Wednesday, 27 October 2010

Monkey Jigsaw or Snow Storm?

When I started writing this blog I said that my aim was to try and find out more about how local democracy works and how I, as a concerned citizen could get more involved. So far I've been less than successful and it is difficult not to be put off by the empty rhetoric of participation that I have heard and read about in the past five weeks. I don't know why this has come as such a surprise to me. There is, after all, something philosophically incoherent about an approach to planning and implementation that makes a claim for legitimacy based upon  grassroots support and participation,  but which has been designed and imposed from the top down. The suspicion  is that Suffolk County Council's New Strategic Direction  is simply  a strategy for  implementing unpopular or overly risky social policies, against a background of stringent cutbacks while dressing them up as the people's choice.
Moreover, at some point the council will have to make some move towards 'engagement' with the public no matter how piecemeal this may turn out to be. However, the terms of this engagement, the methods used, the people chosen to be included, the options presented, the manner in which the information is collected, analysed and (re)presented for public and media scrutiny will all take place within the upper eschelons of the County Council. This is not local participation. It is not a grassroots movement or a bottom up approach to planning. It is top down planning with an insidious agenda to put the blame for cutbacks and reduced services somewhere else.

Why? Because by identifying  Cameron's Big Society as the theoretical basis of the New Strategic Direction,  the citizens of Suffolk are, de facto, implicitly linked to the  processes through which  jobs will be lost, services cut and the apparatus for the deliveryof public services dismantled. Thus as 'good citizens' we may seek to preserve our cultural heritage, for example the libraries and record office, by volunteering our time, by doing for free what was previously the means by which people earned a living. Or we may decide that we will not be used in this way and rather than becoming more engaged actually withdraw our support for Civil Society initiatives. As such the execution of the NSD may signal a diminution of citizenship, a hightened suspicion of the political sphere and of those who occupy public office. To take another example, imagine, hypothetically, that I am asked to engage in the debate about the future of Suffolk's Council run care homes. Presented with a limited range of options about the future of care homes I can a) make a choice from the limited range on offer or b) choose not to take part as a means of protest. Either way, my preference, that the homes remain in Council ownership  is not presented to me as an option. Inactivity, has always been as much a political statement as activity. This approach makes the politicised nature of inactivity tangible and hence it  may needle people into getting involved- but then again it may not. And even if legions of people step forward to participate then the problem remains that the agenda has been set and the terms of engagement demarcated at a different level. It is not true participation- it is participation lite (not the real thing).
Or put another way, when I was little girl my grandmother went on holiday to Blackpool and when I visited her after her holiday she offered mt the choice of two presents- a jigsaw with a monkey on it or a snow storm of Blackpool Tower. I looked at the monkey jigsaw and the snow storm and then I looked at the Diddy-Man that she had bought for herself after seeing Ken Dod in a variety show  and I knew what I wanted. It wasn't a monkey jigsaw or a Blackpool Tower snowstorm. It was a Diddy-Man. I was very young. I hadn't yet learn the rule about being grateful for what you are offered. My embarassed mother tried to convince me of the relative merits of the monkey jigsaw and the Blackpool Tower snow storm. But I went home clutching my grandmother's Diddy-Man. I can remember the feeling very clearly of not wanting what I had been offered but of wanting something different. I suspect it is a feeling that I will be getting used to in the coming months where the choices that we are offered are not really choices at all. These strategies may work for a little while but people aren't stupid and a monkey jigsaw isn't a Diddy-man- no matter how it is dressed up.

So, Anyone For Tea? That will have to wait for next time. 

Anyone For Tea? (Or A Top Down Approach to Bottom Up Planning)

First, before I start a new thread looking at bottom up policy development and the lofty ideal of 'participation' I need to revisit yesterday's blog. In it I wrote that the draft Engagement Strategy Document was being sent to County Councillors and key stake holders yesterday (October 26th). This was an error. Having re-read the email it states that the draft document was being sent to the concillors only. So I apologise for this mistake. I am very sorry, but not as sorry as I am that despite being told that the draft Engagement Strategy for the NSD was reputedly made public this morning I have yet to hear anything about it. Now in fairness, and I am trying to be fair about this, I haven't listened to any local news bulletins today. So it is possible that it has been widely reported on the TV and radio news (although there is nothing on the BBC news home page this evening). There was an interesting report in the East Anglian Daily Times (which I will discuss in a moment) but nothing about the content of this Engagement Strategy. I have spent quite a long time this evening re-visiting Suffolk County Council's website but there is no new information on the New Strategic Direction webpage. The content of this hasn't been updated since the NSD was announced back in September. One could, I think, reasonably expect that emerging  information on the New Strategic Direction, such as the Engagement Strategy, would be posted on this page (assuming that is, that you want that information to be in the public domain). There is however, what looks like a new logo for the New Strategic Direction at the top of the page- branding being the crucial first step in public engagement after all.

Whilst I was exploring the website I did happen upon the 'About Suffolk Council' page which contains the statement 'We now also publish the salaries of senior officials' and a link that you can click to get this information. So I thought I'd have a little look. I'm being disengenuous now. I have been having a 'little look' regularly since the 25th of September and there is no page with this information or at least the page hasn't been acessible on the eight seperate occasions that I have checked over the past month. Perhaps this is an oversight?

So, quickly to today's East Anglian Daily Times and a feature entitled 'The Big Questions. Suffolk: Eight vital issues the county council must address'. This report highlights the lack of information that has been placed in the public domain regarding the NSD and lists eight questions that the East Anglian has put to the County  Council on behalf of the community. These cover the following areas:
  • Impact on vulnerable people
  • Local government's moral and leagl responsibility
  • Linking things together
  • Leadership capacity
  • Suffolks local economy
  • Suffolk county council and the NHS
  • External advice and feed back
  • 'Proactive and wide-ranging engagement'
Obviously the last of these is dear to my own heart and the report  raises some of the questions I have been asking councillors and the council executive for the past five weeks and have also been blogging about. I have had no joy in finding out answers to my questions. However the East Anglian Daily Times has asked for a response to its questions within a week. I will be reading the paper with interest over the next few days because I am still idealistic enought (just!) to expect the Fourth Estate to have some influence where mere individuals have none (The reference for this report is as follows: Hunt, T. (October 27th 2010) 'The Big Questions' East Anglian Daily Times Pages 1,5 & 26. The East Anglian's website is:

I will finish here. More later about Participation and  Top Down versus Bottom Up policy and planning.

Tuesday, 26 October 2010

A Quick Update

Since I last wrote this blog I have had two emails from Customer Services at Suffolk Council. The first reiterated the Council's committment to engagement with the public but without any information about how this was going to be carried out as the strategy was still being drawn up. I responsed to this stressing my concern about the length of time this is taking and the necessity of doing it in a robust and transparent way prior to the meeting on December 2nd.
Today I have had a further email from Customer Services telling me that councillors and stakeholders will be recieving details of this process of public engagement today and that they will be made public tomorrow. My concern, having read this email, is that the process of engagement is being constucted as an ongoing one- rather than having been designed to ascertain whether or not there is public support for the New Strategic Direction. The Council made a committment to this at the full council meeting on September 23rd.

So, I will wait and see what information is put in the public domain tomorrow.

Wednesday, 20 October 2010

Freedom Of Information (Part 2)

Yesterday, after growing frustration with the lack of response I have got from my requests for information about the New Strategic Direction, I made a request to Suffolk County Council under the Freedom of Information Act. Almost immediately there was a response for me in my inbox. This confirmed that my request had been recieved and that I would get a reply to it within 20 working days. Of course it remains to be seen what information I actually get via this root. But it feels slighty more hopeful that just being ignored by all-and-sundry.

In the meantime for anybody reading this who might be interested in applying for information under the Freedom of Information Act (and it covers all public bodies not just councils) there is plenty of information about the act and how to make a request on the government's website . Suffolk County Council also has information on its local procedures which can be found on their website:

On a related theme, early on in my odyssey, when I didn't know who my elected County Councillor was I visited the Write To Them website ( If you type in your address and postcode the site will tell you who all of your elected representatives are and give their contact details (from Burough Councillor to MEP). You can then contact the person directly or send an email via the Write To Them Website. I did the latter and this week recieved an emailing entitled 'Did Your County Councillor Reply To Your Letter? The site is apparently trying to collect information about the response rates of our elected represenatives to enquiries from the public.

So, that's it for now- just a case of sitting tight and waiting I guess.

Tuesday, 19 October 2010

The Freedom Of  Information Act

It will probably come as no surprise to anybody reading this who has more than a passing aquaintance with local democracy, in all its glory, but nobody has been able to tell me how I can engage with Suffolk Council's New Strategic Direction. I am still in the dark about the 'proactive and wide ranging engagment' that the council voted to carry out amongst the communtities in Suffolk that it represents. I have had no replies to my emails and telephone requests for information. The head  of the council, the chief executive's office, my reply, no reply, no reply....blah, blah, blah....

So what is one to do?

I know the answer to this really is 'Do Nothing' because there is nothing that you can do.

But I have decided to console myself with another email and have sent a Freedom Of Information request to the council. I have asked for all the information on the strategy drawn up by the council in order to fulfill its committment to engage with the public about the New Strategic Direction.

I am working on the theory that in order to carry out this sort of engagment in any kind of meaningful way the council will have to have drawn up a plan of some sort- with designated roles, responsibilities, tasks, a budget, and a set of over arching aims and objectives etc... I don't know. I've never worked for the council so I don't know how these things pan out but there will have to be a plan of some sort.

So either the plans exists, in which case I want to see it...Or the plan does't exist. If it doesn't exist how can the council show that it is taking this process of engagement seriously. If it doesn't carry out this process of engagement with transparency and intergrity how can the council be trusted to go ahead with devolving all of its services as proposed under the NSD?

Well, I will wait and see.

Wednesday, 13 October 2010

The New Strategic Direction and Suffolk County Council Care Homes

It's been a few days since I've written anything. I have sent off lots of emails and had little response.  It has become abundantly clear that those handy links on websites where you can send off an email at the click of a mouse are simply a form of distraction, a palliative to sooth the fevered brow of the desk bound (and not particularly active) activist. I have become disheartened. But then, last night on the local news there was a report about Suffolk Council which has sent me into a frenzy again.

The Council has announced plans to review the operation of the sixteen care homes that it owns throughout Suffolk (shouldn't that be, the sixteen homes that the people of Suffolk own?). The council is going to undertake a process of consultation with care home residents, their families and staff to consider three options. These are:
  1. Closing the homes and buying in services from the private sector
  2. Selling off all the homes as going concerns
  3. Cosing six homes and trying to sell off the remaining ten.
So, The council wants to either sell or close the sixteen homes that it currently owns. It has not considered the possibility of these homes remaining in council ownership and this option does not feature as part of the consultation. Three weeks ago the council committed to consult with the people of Suffok over its New Strategic Direction and to do so before moving forward to implementation. The outcome of this process was supposed to be presented at the next full meeting of the council on the 3rd of December. The council will no doubt argue that the future of it's care homes is currently undergoing a process of consulation and not implementation. However, by excluding the option for these care home to remain in council ownership from the consultation  a decision has already been made at council level to pursue the New Strategic Direction irrespective of the outcome of the meeting on December 3rd.

When the news first broke about the NSD it was suggested that the so called 'early adopter' services would be children's centres, libraries, parks and youth clubs. Bad enough, but three weeks in and the future for Suffolk Council's care homes and their elderly residents is uncertain.

The decision to move from ones' own home to a residential setting is rarely an easy one. It means giving up not only bricks and mortar and the familiarity of one's own routines and habits but also of the notion of being independent, master or mistress of one's own destiny. It requires a huge adjustment- often at a time when life has become particularly difficult- perhaps due to ill health, increasing fraility or bereavement. It is at these points in life that we most need to cleave to our routines and the people that we know best, to gain comfort and ballast from what is most familiar to us. The positive side to a move into a care home (for some people it is simply the only option, but others make an active choice to move)  is that a new home can be created, a place of safety, a seeming last resort, can become much more than that. But it takes time, and it takes trust, and it means building relationships both with other residents and with care home staff.

Today elderly, vulnerable residents throughout Suffolk, who have already made the difficult transition to a care home will again be faced with uncertainty. They will no longer have the security of knowing that the friendships that they have developed and the relationships of trust built up with care staff will continue. They have no way of knowing where they will be living a few months hence and who will be caring for them. As for the staff of these care homes, they will be expected to continue care for others, in the knowledge that they too face an uncertain future. I know, having been a nurse for many years, how difficult it can be to continue caring when you feel that you yourself are not cared for.

I believe this situation, created by Suffolk Council, in advance of next week's spending review, simply as the next step in an ideologically driven master plan, is a disgrace. Irrespective of the outcome of the consultation today in Suffolk it  will already be causing people to feel fear, anxiety, apprehension and distress. The people who have voted for this should hang their heads in shame. What sort of Big Society are we engineering here in Suffolk?

Thursday, 7 October 2010

I sent off a raft of emails this morning and have had a couple of replies. An email sent from the department of Customer Rights, Scrutiny and Monitoring on behalf of the Chief Executive's office said that further information would be availible tomorrow. I also had an email from Jane Storey the Deputy Leader of the Council. I will paraphrase here. Essentially there hasn't been much consultation yet because the Council meeting ont the 23rd was purely to reach agreement on the principle. The engagement strategy is being drawn up and more details will be available soon.

It is remarkable how better disposed one feels towards people when they actually reply! There is a lesson here about having a system so that somebody sending an email knows that it has reached its intended destination- even if this is an electronically activated out of office message.

But I digress...

The upside of  this waiting game is that it has given me the opportunity to repeat my question many times  to numerous different people and in doing so refine it and become clearer about what it is that I am trying to find out. Given that the NSD is going to be a long process with a number of different phases it feels important for to me to focus on specific issues with clearly defined aims and objectives. I  am a lot less vague than I was a ten days ago.

To recap, agenda item 7 concerning the New strategic Direction contained the following clause:
   That there should be proactive and wide ranging engagement across Suffolk to establish that the NSD proposals find favour with the communitites we all represent before moving forward to implementation, and the findings from this engagement be reported back to Full Council at the meeting on 2nd December 2010 [stress added].

Given that the engagement strategy is still being drawn up there isn't a great deal of time to fulfill the commitment made in this clause.

What I want to know about the (hopefully soon to materialize) engagement strategy is this:

  1. What methods are going to be used to 'engage'?
  2. What is the underlying rationale for these methods being chosen?
  3. With whom will this engagement take place?
  4. How will the outcomes from these methods be recorded and analysed?
  5. Who will be carrying out this analysis?
  6. Who will be writing up and preparing the report?
  7. What analytic criteria will be used to decide whether or not favour has indeed been found?
So, I will just have to wait a bit longer I guess.

Wednesday, 6 October 2010

Brian Keenan at Suffolk Book League

I heard Brian Keenan speak at Suffolk Book League last night.  I went with little idea of what to expect and arrived late. This meant that my friend and I arrived at the venue when the talk had already begun. This is never a comfortable situation to be in and I took my seat with a heavy heart. Would I be able to pick up the thread? I had felt a strong compulsion to hear Keenan speak and I wanted to see him in the flesh. I was 19 when the hostage crisis hit the newspapers and it provided  one of the ongoing narratives of my early adulthood. The work of Gill Morrell and the Friends of John McCarthy meant that the plight of the hostages was in the news seemingly daily for four or so years. As we were leaving my friend told me that she remembered the mast head of her daily newspaper counting up the days that John McCarthy had been held hostage. I had a vivid recollection of a postcard that I had on the wall in my bedroom when I first moved to London with the slogan Remember the Hostages.  The illustration showed two hands gripping the bars of what I read to be a prison window. The bars were in fact pencils-a visual reference to McCarthy's job as a journalist.

So my mind was full of my own thoughts and memories and it felt serendipitous that at points in the talk Keenan spoke about the difference between history and memory, and of the difference between memory and forgetfulness. He has written a memoir of his childhood and the talk wove together memories of his childhood self, the process of writing his book about Alaska, the death of his mother and much else besides. The threads of his story wove together and then split apart again. He created endless patterns and reoccuring motiffs- not a linear account but something much denser with each memory bringing forth another memory and then another- the passing of time rendered seemingly timeless, something tangible and very much of the here and now as well as of the there and then. I was reminded of the period after my own mother's death when images of her seemed to cascade through my mind- not as she had been, her dying self, but as a young woman and a child, before I was born, memories of things it was indeed impossible for me to remember. It was as if  I was building up a composite image of her, to keep within me, in place of the flesh and blood woman.

Not easy to write about without sounding pretentious- but I have had a bash at it because  the overwhelming feeling that I had, hearing Keenan speak, was one of an emotional connection. I will probably never speak to him (although I'd move heaven and earth to hear him talk again) but it feels so important to have been able to sit in a room full of people, ostensibly strangers, and yet feel a strong connection to my fellow human being.

And that's why I'm writing about Brian Keenan in this blog. Because if one of the strands of my story is about the Big Society then  it is also about my own political dissaffection.The alienation and isolation engendered by the day-to-day grind of the political reality that we face, is the antithesis of what I experienced last night. Remembering the hostage crisis I also remembered how it felt to be one of Thatcher's generation- of growing up in the Eighties amidst unemployment and the assault on the unions, of earning £4 000 a year as student nurse when people in the city were earning millions, of constantly voting for the loosing team. Defenders of the Thatcher legacy will often argue that her famous comment that there is no such thing as society, only men and women was taken out of context. In or out of context it seems apposite- there is no such thing as the Big Society only men and women standing alone waiting for the axe to fall.

And no, of course I haven't heard a thing about the council's plans to consult with the public over the New Strategic Direction. As If!

Tuesday, 5 October 2010

I had an email from my county councellor this morning. As an opposition concellor she wasn't able to shed any light on the consultation process but will keep me informed when  she does hear anything.
I emailed Ben Gummer  MP for Ipswich this morning. I told him that I was trying, in the first instance, to find out about  the consultation process that is supposed to be taking place with the people of Suffolk prior to the next council meeting on the 2nd December. I received an electronic email from his office acknowledging that my email had been received. I will have to wait for a reply to the specific question.
I haven't had an acknowledgement or a reply from the head of the county council or the chief executive despite emailing them last week. I  have had an email from Customer Services at the County Council in response to a question about the policy for responding to emails. An intial response is supposed to be made within five days. After this each department has it's own time frame. So this doesn't really help me much- what do you do if you haven't received a reply after five days? Send another email?
It's eight days since I decided to try and find out what is going on and to get involved. So far I have found out apsolutely nothing. This says a lot for the concepts of participation.

Monday, 4 October 2010

Concerns About Consultation

The East Anglian Daily Times carried a two page news feature on the New Strategic Direction today. Under the banner Council criticised for not consulting enough it published the results of  a survey where it asked 21 town and parish councils and 3 voluntary organizations whether they supported the councils proposals, whether they felt that they had been properly consulted before the decison was made and if they felt that their respective communtities would be able to take on more responsibility. The survey found that whilst the majoirty of town and parish council's  said that they would welcome greater responsibilities many also expressed anger at having not been consulted prior to the decision being made. Concerns raised in the report include the issue of finance- for example who will pay for library services if this is devolved to the parish and town councils. The role of volunteers also raised a number of issues including the danger that wealthier areas will be more able to attract volunteers  than poorer areas leading to a two tier system. In response to this Jane Storey, deputy leader of the county council (Conservative) is quoted as saying that it had been included in parish reports and newsletters but that formal consultation could not take place before a formal agreement had been reached. The formal consultation process will begin now (Robinson, C., Thewlis, J. & Hoodless, N. (Monday 4th October) East Anglian Daily Times.  pages 4-5.

I am still trying to find out what the consultation process for the general public will entail.  It will be interesting to learn more about the consultation process going on between Ipswich Burough Council and Suffolk County Council. So, I will follow this up tomorrow.

I have emailed Suffolk Council to ascertain what their policy is on replying to emails. I want to know how long it is considered acceptable to wait for a reply.

Sunday, 3 October 2010

Something afoot in Suffolk

Ten days ago Suffolk County Council approved it's New Strategic Direction which involves the council divesting itself of its role in service provision.  Private and Third Sector Organizations will be able to bid to run the services currently provided by the council. Instead of delivering these services it will have a greatly reduced bureaucracy engaged in the managment of contracts. As a Suffolk resident I am concerned about this plan. I believe that it is ill thought out, ideologically driven, will place vulnerable people at risk and lead to cuts in Suffolks superb library and museums services. I have had, until this point, very little interest in local politics and would struggle to distinguish between the functions of the burough and district councils let alone name one of my elected representatives. But I have spent a long time (too long!) researching and writing a PhD thesis on the role of Non-Governmental Organizations in the design and implementation of HIV/AIDS policies and programming in India. So whilst I know very little about David's Cameron's 'Big Society' (a term vague enought to encompass whatever might be politically expedient at any given time and in any given context) I know a fair amount about the concepts and theories of social capital, participation and bottom up versus top down planning. These are contested and debated concepts in development literature and I am interested to find out what the literature says about the Third Sector and related concepts in the UK.

The national news media has been covering this story in some detail over the past few days. The BBC ran a segment on News Night and a member of the audience on Any Questions on Radion 4 asked whether Suffolk's 'virtual council' might actually mean 'virtually no services'. Witty enough to make me laught- but not very loudly.What will happen when the spotlight is turned off Suffolk County Council? How can a member of the general public become involved in local level issues and hold its elected representatives to account? How can I, with little if any experience or knowledge of local politics, get involved?  The Big Society is reputedly about getting 'the people' involved in decision making. What strategies has the council put in place to ensure that individuals and communtities can get involved?
When the council met to debate the New Strategic Direction the following clause was added at the request of a Green Party Candidate:

     That there should be pro-active and wide-ranging engagement across Suffolk to establish whether the key NSD proposals find favour with the communities we all represent before moving to implementation, and the findings from this engagment be reported back to Full Council at the meeting on 2 December 2010.

I want to find out what this engagement will involve and what steps the council is taking to ensure that it takes place. I want to find out more about the thinking behind this New Strategic Direction and how the council is going to ensure the participation of the electorate of Suffolk. I want to find out how easy, or difficult it is to become part of the Big Society we hear so much about.

First Steps
Last Tuesday I rang the council to try and find out more. I was told that there was, at that point, no person designated to answer such queries, no information available for the public and no details about any consultation process. I was told that the council could not specify a time frame in which my questions could be answered. I left contact details and am still awaiting a response.
In the past few days I have also emailed my elected councillor, the head of the council and the chief executive of the council asking what the 'wide ranging engagment' might entail. So far I have had no response.

What Now?
So, this is my Brave New World of political engagement and political activism. Now that this blog is up and running I will use it as a means of recording and reporting  my attempts to find out what the council is doing to ensure the active engagement of Suffolk residents in discussions about the New Strategic Direction. I will report on my efforts to get involved as an active citizen exercising my democratic rights. I will try and elaborate on what 'participation' looks like in Suffolk. And I'll explore the manner in which the language of politics and participation is being in this arena. Does it aid clarity or add to confussion?