Sunday 16 October 2011

Taking Stock of Democracy Week...and more FoI requests

As Carmarthenshire Council's 'Local Democracy Week' fizzles to an ignominious end, and is probably best quickly forgotten, I wonder whether anyone in County Hall will take stock of it's success? I doubt if anyone could care less. Naturally it will have cost money and, as a European 'initiative' maybe they even received funding, who knows. Anyway, predictably, the week was marked by further reducing the power of elected members; a public attack on two councillors; the continued appallingly unwelcome treatment of visitors to the public gallery and the bizarre and embarrassing Twitter experiment. All of which I have mentioned in the previous couple of blogposts.
Was there any evidence that younger people were more 'engaged' with local politics? Do the Council care?  The announcement of a 'poster competition' to promote the May elections is hardly groundbreaking. In fact, if any more powers are delegated to senior officers it will become pointless having an election next May, the way things are going, the £1.3m a year it costs to keep 74 councillors might as well be spent elsewhere - perhaps a full body scanner for members of the public entering County Hall? with cattle prods for the guards in case they go astray?

The twitter experiment was a perfect opportunity for the council to directly communicate with people. Perfectly reasonable questions were asked, yet whoever was controlling the account (and I don't think it was Cllr Pam Palmer) completely failed to recognise the opportunity, or maybe suddenly realised the alarming possibility of critical tweets and lack of control - clearly the expensively well staffed press office couldn't handle that. Then again, perhaps it was the impossibility of providing a succinct 'council-speak' answer in 140 characters which was the problem. As the press office itself is on twitter, perhaps tweeters should be directing enquiries towards them? (@CarmsCCPress) Does the Council realise that even Freedom of Information requests can now be made via twitter etc? The Council also have a Facebook page of course, crammed with press releases, there is a comment facility, but surprise surprise, this facility is not available to me. Perhaps the other 'ignored' tweeters should try and pose their questions on there?

On the subject of FoI requests, I have asked a couple more.
The Western Mail reports today on Pembrokeshire Council's £15m credit card bill and the Daily Telegraph has been collecting data for sometime on UK figures and so far, there is nothing listed for Carmarthenshire. I can understand there will be advantages to this method of payment, especially to small local suppliers struggling with cashflow who will receive their money a lot quicker than by invoicing the council. The downside, according to the newspaper articles, is excessive use and lack of control. I am requesting the information on the basis that 'open data' means greater transparency, increased accountability, the possibility of public scrutiny, and maybe more thoughtful spending in the first place.

My second request follows on from this one, ('Just the Ticket') which is now the subject of an internal review. I am now requesting the Members' Registers of interest, gifts and hospitality. As several Welsh Councils already publish this information on their websites I am hoping for a positive response. I am aware that these registers are (or were, anyway) available for inspection, by prior arrangement and appointment, at County Hall - although it is a little difficult to establish this as the appropriate links on their very shaky website pointing to this information have been broken for months. As these registers are within the Council's FoI 'Publication Scheme', good practice should indicate that information within the Scheme be as widely available as possible and in this modern world, which has so troubled Carmarthenshire Council, this should include 'online'.


Cneifiwr said...

It will be interesting to see how many weeks it takes to respond on the members interests request. We know that they hold this information because they have to, and we know that it will be available in electronic form, so it really is just about pressing a button.

It will also be interesting to see what justification they come up with if the request is refused. I think the standard procedure is that you have to make a request and an appointment to go and see the register in County Hall, unlike many authorities which publish this important information online.

Anonymous said...

How on earth has it materialised over the years, that officers employed by the council, whose salaries are paid from taxpayers monies, are totally unaccountable. When elected councillors are assumed to be the voice of the taxpayer; how has it become customary for this dictatorial C.E. to make them redundant. I would question if they are even aware what is taking place, given that there appears to be only two/three who actually appear to possess a voice! The protests now erupting around the world suggest that ordinary people are waking up; what a shame Carmarthenshire are fifty years behind everyone else.!