Archive | July, 2013


25 Jul

via Instagram

Not so smart on a phone

22 Jul

What Newham’s website looks like on my iPhone

According to the Office for National Statistics:

  • Access to the Internet using a mobile phone more than doubled between 2010 and 2012, from 24% to 51%.
  • In 2012, 32% of adults accessed the Internet using a mobile phone every day. [my emphasis added]

There really is no excuse for not having a proper mobile version of your website.

And yes Newham council, I am looking at you.

Early evening sunshine

19 Jul

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Open democracy

19 Jul

Copyright: Image by jsawkins on Flickr. Some rights reserved

On July 15th Newham council voted to amend its constitution to allow the public to film and record proceedings at future meetings. The decision was inspired by Eric Pickles, the secretary of state for local government, basically telling councils that if they didn’t let this happen he’d change the law to force them.

The Newham Recorder invited our mayor and Lutfur Rahman, his Tower Hamlets counterpart, to ‘debate’ the matter. Mike Law has blogged about this and I’d recommend reading his post and the comments on it, as well as the Recorder piece.

What follows is the comment I added to Mike’s blog, which points at what I think is Sir Robin’s staggering hypocrisy on this issue:

Sir Robin, with Eric Pickles’ gun pressed to his head, says

what does it do to build public trust in politics more widely when a clique seeks to shut the public out from decisions made on their behalf?… In the 21st century it is not enough for democracy to simply happen. It has to be seen to happen.

Despite appearances, the age of satire is not yet dead.

As Birdman [one of the commenters on Mike’s blog] correctly observes,

decisions are largely taken in Labour Group meetings, after the Labour Councillors have been told which way to vote, and no genuine debate is ever seen or heard by the public attending meetings… what is there to film?

Monday’s council meeting, at which this “historic decision” was taken, lasted just 14 minutes. And that included a set-piece speech by councillor Ellie Robinson on ‘Newham’s Wonderful Women’.

May’s annual general meeting took a massive 39 minutes; February’s was 31 minutes. The ‘extraordinary’ meeting in January occupied councillors for a mere 10 minutes. I could go on, but you get the drift.

If Sir Robin were truly serious about open and transparent decision-making Labour group meetings would be the ones that took 10 minutes and the real debates would happen in council, where the public could see and hear them.

We all know that won’t happen though.

FOI updates

16 Jul

Last month I submitted two freedom of information requests to Newham. These have now been answered and both responses were surprising, albeit in different ways.

The first request asked about the costs associated with the council’s YouTube monitoring unit. I wanted to know how many ‘law enforcement officers’ had been involved, how much money had been spent and what officers spent their time doing. I also wanted to know what metrics would be used to measure whether or not the money invested had been spent wisely.

Not unreasonable questions and ones you would have thought Newham had ready answers to. But no. The reply I got was – in almost every respect – deficient. To say that

two members of staff are involved but this equated to zero full time equivalents as the work was not undertaken on a full time basis

is simply idiotic. And stating that

no metrics will be used to evaluate [this project], as the successful outcome of removal of the videos is self evident

is patronising and lazy. If it were self-evident I wouldn’t be asking, would I?

I am surprised the reply passed through internal quality assurance checks before being sent out. Needless to say, I have requested a review and some supplementary information. This has not yet been acknowledged.

The second request asked, straightforwardly, how much the Labour party paid to use space at Newham Dockside for Ed Miliband’s big speech on social security reform. This was a party political event, not a civic one, so it was fair to assume that the council would charge for the use of its facilities. The answer I got was not at all what I expected.

Newham said they didn’t charge Labour anything because the event took place in

a non-chargeable public space within the building.

Read that again. I did. Just to make sure I hadn’t got it wrong the first time.

There’s a part of Building 1000 that is public space, which the council will not charge you for using if you want to hold an event. Even a party political event.

If that’s genuinely the policy, then fair enough. But has Newham really thought through the potential consequences of that?

I can imagine that next April, ahead of the local elections, any number of people might want somewhere to launch their campaign to be mayor. Or their party’s manifesto. Where better than the very building they hope to be elected to occupy a month later? And they can have it for free!

And the council has put itself in the position where it will be almost impossible to say no.

14 Juillet 2013

14 Jul

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Complete control

13 Jul

Woman Shouting with Bullhorn

Last week there was a great post on the Guardian’s Local Government Network titled ‘Councils and social media: a desire for digital control still dominates‘.

Although it was about local government in general, it could almost have been written with Newham in mind:

A small study assessing how councils used social media in early 2012 demonstrated the point. Although 96% of authorities surveyed were using social media to post news stories and information, and 90% were promoting specific events and campaigns, only 41% of authorities monitored other forums and blogs. Where they did, only 28% actively engaged with residents on these platforms, with just 9% of councils saying they used social media for two-way communications. Though things may have improved in the last 18 months, the same fears are still holding councils back online.

Think about the way our council communicates with us as citizens and residents – it’s a centralised command and control, one-way process.

That’s why we have the Newham Mag. It’s all about telling us about all of the wonderful things the council is doing; pushing out information out without any conception that people might want to engage in a conversation about the things we really care about. You can’t answer back to a paper magazine.

The way Newham uses digital channels is consistent with this general approach. Although it does have a social media presence, it’s entirely information-based. The official Twitter feed and the Facebook page are filled with announcements about “free events” and suchlike. Trying to get a response if you post a comment or tweet back to them is more often than not a frustrating experience.

It’s such a missed opportunity.

Social media isn’t so difficult. Follow the basic rules (don’t do anything stupid; engage, don’t broadcast) and you have a powerful digital communication tool at your fingertips completely free of charge.

A measure of how wrong Newham gets it is the very small number of ‘likes’ the Facebook page has – just 474. That’s in a borough with over 300,000 residents. More than half of UK residents will use social networks regularly this year, according to eMarketer. And nine out of ten social network users in the country have a Facebook account. So there are probably close to 150,000 Facebook users in Newham. 474 ‘likes’ represents a feeble 0.3% of those.

The council’s Twitter feed is more popular, with almost 2,700 followers. Given the chance, it could be the focus of some really interesting debate, but that would require a change in the governing mind-set.

Allowing local people access to the conversations that go on within the town hall is a good thing. Councils are democratically elected bodies, and their work should be free and open to public scrutiny. The best way to use digital tools to achieve this level of local involvement and scrutiny is to use social media as it was designed to be used.

Social media is about connecting people and sharing experiences. It’s about enabling conversations. It’s also a daily part of most of our lives – we take it almost for granted that we can engage with people and businesses in near real-time.

When political and civic participation is at such dangerously low levels it is verging on the criminal not to use every available tool to reach out and engage.

It’s not all doom-and-gloom though. There are 14 current councillors with Twitter accounts, which they use to varying extents, and a good number of Labour’s new candidates for next year are active users. Hopefully, an influx of younger digital natives will lead to a more open approach.

Maybe they’ll stop talking at us and start talking with us.

Question time for Sir Robin?

10 Jul

Way back in 2010 I wrote a post on the E-democracy forum about Newham setting a world record for the shortest ever council meeting (just 6 minutes). I noted that the council’s own website said that:

“At these meetings the Council makes major decisions, such as deciding the council tax and budget and policy framework documents. It is the real focus for the whole Council to meet and debate major issues and to ask questions of the Mayor.”

Two years later, in August 2012, I found that the website text had been amended. The new version said:

“At these meetings the Council makes major decisions, such as deciding the council tax and budget and policy framework documents.”

Can you spot the difference? Perhaps they thought no-one would notice, but Sir Robin’s disdain for scrutiny has rarely been so obvious.

There’s now an even newer version which sets out the decisions which by law have to be made at full council. It also says:

“The full council is the opportunity for councillors to question the executive [and] chairs of council committees.”

So someone somewhere has given councillors back their right to publicly question Sir Robin!

I hope that the bright-eyed hopefuls recently selected to contest next year’s elections will, once installed in the council chamber, take that opportunity. Holding the mayor to account for his decisions is, in my view, by far the most important part of their job. And it would make a nice change if they actually did it.

Who knows, they might even get answers!

Better late than never

9 Jul

In his big speech today on Labour and the trade union link Ed Miliband announced that there will be an open primary to select the party’s candidate for Mayor of London in 2016:

“Since I became Labour leader, we have opened up our policy making process and opened up the Party to registered supporters. People who do not want to join Labour but share our aims.

“But I want to go further.

“If we are to restore faith in our politics, we must do more to involve members of the public in our decision making. We must do more to open up our politics.

“So I propose for the next London Mayoral election Labour will have a primary for our candidate selection.

“Any Londoner should be eligible to vote and all they will need to do is to register as a supporter of the Labour Party at any time up to the ballot.”

This was an idea I advocated more than a year ago in comments on Councillor John Gray’s blog.

An open primary not only engages a wider group of supporters, it also attracts a great deal of media attention which can then build momentum and the public profile of the chosen candidate going into the election.

While it may have taken Ed a year to catch up with me,  it’s nice to see that he reads John’s blog, even down to the comments!