, for instance, then I consider cyclists are entitled to criticise their performance, ask for explanation and perhaps information, verbally and in writing, directly:
    1 Displays drawings which makes no acknowledgement of shows any attempt to comply with council strategic policy (as at the Battlefield Engagement consultation where options considered the needs of vehicles in detail, with scant inadequate consideration of pedestrian and bus needs, nothing on cycle needs - with no explanation of the omissions).
    2 Displays a drawing showing technical deficiency or error (As at the South City Way consultation - there I expressed criticism to officers for lack of consideration of cyclists needs at a right turn, they were unaware of the problem with their design. I pointed out other technical errors. I consider these were design incompetence). I consider draft detail drawings put on public display should not show gross technical deficiencies, unless it is stated clearly what is omitted or hasn't been designed yet.
    3 Designs and superintends construction of a facility that is hazardous (A new link path from Garrioch Drive onto Kelvin Walkway was hazardously steep - about 1 in 2 in one place. Officers were told of the hazard soon after it was opened and took no action, soon after there was an accident and the path has been closed permanently, wasting more than six thousand pounds. Details including FOI requests are posted on the GoBike website).
    4 Writes a letter containing a contentious interpretation of council policy.

    In such instances someone is right to ask officers for an explanation and express a point of view to them directly.

    It should not be necessary for the public to rely upon councillors to communicate concerns and get a response from officers. I consider a situation where councillors consider themselves to be "buffers" has been cultivated in Glasgow City Council over many decades, to the advantage of officers who do not want to be directly accountable to citizens. I consider this situation is a cultural problem of the city and hinders introduction of new ways of working.

    I consider councillors should explain that when making critical comment to officers the public should write to officers and copy their letter to their local councillor. Officers should be expected to reply directly to the citizen and copy the reply to the councillor.

    I consider councillors should be concerned primarily with policy making, not with day-to-day management. Is your view that councillors are "buffers" between public and officers written in council standing orders or codes of practice? If not, where has it come from?
    Pat Toms

  • administrators

    @pat I've moved this to the category "Debate".

    I don't think councillors should be telling cyclists this is what they should

    We should avoid referring to ourselves as "cyclists". Anna Richardson even mentioned she has asked official documents to avoid this and instead refer to people walking and cycling.

    Anna stated at the AGM that some of the designs they're pushing through are non-standard. Particularly safe cycle junctions, such as on the SCW. In the UK we don't have the design standards for such a junction and so the officers are having to design something that's not in their design manual. For the officers this incurs responsibility if something goes wrong.

    We want GCC officers who are willing to go beyond our current poor design standards and design safe cycling provision. Todo this Anna is giving them the space and encouragement for this to happen.

    Anna Richardson's time is limited. We need to be careful how we engage her time. My impression from the GoBike AGM is what she needs is support on the ground for the many projects that are currently being developed.

  • administrators

    @pat has this email been sent?

  • Responding obliquely to the topic question - on the matter of the many and frequent failures of various types of rubbish collection, we've been told by the 'officer' that requests to them by councillors get pushed to the top of the pile so if we're really got a problem we need to go via the councillors.

    So in practice, yes, councillors are, if not buffers, conduits between (let's call ourselves) residents and officers. (And no, I don't think councillors should be spending their time getting day-to-day council operations to run properly, but we are where we are.)

    Some of the stuff I see the council doing and not doing drives me insane. But I do sometimes remember to wonder what it must be like to be in a job where every controversial or dodgy decision or action is immediately subject to howls of public outrage - and the things that go right are all taken for granted. At least in the private sector your mistakes stay between you and your boss (and sometimes not even the boss finds out...)

    I don't know about anyone else, but the minute someone starts banging on about my faults and errors I become very disinclined to admit to any of them. Delivering feedback/criticism in a way that gets acted on is a subtle art.

  • Global Moderator

    @pat I was talking to a couple of councillors last night and they brought up your email when I mentioned active travel - I understand you've sent this to every single councillor in the city! I think each individual councillor will be less inclined to give your email much attention when they see it's not directly addressed to them or that you probably don't live in their ward. Remember that councillors are only paid part time and have limited resources for casework so will prioritise issues specific to their ward unless you are addressing something that falls within the remit of a committee they're active on.

    With regard to your point about inadequate designs being put out for consultation - it's rare that the exact designs shown at the early consultation stage are what get implemented. The feedback received from consultations - especially when well argued and evidenced - leads to change. It's much better to put on a high quality consultation response than to harangue officers who on the whole are just trying to do a good job. There are issues with design priorities and the need for a cultural change within GCC after several decades of a complacent and stale administration, but I know that councillors are working to challenge this and need considered support in doing so.

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