Opening up democracy? We’re well on the way

Question Time
DEMOCRACY: Members quizzed via Social Media

ERIC PICKLES has issued new guidance on local democracy this week.

This aims to clarify what should be the norm in terms of media and public access to executive and council meetings.

Here in Oldham, however, we’re already well on the way to opening up our Council to local people.

That’s not for the sake of it, nor to simply comply with guidelines.

We’re ahead of the game because we want to engage better with residents and ensure that our communication with them is a genuine two-way exchange.We’ve also taken action to help all our councillors become better local leaders at the forefront of community activity.

Upon first becoming a councillor in 2003, I was somewhat taken aback by how insular some of our debates could be.

The Council Chamber was good political fun, granted, but I wouldn’t say that it represented local views and issues.

Debate usually consisted of attacking the opposition of the day and sending motions to Government for them to ‘file’ away. Public questions were often the result of an individual on a personal mission, a political party member or election candidate, or in some cases a campaign being run against a Council scheme.

I appreciate that is a generalisation – some very genuine residents turned up too – but not many. The public gallery was often bereft of their faces.

The format of how we operate as a Council is also important.

Many councillors look back with fondness at the old ‘committee system’ whereby they would sit on a themed committee such as housing or environment. Most members were involved and took part in decision-making.

That was then replaced with the ‘cabinet system’. The idea was simple: to create a smaller executive to ensure decision-making was streamlined and not held up in an internal bureaucracy. Examination of those decisions is now carried out by a group of councillors through the Overview and Scrutiny system.

I like the cabinet system. Clear lines of accountability and quicker decision-making are great, but it did pose the question of what you do with the 50 councillors who aren’t Cabinet Members?

My thoughts are that Ward Members are not ‘backbench’ members at all. They are actually on the frontline – not as the public face of Oldham Council, but as community leaders who represent local residents’ views and channel them back to us.

For that to work though the Council Chamber also has to be the bona fide debating chamber of the Borough and its people – not just Oldham Council PLC operating like a board of directors.

To be fair, most local councillors already have the required passion to work for local people, regardless of party politics, in their blood.

And that’s why a desire to move the debate beyond the Council Chamber into the community was the driver behind our decision to ‘go online’ and web stream our council meetings live before most other Local Authorities dared to.

It’s both staggering and quite scary in equal measure that around 300 people now watch our Full Council meetings. Our new audience is global with viewers – some even as far away as New Zealand – all tuning in. Compare that to the empty public gallery of the past!

If this was just as passive process I don’t think we would have so many people watching these proceedings. And I believe making the meeting as interactive as possible was crucial to this work to connect better with people.

We now take questions live on Facebook, Twitter and email during the meeting. We can have anywhere between 20-30 public questions each time. The public can also join the debate via Twitter with each comment and question showing up on the big screen in the Chamber. You’d be surprised how the debate has changed here over the past couple of years. There’s much more talk about the Borough and its people –and that can only be a good thing.

But we’ve also gone even further…

Having reached out to the public we also had to show councillors that we took their roles seriously too. So, as part of our ‘Open Council’ session, we allocate time for Ward Member questions. This is empowering for them and we actively encourage them to raise issues of local concern in their ward.

This has led to members in my own group raising concerns about the performance of the Council (on street lighting, for example) and holding it to account on behalf of their residents. Even better, the councillor asking the question can now tell their constituents to tune in and watch it being debated on their behalf.

And we didn’t stop there.

Youth Council
YOUTH COUNCIL: Josh Hudson handing over Youth Mayor duties to Emma O’Donnell.

We value our Youth Council and believe they are an inspiring voice for democracy in Oldham. After changing the constitution and meeting format to allow modernisation it seemed like a natural next step to engage better with them too.

Oldham Youth Council now has constitutional power in Oldham – and that is a first in the country. They have their own section on the Full Council agenda to raise issues, debate and hold us to account. So far they have used that time to raise important issues, like bullying.

I believe our Council Chamber in Oldham is now one of the most progressive and inclusive nationwide.

That’s a bold statement, but I believe the evidence backs it up. Our actions and the public response says we are making progress – and we didn’t need a Westminster Secretary of State to tell us to do it.

As we move forward we’re keen to devolve more power to Ward Members by boosting our District Partnerships.

Councillors are no longer backbench scrutineers in Oldham – they’re at the frontline of getting things done. What’s more they shout it from the rooftops thanks to our new system which sees each of them filing annual reports. You can view each member’s annual report by clicking here and find out exactly what they’re doing in your area.

Finally, next week will be the first anniversary of the Shaw gas explosion.

I know the community is still recovering and the events of that day have left a very deep pain and I include myself in that.

The loss of Jamie Heaton and the circumstances around the explosion have caused great suffering and anger, but they have also shown our community to be strong and united when it most needed to be resilient.

Next week Councillor Jean Stretton will be my guest blogger as she reflects on Shaw one year on.

Jean was the first member of the Council leadership team on the scene that day and she dealt with many issues on the ground. From handling media enquiries, helping residents who were displaced and – still today – supporting those in need.

Since setting up the Distress Fund with great cross-party support from local councillors she has helped distribute around £250,000 to those who have suffered, as well as working hard to help support people to get their lives back on track.

Jean was subsequently given the national ‘Community Champion of the Year’ award in recognition of the work and leadership that she showed.

She is an inspiring woman, but also very modest, so I thought I would set the scene about her role myself in proper context before you read her guest blog next week….

Thanks for listening,

Jim

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