Monday 14 October 2013

Barnet's Governance System - The words Titanic and deckchairs spring to mind

How effective are the Barnet Council at engaging with residents? Based on the results of the recent consultation exercise into the proposed changes to the councils governance system, the answer would have to be utterly ineffective.

 Barnet Council are moving from a cabinet system where decisions about the way the council is run are in the hands of just 10 people, to a committee system where, in theory, there will be much more debate and most of the councillors will get involved. The council undertook an initial phase of consultation using a questionnaire survey distributed as follows:

"Respondents views were fed back via a link to an on-line survey incorporated on the Engage space (the council's consultation website)
Paper copies of survey were circulated in:

  • Council offices at North London Business Park, 
  • Barnet House, 
  • Burnt Oak, 
  • Hendon Town Hall; 
  • at the Arts Depot; 
  • Barnet libraries (including community libraries)

The survey was promoted via the council’s social media channels and was supported by a press release to the local media, who gave the project press coverage. In addition, the survey was circulated to local groups (via CommUNITY Barnet) and to key partners (Barnet Clinical Commissioning Group, Barnet and Southgate College, Middlesex University, Brent Cross Shopping Centre, Barnet Group, Metropolitan Police
Barnet, Capita and Job Centre Plus)".

And how many responses did all this activity elicit. Just 71. Out a population of 356,000 that doesn't seem like very many. Indeed it is just 0.02% which by any standards seems woeful.

They fared somewhat better with the Citizens Panel (a group of "1,600 Barnet residents, selected to be representative of the adult population of the borough in terms of ward, age, gender, ethnicity, housing tenure, faith and disability") where they had 504 responses. This high response rate might be because the council spent £2,440 posting the survey to recipients.

However when you start looking at the results, the answers are somewhat shocking. For example:
92% of Citizen Panel respondents had not attended any council meeting including residents forums in the last 12 months. When asked why, their responses were as follows:

1. Did not know where the meetings were held (61% / 283 out of 464)
2. Lack of time (48% / 223 out of 464)
3. Inconvenient time (34% / 158 out of 464)
4. Inconvenient location (21% / 97 out of 464 responses)
5. Issues considered not relevant to me (19% / 88 out of 464 responses)
6. Not interested (17% / 79 out of 464 responses)
7. Have attended before but did not find them useful (10% / 46 out of 464 responses)

7% (16 out of 464) of respondents to this question cited other reasons for not attending
a meeting, including ‘too infirm/ ill health’ (3.4%), ‘do not know what items were on the
agenda/do not know if relevant’ (1.9%) and ‘do not know if allowed/needed an
invitation’ (1.7%).

Even worse is when you look at the basic knowledge of the Citizen Panel respondents, with 68% saying they do not know who their ward councillor was. Of the 32% who said they did know who their councillor was less than half (45%) had ever contacted them. To me this suggests that councillors need to start working a bit harder for their £10,000 a year in allowances and start talking to the people they are supposed to represent.

In terms of understanding the current governance system, only 7% of Citizens Panel respondents said they understood the system fully. That is completely unacceptable and the council should hold its head in shame.

In my humble opinion the biggest problem here is that the council is completely out of touch with residents and that any changes to the governance system are being introduced for the benefit of the people who run the system i.e politicians,  not residents. From my perspective this should act as a wake up call for the council to stop navel gazing and start getting residents involved with the council. I have repeatedly asked for a resident engagement strategy to get people involved with what the council does and how it affects residents. Only when you have an informed constituency can you start to ask them about how it should be run more effectively.

Barnet should stop rearranging the deckchairs and focus on stopping the ship from sinking. Democracy is in real danger of disappearing unless the council takes positive and assertive steps to engage residents and starts a programme of educating residents as to what the council does and how it operates. Oh and by the way I would like to see a performance measure introduced for councillors where, if less than 75% of residents know who their councillor is, they don't get any allowance. That might make them engage a bit more.

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