(Lack of) Councillor Coverage in Lewisham Life

In comments Lone Ranger implies that the lack of coverage of councillors in Lewisham Life is some sort of plot by Steve.

I don’t think so and I wanted to set out what I hope is a more compelling argument.

In my view there are two intertwined reasons why you don’t see more about councillors in Lewisham Life:

  • Councillors themselves aren’t pressing for this; and
  • Officers are reluctant to develop direct communications routes from councillors to the general public.

On the first point I’ve seen individual councillors from time to time try to make the case that they should have access to Lewisham Life, but these have never become something that the mainstream of councillors have felt so strongly about that they’ve put effort into achieving it.  I admit it’s tricky for minority group councillors should/do want to avoid appearing partisan on this issue, or to give the impression that they are looking for a soapbox to bash the Mayor or Council more generally.  But I think that were Overview and Scrutiny to develop a sustained campaign the Council would find it difficult to resist.

To illustrate my second point I’d turn to how the Council is managing councillor’s online presence.  For a couple of years Lewisham was part of the councillor.info project, which allows councillors to manage the content of their own site and, within certain limits, talk about what they do as a councillor.  In the wash-up of the last council administration, when decisions on this were being made, it was decided to bring these pages in-house and I think that has led to a much reduced capacity for councillors to communicate directly with their constituents.

As far as I can see Chris Best  is the only councillor even trying to use the page they’ve been given to do anything more than tell us which committees they serve on.  And I’m skeptical as to how useful knowing which committees councillors are on is to visitors to those sites.  I don’t know how the management of the sites is organised, but certainly I saw papers before the elections last year which suggested that officers would have final editorial control over content, and that councillors would have almost no access to the content management system for their pages.

And since the election we’ve also seen the Council decide to have a “two click” policy on sites that are run by councillors which mention any sort of politics.  I’ve argued here and elsewhere that I think this should be challenged, but that’s a matter for serving councillors.

What is clear to me is that officers are trying to reduce the risk to the Council of charges that politics is being paid for by council tax payers rather than political parties and I suspect these – plus the additional resources that might be needed to develop councillor pages for the magazine – are the real reasons for the lack of councillor stories on Lewisham Life.

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About Andrew Brown

I live in Lewisham, South East London, and spent 9 years as a Labour councillor in the borough between 1997 and 2006.
This entry was posted in Civic Society, Lewisham, Politics. Bookmark the permalink.

23 Responses to (Lack of) Councillor Coverage in Lewisham Life

  1. kate says:

    I think all local councillors should have a space (not all at once)in lewisham life so that lewisham residents know they exist not to find out what panel or comitee they are on.Until you pointed out to me where to find them i was completely clueless about the exiatence of local councillors, and i dont think im the only one. I think exposure is a good thing but not as a tool to put down other parties or councillors.

  2. andrewkbrown says:

    Well, they do have a listing of all the councillors and their surgery dates at the back of Lewisham Life, but it’s hardly telling you what a councillor does or how they can help.

    Nor does it tell you what they are trying to achieve with the mandate they’ve been given.

  3. LoveLewisham says:

    I think we should have a bumper, special edition of Lewisham Life with a page for each councillor, photo etc. It would be great, the only problem for me, sadly, is that I now live in Greenwich and won’t get one through my door. Oh well!

  4. andrewkbrown says:

    Given the distribution system I’m not sure half the people in the borough get it anyway!

    But I’m sure should that idea gain purchase that we could send you a copy! 🙂

  5. kate says:

    I ocassionally get it , but i must admit to not always taking much notice as it didnt have anything relevant to me or my area. I have learned my lesson and realised i should be reading these things to gain knowledge of “local” stuff.

  6. kate says:

    Hey nigel did you like my sucks less post about you? it has nice sparkling writing. 😉

  7. Lone Ranger says:

    Maybe I didn’t make it clear that I was saying the Mayor was not of a mind to support the idea of publicity for the work of councillors in Lewisham Life. When asked he responded councillor’s are listed in the magazine, that merely says who they are not what they do.

    Like councillors the Mayor is an elected representitive but he is not resistricted to merely a listing in Lewisham Life.

    You (politicians) want to attract people to be councillors and increase the number of people who vote, what better way than to publicse what good a councillor can do.

    The new editor of the magazine is up for ideas there is a former local paper journalist in the communications department I’m sure they could put together snappy interesting features on the good work of councillors.

    I am suggesting a better informed public may reduce the number of “councillors, waste of time and money” comments I hear.

  8. andrewkbrown says:

    My guess – and it is only that – would be that Steve doesn’t see himself as the wet nurse for councillors and if they want to make the case for increased visibility they should get on and do so.

    Other than that I couldn’t agree more with you Lone Ranger (except to point out that I’m an ex-politician, of course).

  9. Max says:

    If I understand who the former local paper journalist that Lone Ranger refers to is I have to inform you that he left the Council for a position at the Home Office.

  10. Lone Ranger says:

    Yet another cunning plan scuppered.

    So this week a front page story is a possible scandal surrounding a Lewisham councillor. Rather than being an isolated case about an individual, for the general public it is the only example they may have of what a councillor does.

    I do think Lewisham Life could do more to open its pages to the public. I don’t see a problem giving a half page to residents to give their experiences or who may have an alternative view of housing, education, town centre etc to that of council officers.

  11. Paul Hornsby says:

    I’ll mention this article to my colleagues at Lewisham Life, in case they’re not already aware of it.
    Regarding the council website: I’m one of the people that has editorial control over our Councillor’s web content. I hasten to add that we don’t alter the content that Councillor’s send through – we just make sure it’s formatted correctly, and that there are no glaring technical errors.
    I’m sure we can resolve any problems relating to ‘editorial control’ if there are strong feelings about this. As always, I’m happy to be contacted via the website.

  12. andrewkbrown says:

    Thanks for the helpful comments Paul. I’ve no doubt that there aren’t changes – as I say there’s not actually all that much information on them at this point anyway. But I do know that there are policies which restrict the links councillors are allowed to have on their page, and there’s also the two click stuff which I think is over cautious.

  13. kate says:

    LIGHTBULB IN MY HEAD SAYS PETITION TO GIVE COUNCILLORS SPACE IN LEWISHAM LIFE. I joke but seriously they should have more exposure.

  14. Lone Ranger says:

    Lights energy saving lightbulb and suggests….in alternate issues of Lewisham Life why not replace the councillor listings with reports on what they’ve been involved in as a councillors?

    Re the Lewisham website is it possible instead of councillor surgeries being on the 3rd Saturday after a full moon according to the Chinese new year, to show the actual date of the surgery?

  15. Lone Ranger says:

    The mayor may not see himself as the wet nurse to Councillors, but the council seem determined to give publicity to someone who is no longer an elected ‘member’ of the council.

    http://www.lewisham.gov.uk/NewsAndEvents/News/YoungPeopleChancellor.htm

    If there is an arguement for that sort of publicity then there is as strong a case for giving similar publicity to the good work of ward councillors.

    Unless…the idea is to get the next generation used to just one person making the decisions, leading to the scrapping of ward councillors?

  16. andrewkbrown says:

    I’m sure that were any councillors involved in something as news worthy as Wilf’s report they too could be the happy subject of a Lewisham Council press release!

    “One Lewisham, One Mayor”? I think not.

  17. Rob Yeldham says:

    As the Council’s Head of Communications I am responsible for the content of Lewisham Life. We find feedback very useful and are about to embark on another round of consultation with readers to evaluate the new look magazine, so your debate is timely.

    Unfortunately the Council is restricted in what we are allowed to do to publicise councillors. To avoid “politics on the rates” there are rules laid down nationally that prevent us from “promoting” individual councillors. Unless a councillor is acting in a formal role, for example as a Cabinet member or Scrutiny Panel chair, we can only give basic contact information.

    In an effort to explain what the different levels of elected representatives do we did run an article In Lewisham Life which featured a councillor, the Mayor, the borough’s London assembly member and one of our MPs. What we are not able to do is give each of the 54 councillors their own space to promote themselves or their views. They have to use their own or their party political communications to do that.

    On the distribution point, there are always problems with distribution door-to-door. if anyone is not getting the magazine we would like to known so that we can take this up with our distributors. FYI the contact rate is monitored every month and runs at between 70-80% of households receiving the magazine.

  18. andrewkbrown says:

    Hello Rob, nice to hear from you. I do understand the reluctance to fall foul of a charge of “politics on the rates” but I wonder whether the Council isn’t too cautious on these matters.

    I don’t think that anyone would be happy if the Council were to provide space for party political pieces, but the community advocacy and scrutiny roles that councillors perform are woefully under reported in the local press. So something that helped develop the public understanding of what our politicians are up to would, I’m sure, be welcomed.

    You will have seen the report the other week that suggested that most people don’t have a clue what services local government provide, is it then any wonder that they don’t understand the roles that their elected representatives undertake?

    I also think that the “two clicks” policy is unnecessary. I keep pointing out that Kingston-on-Thames sees no need for one and so far as I can tell there’s no constitutional crisis as a result. All you need is a warning that the council isn’t responsible for what other people put on their websites.

  19. Rob Yeldham says:

    I am sure that you appreciate we are bound to follow the legal advcie given.

  20. andrewkbrown says:

    Sure, and it’d be helpful if central government would review their guidance to take account of developments in technology.

    But there’s more than one view out there:

    Legal guidelines on blogs published by the local e-democracy project, sponsored by the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, say that a council could technically get into trouble even by linking to a personal site containing political content. “The government’s code of recommended practice on local authority publicity states that council resources should not be used to publicise individual councillors.” However, the guidelines say that as creating a link involves only a minimal use of resources, so long as a council offers links even-handedly to the blogging pages of every individual council member who wants them, then this is unlikely to infringe the rules, “although there is no clear guidance or case law on this point”.

  21. Lone Ranger says:

    Like councillors the Mayor is elected yet each issue of Lewisham Life we will be informed by himself or the communications department what he has been involved with in the community since the previous issue.

    In the latest issue The Mayor gives his opinion on how the council performed last year. Apart from the law does Rob Yeldham have editoral control over what the Mayor writes in what the Mayor says is ‘our’ (the publics) magazine?

    Does Rob have a duty to ensure what the Mayor writes is a fair representation of the situation regarding council services. For example in housing the audit commisson has indicted the service has deteriorated but you would not be aware of that from what’s in the current Lewisham Life.

    We have a council were all the elected councillors can be at odds with the Mayor over an issue but I feel Lewisham Life would only present the opinion of the Mayor.

    Looking at the article on Special Needs Education (page 16), which is still at consultation stage and there are differing views, only one side of the arguement is presented and in a way that implies the changes will happen whatever the results of any consultation.

    Regarding councillors what is wrong with an article informing us councillors in a ward cleaned up a river for example. What is political in reporting how councillors decided to spend the locality fund in their ward?

    Now the website and the news items…..a number of times following a call from myself some items have been withdrawn from the website, but have reappeared word for word on a political party’s website with the name the political party replacing the word Lewisham. Would it make sense for the council to consider charging for such a service?

    While I’m here when it’s seen as positive news for the council why is it ….”Steve Bullock, Mayor of Lewisham….” and when it’s not so good it tends to be “Lewisham council….”?

  22. Rob Yeldham says:

    At the risk of promoting further legal argument your honour….

    The Mayor is in a different position to ward councillors, as are leaders councils in another borough. They hold a formal executive position and therefore exercise powers on behalf of the authority. Their actions in that capacity can therefore be promoted as they act on behalf of the authority. This is not the case for individual councillors.

    The use of the locality funds is one of the few areas where the Council is able to provide public information which relates to ward councillors, precisely because the decision on how to spend the money had been given to those councillors on behalf of the authority. Where councillors have asked for promotional help we would want to help them.

    However, the fact remains that we can’t promote the individual views or actions of councillors where they are not acting on behalf of the authority. It may seem at odds with the desire to promote public participation but as a public body the Council is bound by these rules.

    Lewisham Life aims to:

    • Be the magazine of the local community whilst reflecting what Lewisham Council is doing for them.
    • Make a positive impact on quality of life of residents for example by; encouraging people to recycle, promoting healthy lifestyles and challenging the fear of crime..
    • Appeal to the diverse population living and working in the borough.
    • Entertain and engage readers with informative news stories and features.
    • Inform residents about what’s on in Lewisham, including arts, sports, culture, films and events.
    • Inform residents about where they can turn to for help or advice.
    • Positively reinforce Lewisham’s image as a great place to live, study and/or work.
    • Support and promote local businesses and community organisations.

    Elected members are only responsible for their own quotes and columns. Long term readers will have noticed the shift in approach and content last autumn following public consultation. We are about to follow the changes up with further consultation. I would encourage you to comment when the readers survey appears in the next edition!

    Lastly, on news releases on websites. Obviously the Council can’t stop anyone lifting copy which is in the public domain for their own purposes, so there is not a lot we can do about any organisation which plagiarises our press notices. I could go on at length about the house style for news releases, the protocols on who is quoted on what and the areas where the Mayor is not mentioned for bureaucratic or constitutional reasons, but I fear I’m going on too much anyway, so this will be my closing shot in this debate.

  23. Lone Ranger says:

    There is currently a consultation exercise being conducted regarding Special Needs provision in the borough.

    Cllr Robert Massey accepts that some special needs children have not had a good experience of attending mainstream school, yet the only example in Lewisham Life has been of a pupil benefitting from attending a mainstream school.

    In fairness and bearing in mind no decision has yet been taken how about giving space to someone who feels they benefitted from attending a specialist school? Candida Place who has a letter in the Mercury (April 11) could be such a person.

    Not sure why councillors clearing a river, removing rubbish etc. isn’t seen as in the interest of Lewisham as a whole.

    Any chance of an item giving advice how at Area Forum’s items can be put on the Mayor’s agenda?

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