Apologies if this sounds like a rant but I’m angry. What follows is in no way the opinions of my employers but if I’m right will be the opinion of most of the population of this country.
Tuesday’s newspapers were awash with the wonderful findings from the right wing think tank Reform Scotland.
The basic gist of what they are saying is that the reason for the low turnout at our local election was not party politics but rather that ‘a great number of people find the existence of 32 councils unpalatable’.
Really? Not from where I was sitting – beside a ballot box in my role as Presiding Officer.
The main topic of conversation in my polling station on May 3 was that politicians are all the same, there isn’t enough of a difference between the parties and you might as well stick a pin in the ballot paper blindfolded for all the difference it would make.
And that was the people who’d made the effort to exercise their vote. What about those who didn’t. I doubt very much if council boundaries entered their conscience.
We’re still bedding in/recovering from the last reorganisation. Shuffle us about again and there will be widespread disruption in back offices all over the country whilst trying to provide unbroken frontline services.
Any savings made in losing a tier of management will be lost in the huge spend in rebranding. Think of all the new letterheads, signage, fleet livery, uniforms, websites – the list goes on.
With the bigger council areas Reform Scotland are proposing will come a more stagnant employment environment. It’ll be back to the days of a council job for life but this time it will be down to logistics. How can you move to a higher position at another council if that council is too far away to commute to and you can’t uproot your family for the £2000 extra a year you’d earn? It will stifle workforce mobility and probably creativity into the bargain.
To me the low turn out has nothing to do with the size of the council area. It’s all to do with communication and community engagement.
I came to my job via the private sector and until then hadn’t really been aware of the huge range of services a council provides. However now work behind the scenes at a council, I’m aware that focus groups, citizens’ panels, councillors’ surgeries, council forums etc tend to be populated by the usual suspects. They are people who know how the council works, who have used their services at some point or who their councillor has helped in the past.
If I didn’t work for the council I wouldn’t be one of those people. Councils’ idea of hard to reach groups is the disabled, our unemployed youth, the elderly – in general the socially isolated.
Most of these people are already using council services – they’re in the system.
The hardest to reach group is the one I slot into – working full time, with busy kids whose leisure activities take up most evenings and the weekends. The only real, solid contact I have with the council is when it comes to empty my bins and when I see my children’s teachers at parents’ night. Everything else like paying council tax is done online. I couldn’t tell you off the top of my head where my councillors hold their surgeries because I’m never in the community centre or library to see their posters.
Basically what I’m trying to say is that boundaries have nothing to do with the low turnout but communication has.
Gone are the days when everyone would see a poster in a community hall or a library – we’re somewhere else reading our Kindles waiting on our kids coming out of this class or the other.
We need to think multi-media campaigns placed where the different audiences are. For me that’s Twitter and Facebook, for my mum it’s the local paper and for my daughter it’s BBM.
We also need to shout from the rooftops about what the council does. Apparently the man in the street can only name seven council services when asked. The average council provides just shy of 800. That’s a lot of stories to tell.
That’s why projects like the Scotland-wide Twitter24 and Walsall Council’s Who Cares (@whocareswalsall) are really important. Twitter24 showed the huge range of services councils provide while Who Cares tells the real stories of the people Walsall’ social care helps and whose quality of life they absolutely improve.
But that’s just one side of the story. The politicians have to so the same. I don’t have the time to get to my councillor’s surgeries. What I do have time for is a Google hangout or a surgery on Twitter.
If you have a community engaged not only with the council but also with its councillors, the council be better understood. Not only that the public would also understand the party politics that help form council policies. Better engagement and understanding would lead to bigger turnouts.
Oh, and one last suggestion.
How about fining people for not voting – but only if a ‘none of the above’ box is added to the ballot paper so that people can show their displeasure with the choice in front of them.
That way they can boost the turnout figures and officially spoil their ballot papers.
Boundaries? I’m certainly not sitting on the fence.