Dial F for Full Council

EVERY six weeks or so, all of Camden’s councillors get together to blame each other for bad things and praise themselves for good things. No council policy ever gets altered here, the full council meeting. The debate is almost always rigidly along party political lines, even on smaller parochial issues which they all probably fundamentally agree on. The public have long since stopped filling the overhead galleries, presumably bored at the circular sledging. And now the councillors themselves look terribly bored, judging from the webcast screening of last night’s session. I’m sure none of them are playing Scrabble or Angry Birds or anything trivial, but the business on their smartphones seems of greater importance than anything their colleagues are saying.



25 Comments on Dial F for Full Council

  1. Sarah Hayward // March 5, 2013 at 1:43 pm //

    I’m interested – is there implicit criticism in your blog or not. I can’t quite tell.

    The way people interact is changing. People want to receive information in different ways and there are many different options open. Although I didn’t last night I’ve taken, and answered, questions about council policy and process over twitter during council meetings.

    It’s an important part of the way democracy functions now, because it’s an important part of how people live their lives.

    I’m not pretending full council is perfect either. That’s why we’ve just started a cross party review of our democracy. It will include how to better use social media in the democratic processes.

    I take far more casework on electronic and social media than I do in my surgery. This was unthinkable even a decade ago. But I still hold my physical surgery because it’s important for people who can’t use computers or still want face to face contact.

    Our democracy is change, because the way people communicate is changing. If we don’t keep pace people will be ever more removed from the decisions that affect their lives – and the way they want to get information about them.

    • A very thoughtful comment. Occasionally I get irritated by the use of phone’s in public meetings, however, this annoyance is caused more by the person’s body language. It’s no where near as simple as we either should or should allow the use of phones in meetings, it’s a bit more nuanced. If someone is looking at their phone and laughing to themselves they are appear to be responding to a personal text message. If, on the other hand, someone picks up their phone to make a quick tweet this can also be seen in their body language. I have no problem with tweeting from meetings. Perhaps as phones become increasingly pervasive we will develop new body language.

    • Will your ‘cross party review’ of democracy force the choice to either return to a Committee system, that properly uses the energy and talent of all 54 Councillors, or retain Blair’s centralised Cabinet system (which causes full Council meetings to be boring and pointless) and reduce the number of Councillors to that needed of either 18 or 36?

  2. Ex of Camden // March 5, 2013 at 2:06 pm //

    Whatever way you look at this it is visibly rude not only to their colleagues but more importantly to their tenants as it looks like they are not interested in any debate as their concentration is more on their mobiles – Perhaps mobiles should be banned from the chambers or just switched off, the councilor’s may get a bit of respect back.

  3. Richard Osley // March 5, 2013 at 3:40 pm //

    Thanks Sarah, the criticism is largely of a full council meeting which might just have lost nearly all of its connection with the public, which is a shame on nights when budgets are set. There are often promises to review it and change, most fair minded people I think would agree, is long overdue.

    In terms of phone use and Twitter, maybe speak to Peter Brayshaw who at one point had to tell a colleague something along the lines of ‘if you take a break from emailing for just one minute, you might be interested’. Who really wants to speak to people’s bowed heads? Imagine if every other councillor did it during your leader’s speech.

    Answering questions on Twitter is great, but why do councillors have to do it instantly and while other people are speaking and trying to make their point. There is somebody from the council’s webcast team, after all, there to explain any points of procedure on Twitter, allowing councillors to remain focussed on the debate. Councillors have lots of opportunities to tweet information about council policy at times when colleagues aren’t speaking, don’t they? And surely the people asking the questions online would fairly understand that an answer might come back after a debate has finished.

    If we want the meeting taken seriously, maybe speakers could get more from a room of people looking at them and hearing them out, rather than rows and rows of people dug deep into their phones. Just a thought. Maybe what lies behind it all is that everybody knows what everybody is about to say, it is all so loyally party political and tribal. And that comes back to the format of the meeting, which squashes any real debate in favour of a straight up adversarial dust-up.

  4. Roy Shaw, Camden’s most distinguished Councillor who was made an Hon. Alderman when he retired after 50 years could be seen ostentatiously doing the Guardian crossword. I think it was a protest against the Cabinet system and the neutering of Councillors which had made Council meetings irrelevant. I didn’t think on this (rare) occasion he was right – you need to make the best of a bad job. I wonder how many people agree with me that sending Twitter messages, especially within the room is also insulting to the voters who feel that they are not part of a sort of an inner club

  5. Sarah Hayward // March 5, 2013 at 4:41 pm //

    Richard, you raise important points about the nature of some of the meetings and at which points in the process people feel able to influence decisions. Which isn’t full council. I think the review is long overdue – which is why it’s started.

    One important point of clarification the officers tweeting the agenda descriptions can’t (rightly) make partisan points.

    Despite the images you’ve chosen to pick out I think there was a lot of engagement last night and there was a lot of engagement with councillors of all parties on twitter – not an inner club but a platform open to anyone with a mobile phone – I don’t know how many people watched online either. But both are easier for many people than attending the meeting.

    I can honestly say, no one has ever complained to me about me answering a question quickly on twitter. People regularly complain they struggle to get timely information from the council and councilors.

    I may not be able to convince you but technology is changing the way we communicate and it’s also changing the way we interact – last night’s debates were important, and it was important the people who couldn’t be there could also get a flavour of what was going on. Clearly many other councillors of all parties also thought so.

    I hope the review will find a way to use tradition and technology constructively together. Until then I support councillors being able to interact on the debate that’s had.

    Now if people were tweeting about Corrie from the meeting, that’s a different matter.

  6. Richard Osley // March 5, 2013 at 5:08 pm //

    Thanks again Sarah, although I think you answer a different point than one I make here as I make no criticism of attempts to improve participation through technology (as long as we don’t get onto the Love Camden website).
    Clearly, given my own Twitter account and blog, I am not adverse to using technology to communicate and it’s great if councillors can make it work. I just think there might be room for both: active, helpful social media but also time to just sit and listen to members. It goes back to the idea of giving out the impression that everybody knows what partisan point is likely to be made, so why not see if we can answer a tweet or email while they are droning on… That might not be the reality of what is going through members minds, but there is a risk of that being the image which is created. See other comments here. I think that might have been behind Cllr Brayshaw’s briefly frustrated tones last night.

  7. Richard Osley // March 5, 2013 at 5:14 pm //

    PS looking forward to the full council review: how about putting potentially policy changing motions at the front of the meeting, rather than the back?
    Might make backbenchers feel more involved.

    • All ideas welcome. Peter is chairing the review. Talk to him about any ideas you have.

      • As per previous comment there is a simple solution to all this which Eric Pickles has provided in the Localism Act and Barnet has taken up. The full Council meeting only has relevance and can ONLY change policy if it is the executive body of the Council. In English that means taking up the option to scrap the Cabinet system (that makes over 3/4s of the Councillors inert and make the Council meeting the centre of decision making.

        Does Camden have the ambition and modern outlook to realise the public are sick to death of electing Councillors who actually have no ability to shape events or affect the running of their Council?

  8. I both agree with Richard more than Sarah, and plead guilty to being a bad offender myself, both in full council and DC. So a reminder for me to try and leave out non time sensitive emails and random tweeting in meetings.

    I wonder whether people would do it as much in meetings where they are genuinely taking decisions. How would the famous libraries rebellion in 2000 have gone in an age of social media?

    There are of course a range of modes for councillors in a meeting, from rapt attention to zero attention to the speaker. Often cllrs are still reding papers relevant to the meeting as well as trying to listen. Is there much difference between looking at hard copy committee papers and the same thing on an iPad? Active tweeting is different I agree.

    Anyway, well done Richard for raising, but I would caution against heavy handed imposition of a twitter policy that might make us look ridiculous. The press and public and colleagues can be good natural regulators of behaviour I feel.

    • Andrew you are right, using and iPad isn’t bad in itself. Surely what is so worrying is that so many Councillors (quite rationally) see no point to their purpose at full Council under the Cabinet system as there is no business for them to decide? They may be asked to vote on the budget but as it has been worked through in detail by Cabinet and not Council Committees they have no ownership.

  9. Richard, as Sarah points out, twitting and listening to the debate are not mutually exclusive: when Cllr Flick Rea stood up against the Conservative and defended the role of the Trade Unions, most of the people that you see twitting in those pictures supported her speech, in the traditional way shouting “hear, hear” and clapping their hands – well, not Gio Spinella :-)

    Even the House of Commons, yes the austere House of Commons, allows members to use their electronic devices during meetings, provided that their use did not ”impair decorum”, and #PMQT is a very successful way for local MPs to involve more people and engage with their constituents and for the public to be part of the democratic discussion happening in the Chamber.

    As for your other point, indeed we need to improve the way the Council works, make meeting more open and interesting, change the policy-making process, involve and engage… I do not see any contradiction with the use of Twitter.

    • Das Kapital // March 5, 2013 at 11:49 pm //

      See, you just can’t help it, you’ve got to be involved in political point scoring – “We’ll, not Gio Spinella” – it’s like a disease!!!!!!!! Who the hell is really worried about Gio Spinella!

      If you don’t think this sort of behaviour is pushing people away from from wanting to get more involved in local politics, or even get involved in town hall debates, you’re mistaken!

      The fact of the matter is the majority of politicians (local and national) have just lost touch with the average voter who wants to hear more discussions about bread and butter issues, the type of issues that make a difference to their lives.

      How many people are living in fuel / food poverty in Camden and how many politicians are attacking the root of the problem? How many families will be moved out of Camden over the next six months due to the welfare reforms. Yes, this government’s a b …………, but at least have some guts in standing up to oppose it!

      I’m sorry, but many of us now see local politics in Camden as a purely hopeless cause!


      • Sorry, I do not accept the criticism of having lost touch with the average voters when it is moved by an anonymous nickname.

        Please show your face at one of my surgeries (every Friday evening), or to one of the events I have organised in my ward to discuss the welfare changes (the next one is on the 13th of March).

        If you are busy and can’t make any of them, don’t worry, you can find me every single weekday morning at the gate of Primrose Hill primary school: always happy to talk to people also when I am not wearing my Council badge!

    • Richard Osley // March 6, 2013 at 2:00 am //

      Thanks LP, although I think you confuse the point of the post. I’m 100 percent sure you wouldn’t do that deliberately, turning the post into a conversation about the value of Twitter, which we can all agree on, and not really answering the points made by other commenters, Those being the suggestion that it can appear unintentionally rude, to use somebody’s else word, to be playing with your phone when somebody is talking budgets or council policy. Sending a tweet can probably wait a few minutes, but the post wasn’t about Twitter, it was just about the image the webcast gives out. This was my first time watching it on the webcast and I was struck by just how bored and distracted councillors looked in the background, even when their own colleagues are talking. Watch it back, it is quite noticeable. Maybe this is due to the format of the meeting, of which there is often talk of reforming but never much change.

      Of course councillors should tweet and communicate online, but this isn’t about Twitter, it’s just about the image that is given off. It’s not for me to tell you lot how to treat each other but I suspect most of you prefer making speeches to a room of people looking at you rather than the tops of heads. Again, we could return to Peter Brayshaw’s brief comment on the night about a fellow member being unable to stop emailing during the meeting. Or we could return to a scenario in the not too distant future when you get up to address the chamber with some carefully crafted words, only to find every single other person looking at someone else. That might be a tiny bit deflating, it might make you wonder: is anybody listening?

      • Richard, sometimes picture are misleading.

        When I spoke, during the debate, Sarah was typing on her mobile – a picture would probably show her with her head down, and you would comment that she was bored and uninterested.
        Quite the contrary, she was twitting a comment on my speech, so she was listening and engaging with what I was saying.

        Peter Brayshaw started his speech with a joke on the small difference between the Labour budget and the oppositions budgets (“but 1% difference in DNA – he said – is what make the difference between human and chimpanzee”) – had you published a picture of the Labour benches in that exact moment, we would be here discussing of the insensitive attitude of Councillors, laughing and having fun while voting the budget. And there would be lots of anonymous comments on the outrageous fact that we have lost touch with the dramatic situation in which our constituents live!

        The problem is not in the picture!

        As I said I do agree with your point on changing the way the Council works, and make it more open…

        Full Council, however, is only the final part of the decision-making process and it is inevitable that when you arrive at that stage, the decision -especially on complex issues like the budget- has already been taken.

        During the debate, both Peter Brayshaw and Abdul Quadir (see, I was listening, also if I looked bored!) pointed out that the discussion about the budget at Committee stage was more open and less driven by the aim of scoring political points – still very few people (or journalists) attend Committees, with the exception of Development and Control which is always fully packed.

        The idea of moving the motions at the beginning of the meeting is good (and I will wholeheartedly support it) but it is not enough and we need to make people aware of all the different stages of the decision making process, and involve them in those early stages when their voice can really change things.

  10. *tweet or no tweet – camden council meetings are boring and useless …. democracy does not need mobile phones !!

  11. Local Tory // March 7, 2013 at 11:52 am //

    The essential question is what is full council for? Must councillors pay attention to a waste of time?

    In my day the answer seemed to be, for a nauseating display of smugness that could have driven a nun to murder. I never quite got round to playing Jane Roberts bingo (“…much has been done…””…but we are not complacent…” HOUSE!)but only because the whole three hours were usually so appalling if I had paid any more attention suffering a cerebral haemorrhage would have been an act of self preservation. Thje meetings would make Angry Birds look like negotiating the Peace of Westphalia.

    Maybe things are better now but I rather doubt it.

  12. Gio Spinella // March 7, 2013 at 2:51 pm //

    First of all, may I just say in response to “Who the hell is really worried about Gio Spinella?”- ouch! Harsh! And I didn’t consider Lazzaro’s reference to me to be political point scoring.

    Following that, it’s true that full council is a moment of political contrast and confrontation and none more so than the budget meeting, which is arguably the most political meeting of the year, when the parties literally put (Camden’s) money where their mouths are and delineate what they will do (the party in administration) and would do (the parties in opposition). The tweeting that ensues is part of the rapid response culture that has evolved in politics over the last 15 years and that smart-phones and social media have made instantaneous. And there is usually more tweeting at the budget meeting than at any other full council meeting. Yes, it’s political point-scoring, but that is part and parcel of the nature of party politics- which I for one am not ready to scrap just yet. Of all full council meetings, the budget setting meeting is the one with the least amount of dialogue between parties, which is also why perhaps we all of us talk and posture the loudest and tweet the most. The end result is known: the party in administration will pass its budget, the oppositions will discuss their amendments and alternatives and we all go home.

    I notice that the discussions about the other reports in that very session were much more open and congenial. Lazzaro for instance tweeted about what Nancy Jirira said- whilst discussing the work of the CSF scrutiny committee and the difficulties in educational attainment for Congolese children and the children of the white working class- without irony or any hostility. I myself intervened on a report about councillor’s pay-setting with Peter Bradshaw and Keith Moffit, all of us in broad agreement (although Peter did make a political point in his summation).

    We do listen to what is being said in the full session- but often we know much of what our party colleagues are going to say and can make a good guess of what the opposition will say- I think I tweeted to you what Andrew Mennear was saying when my picture got taken.

    There is much less tweeting in the scrutiny committees you’ll notice, because there the party political element is less remarked- although never absent- and the space for questions and debate is greater.

    Some senior councillors speak fondly of the old committee system for running the council as more participatory but I couldn’t possibly comment as I wasn’t there at the time. It’s true that back-benchers have less to say in these full meetings but even at committee level, inevitably the majority party will have its way- of course it will, it’s the majority. And any aspiration towards more consensus and participation in decision making will inevitably have to deal with the realities of party politics.

    The tweeting is a symptom of the relatively “blocked” nature of party politics in the council. Political confrontation between parties in some cases is fluid and in just as many others must be rigid. I can’t help but think there is no way to get around this fundamental principle of democracy, that elections matter and that the party with the most number of councillors has to ultimately make and be responsible for its decisions.

    Richard, you’re raised the issue so let me ask you: how would you reconcile the nature of party politics with greater participation in the full council?

    • It’s very odd to describe a system of government used in this country for ages and around the world as ‘old’. Councillors know very well how the Committee System works through planning and environmental matters. It’s very simple in that instead of 54 Councillors choosing 10 Councillors to run everything, all 54 Councillors do the job the public expect them to do themselves.

      Is it really morally or democratically superior for one Councillor to make a decision in Camden on their own, shut away behind closed doors being bamboozled by Officers than for the same decision to be taken by a Committee of Councillors meeting in public, openly debating the matter with the public able to take part if they are sufficiently interested?

      It’s not the Committee System that is ‘old’ but the Cabinet System that is experiment and flakey and despite being run for over 12 years here hasn’t been copied elsewhere.

      Coming up with ‘eye catching’ initiatives to try and make a busted system work better will not fool the public. Either return to the tried and tested way of running things or cut back on the number of Councillors to 18 or 36 and accept that democracy has been replaced with technocracy.

  13. I reckon I’ve attended about 130 full council meetings in my time, Julian and Flick and some others will be well ahead of me. This trail has wandered a bit away from twitter, but a couple of comments which may be of interest:

    Cllrs have always allowed themselves to be distracted by things other than listening to boring, predictable speeches at full council. There used to be a bar on full council nights, and until recently hot food. I think attendance in the chamber of those in the building is actually up on what it was ten years ago.

    Twitter notwithstanding, good speakers attract attention, poor ones who either read or waffle do not. Humour, especially self deprecating humour, goes a long way. Predictable partisanship is boring. (Julian F used to talk of the need to show “light and shade”). At its best, a good contribution can elicit some response, albeit different ones, from both sides of the chamber. And think of the poor officers, who have to sit through all this, and never get a chance to speak – they appreciate

    It’s curious to me that partisanship is higher in the council – indeed many local authorities – than today in Parliament. Ie many fewer rebellions on votes. Also curious is the tradition ( which I must admit I’ve never questioned) that the opposition parties put in “fully costed” alternative budgets, unlike oppositions in parliament who avoid this like the plague. It would be interesting to research opposition budgets across councils – I suspect that – controlling for party – oppositions generally consider they are smarter at finding savings than administrations…

    Local Tory – you have come close to outing yourself and it doesn’t surprise me you spent some council meetings checking Jane Roberts on the bingo jargon list! For me, the thrill of listening to my own voice in front of an audience of sorts always made full council something to look forward to. And for all its failings, it is a mechanism for holding administrations to account. Groups for example want their leader to perform well – and perceived lack of authority or dynamism in the chamber has sometimes been be one trigger for leadership changes.

  14. Clearly this has generated a large number of councillor responses.

    Actually, a very funny ‘satirical’ blog by Osley.

    Perhaps another take on this may be:

    I was minded to look at how long the yellow lines were, which is a very useful measure of who has progressive myopia. Noticed a few longer than usual yellow lines suggesting that a trip to the oculist may be advised!

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