Some questions (and my thinking behind them) that I will be asking the new council executive team on Thursday 12 June
I’ve written to Cambridge City Council’s democratic services team giving notice of questions I’m going to ask them. (You can do this too – see here). It might sound strange to give notice to councillors of questions that you are going to ask them. The reason is that I want councillors to have time to consider what I’ve asked them and give substantive responses. It also allows them to get any briefing and advice they need in any follow-ups I then come back with.
Q to Cllr Herbert (Leader-elect of Cambridge City Council)
Throughout 2014 I have been disappointed to find that local public sector institutions are not just ignoring correspondence from local residents trying to hold them to account, but repeated from local councillors and council area committees too. When I stood as a candidate, my correspondence was also ignored. I would be grateful if, at the outset of your new council you could make it crystal clear to the heads of all local institutions spending taxpayers money to deliver public services that:
a) such behaviour is absolutely unacceptable and is a contempt of the council
b) such behaviour is a barrier towards Cambridge becoming a city greater than the sum of its parts
c) for the Council Executive to consider implementing a new, simple process where the Leader of the Council will write to ministers responsible for those institutions asking for their assistance following repeated refusals to engage with the council – with the knowledge that any correspondence from the leaders of councils in that capacity has to be responded to by ministers of the Crown
d) To report back to the next meeting of the full council on the outcome of their considerations in c)
Q) to Cllr Herbert
Alex Aiken, executive director of the Government Communications Service inside Cabinet Office confirmed that people in Comms roles would not be eligible for promotions or sideways moves if they did not learn digital skills. (See http://www.prweek.com/article/1294275/government-comms-chief-recruit-100-digital-natives-enforce-skills-take-up ). You’ll recall in my manifesto that I called for all local public sector jobs in Cambridge that have a management function should have basic data analysis and social media skills as a mandatory competency. Please can you and the chief executive of the council consider this specific proposal, mindful of the direction of travel coming from central government and report back to the full council on your decision, with reasons.
Q) to Cllr Johnson (designated executive councillor for arts & community)
In April 2012 you’ll recall promising Puffles in a tweet, to deliver a Cambridge Societies’ Fair on the condition that you were elected.
Hence it was good to see the fair in your manifesto and to see you now in the role of executive councillor responsible for delivering this.
Please can ask officials working for you to:
a) begin the scoping and planning necessary to deliver this – in particular how to work best with students in further education
b) give very serious consideration to a ‘community mapping exercise’ – something I called for in my manifesto and repeatedly called for at council meetings, to ensure we don’t miss out on any community groups
c) ask officials if they can work with me and colleagues working on a ‘community action summit’ this September at Anglia Ruskin University – I’ve booked the venue and will be publishing a draft brochure later this month
d) confirm you will report back with a progress update on items a) and b) to councillors at the next full council
My thinking behind this style of questioning
You will notice that each of the three questions/comments I’m going to put to the council contain a clause asking the responsible executive councillor to report back to the full council at subsequent meetings. It’s a simple but effective tactic in that it forces the hand of council officials to act upon whatever it is I’m asking about. Why? Because they have a clear deadline to work towards. At the same time, rather than demanding an instant response, councillors and officials will have weeks to consider their response – hence whatever they come back with has to be much more substantive than an off-the-cuff response.
“Why do you think this style of questioning will have a greater impact?”
Much of what I’m going to be asking councillors over the rest of 2014 will be around items and themes in my manifesto. Recall too that Labour’s Prospective Parliamentary Candidate Daniel Zeichner has gone on public record supporting many of the ideas in it.
This isn’t a demand of ‘implement my manifesto, not your one’. As I stated here, Cambridge Labour comprehensively won the local elections in Cambridge and have a mandate to deliver their manifesto. Mine was never meant to be that sort of party-political manifesto. Rather it covered things around local public administration and public policy that don’t really get debated on the doorstep, giving ideas for whoever runs the council some things to consider. Mine is also a manifesto for a very long-term cultural change across Cambridge – one that goes far beyond traditional electoral and political cycles.
Solving Cambridge’s housing crisis
Earlier, Cambridge Labour announced a new council committee on housing – see here. This has a lot of potential, and I hope this could become a future forum where residents (irrespective of the type of housing they live in) can come together with landlords and developers to deal with some of the worst aspects of housing in Cambridge. In particular I think there’s potential around improving how residents can report substandard housing & landlords, engaging with developers at design stage and putting pressure on universities and colleges to be responsible institutions when it comes to student housing. I’ll be interested to see what their terms of reference will be, and how they can also get input from specialist groups, whether the Chartered Institute for Housing, homelessness charities and civil engineering experts at the local universities.
Executive councillors setting expectations
Cambridge Labour’s executive councillors have a massive opportunity to change the way the council is treated by local institutions. It isn’t just the change in political control (after over a decade out of local office) or the size of the majority that matters, but that they’ve got a critical mass of younger councillors with lots of energy and determination. This for me is why Cllr Lewis Herbert’s response to my first question is ever so important. If he as council leader can make it crystal clear to other local institutions that being ignored or brushed aside will not be tolerated (and that this will be followed up – all the way to Whitehall and ministers if necessary) could make the latter think twice.
Now, it could work or it could go badly wrong. From the executive councillors I know, most of them won’t tolerate being ignored or brushed aside. At the same time, an overly aggressive approach could shut some people off. This is why having a clear process of escalation is vital. Far better to have a clear and substantial threat (ie ‘We will be raising your institution’s conduct with ministers as you’ve clearly not complied with our clearly-stated process as approved by the council’) rather than engaging in a shouting match across a table. Furthermore, in 2015 there’s a general election. Irrespective of who wins Cambridge (I still think it’s too close to call between Julian and Daniel), Daniel Zeichner has more connections than on a circuit board inside the national Labour Party. Should Labour get into national government in 2015, expect Labour ministers to be sympathetic to a Labour-run council being ignored by local taxpayer-funded institutions.
If Cllr Herbert proposes a motion to a future full council meeting on the back of my first question, local institutions would be ill-advised to ignore Cambridge City Council and local councillors on the back of it. Because post-2015 they could find themselves caught in a pincer movement.
UPDATED TO ADD:
Alex Aiken of Cabinet Office tweeted confirmation of the new policy of the Government Communications Service:
Digital comms skills are now mandatory from the most junior officer to the very top.