Over recent months it has become increasingly obvious to us as community councillors that we have not been enjoying the co-operation of some chief officers and other senior officials at the London Borough of Hounslow that we feel entitled to expect.
As is so often the case it begins with little more than a hunch, often tempered by a worry that one might be making too much of a casual remark, of an e-mail not responded to or a question not properly answered. We are all capable of letting people down on occasions and even the most competent local authority employee is not beyond the occasional lapse. For some reason whenever I protest about some or other failing within the organisation I find myself greeted with the "c" word. Not that "c" word, I hasten to add (none of our chief officers has become quite that brazen - yet!). But the word "conspiracy" has the potential to instantly transform a valid complaint into some psychological maladjustment on the part of the complainant, rubbishing both at a simple stroke. "It's not a conspiracy," goes the argument and, despite the fact that nobody had suggested it was, the substance of the complaint becomes lost in the fog.
The ongoing Mogden discussion is a very good case in point. E-mails will be sent in by community representatives asking legitimate questions about our monitoring operation. Then a reminder will be sent, then a reminder of the reminder. In one instance a senior officer had to be asked thirteen times for a substantive answer to a question. The officer complained that he was being harassed. I just didn't have the willpower or the energy to point out the obvious fact that, had he responded to the first e-mail, the twelve reminders would not have been necessary.
The passing of the Motion on Community Engagement by Borough Council on 21st July 2009 was in the view of us community councillors a milestone along the road to transforming our local authority from a perfunctory bureaucracy into an outward-looking, community-driven vehicle for positive change. Whether the other Groups on the local authority, all of whom supported the Motion, saw it in the same way is of course a matter for speculation. But for the corporate council it would have appear to have been received more as a challenge than as an opportunity.
One department in particular seems to be resisting the new mentality with gusto. Word coming across to us from frustrated subalterns, combined with the occasional (but by no means isolated) outburst of rudeness or sarcasm in correspondence with community leaders, suggests a view of the community activist's role in the process which is quite fundamentally at variance with our own. Getting something done about the mindset that seems to prevail is a little like extracting teeth, promises to try to do better without any attempt to drill down into the root of the problem and the occasional invitation to a private, unminuted, off-the-record chat as the days between now and the next local elections tick away being the favoured line of approach.
Last week a member of my Group received two items of correspondence from a senior officer for whom I have a lot of time and respect which rather summed up the standoff that seems to exist. I say two items, though in reality it was one and a half as the officer clearly thought twice about sending the e-mail and stopped in mid-sentence, although - it would appear inadvertently - he sent it anyway. In the first he protested that he didn't "take instructions from residents", and in the second he delivered himself of the view that "as a councillor you are a representative, not a delegate".
Assuming his view to be one that is shared by his colleagues, he would appear to have captured in two short sentences the essence of the corporate council's difficulty with us as a Group. Because it is fundamental to our outlook that we are - within reason - delegates rather than representatives. We were elected on the understanding that we would articulate the community's view and defend the community's interests, be it at Borough Council, at IBAC or at any other forum.
Our predecessors of course were of a different view. They clearly believed that they knew better than the "ordinary" people in the street and that their role was to pursue their party's interests rather than the community's - indeed on many occasions they seemed to take an almost revolting delight in "stitching up" the people who had elected them. They were voted out.
We were elected with a completely different mandate. A mandate to empower.
The words of the officer to whom I refer would seem to question the right of my electors to inform the work and deeds of their elected members. In so doing, they spell out the corporate council's actual rejection of the political programme of one of the parties to the coalition. It is little wonder that as the local elections approach and our time on office (they believe) draws rapidly to a close they should become more and more defiant, and obstructive, in their dealings with us.
With the rise of the Community Group, and even outside of our Group of a new way of thinking, the clash of the old fundamentalisms of free-market conservatism and dogmatic socialism, along with all the pragmatisms and compromises that exist between, pale into insignificance. The corporate council is able to adapt to either of these old systems because they both operate on common assumptions as to the role of the bureaucracy.
We, of course, are fundamentally different.