Friday, 28 May 2010

COUNCIL INFORMATION TRANSPARENCY

There is some evidence in uk that there is a strong correlation between council transparency and a lower than average Council Tax combined with better services. Transparency is essential to a functional democracy, and it is particularly essential to achieving a low tax and improved services. This gold standard of disclosure has several benefits to taxpayers, to the council and to local democracy in general.

The public clearly benefit by the new power they gain to identify wasteful spending and hold the council to account. If the default position for all public spending was that it would be made public, then large amounts of the absurd, self-indulgent and outright bizarre spending that goes on would never get off the ground, and that which did continue would swiftly be stamped out by public demand. This new gold standard of disclosure also sweeps away the advantage that opacity gives to councillors or officers over taxpayers and voters, too. No longer does one party come to the table armed with all the information on a given issue, while the other is kept in the dark.

The council benefits both practically and reputationally. Practically, because if two brains are better than one for solving a problem, then the application of thousands of brains to the question of how best to run the council’s budget can only be a good thing. The internet is a particularly good tool for harnessing the power of a community to study a question or solve a dilemma, and this new policy of openness provides a much greater opportunity for local residents to suggest ways to make the council run better.

Reputationally, the council gains because openness in public spending dispels suspicion. The MPs’ expenses saga proves all too vividly that keeping the details of how taxpayers’ money is spent simply serves to feed the fire of suspicion, rumour and disdain. As mentioned above, if a council is wasting taxpayers’ money then transparency will force them to stop doing so. If they are not, then this policy gives them the opportunity to reassure the public that they are good stewards of our money and thus bolster their reputation.

Local democracy itself benefits because a better informed electorate is always able to make better choices. This is taxpayers’ money being spent, and for them to be able to control democratically how it is spent and how their local services work, they must be allowed to see in detail what goes on behind the doors of the town hall.

In the age of the Freedom of Information Act, it seems ridiculous that only ten years ago taxpayers in Britain had almost no right to know how their money was spent. Windsor and Maidenhead has just opened a new age of transparency, and in ten years it will seem just as ridiculous that once we only had the right to take potshots in the dark using Freedom of Information requests to guess how politicians and civil servants spend our money. Other councils must now follow suit.

Redbridge is one of the worst for LOGOS Local Government Official Secrets, one classic example which is an insult to taxpayers is the release of Senior Executives salaries, despite all the guidelines that they should be released as the actual salary or at the absolute minimum of bands of £5000 – Redbridge Senior Officers actually insult the people of Redbridge by using bands of £30,000 and they have in the past either ignored or been months late replying to FoI requests.

Some of the proposals soon to be implemented are
* We will require public bodies to publish online the job titles of every member of staff and the salaries and expenses of senior officials paid more than the lowest salary permissible in Pay
Band 1(£58,200) of the Senior Civil Service pay scale, and organograms that include positions in those bodies
*All expenditure above £500 to be declared
*We will allow councils to return to the committee system, should they wish to
* We will require anyone paid more than the Prime Minister in the centrally funded public sector to have their salary signed off by the Treasury
*All Contracts and tender details

However this transparency has to go much further

*Senior Officers Meetings open to public Scrutiny
*Teach ins about how each Department works
*"Ask the Leader" questions, a much more formalised thing than his blog
* Ask the Chief Executive"
*10 Working Days to respond to residents enquiries is not acceptable.
*Refusal to provide information, hide behind a referral to the FoI Officer is not acceptable.
*Reinstatement of Borough wide open forums to discuss borough wide problems
*Reports of Council/cabinet/Area Meetings in Redbridge Life
*The right of reply to councillors after asking a question in Council/Cabinet/Area *Meetings/Planning Meetings even if the time is limited to 1 minute, to refute often condescending,rude or untrue statements by councillors.
*Webcasting of all important council meetings including Planning meetings.
*Specific teach ins on how to object to the proliferation of “Rabbit Hutch” Developments which Council Officers are so fond, and completely unwanted by residents.
*Website Statistics
*Reset the default information position to disclosure
*Monthly Expenses of Councillors and Senior Officers
*Installing automatic meter reading (AMR) equipment in the main civic buildings as a means of driving down energy consumption and reducing costs. The AMR will measure carbon emissions and the costs resulting from the electricity and gas consumption at the chosen sites.
*A search Facility on Redbridge I which works properly.
*Publish F.o.I Data where possible- recipients can elect to have it publicly published.
*Publish proposed expenditure above a certain limit say £2500 BEFORE the money is spent.
*We would welcome Officer and Councillor explanations of criticisms expressed on RedI, here and elsewhere
And this is not an exhaustive list.

Unless Councillors and equally importantly Senior Officers grasp the nettle of disclosure, they will be overtaken by events and forced to disclose, or they will be branded as reactionaries, and reap the deserved opprobrium and loss of salary. Much better to lead London Boroughs into the gold standard of a new future of disclosure and local democracy.
I look forward to the day when the Chief Officer is as equally enthusiastic and proud about disclosure as he has been about Redbridge I
And this is a much more important for our future than a mere website…

As with all things the council is capable of great heights so long as the WILL exists to reach
out and grab opportunies with both hands. This WILL can only be led from the very top.
We, the residents, give you the chance for greatness.

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