Heard of My Tower Hamlets? No, neither had I until a senior council officer friend of mine pointed it out to me. You can sign up for it here. It was launched a couple of months ago by the council’s communications department, that overpaid, over-funded, under-worked spinning machine which produces and fiddles the figures of East End Life and which is under the control of Lutfur Rahman’s friend, Takki Sulaiman (…in the interests of balance, it does employ a couple of decent people).
Takki has been mentioned several times on this blog, largely because those who work with him tell me he’s a bit of a laughing stock and also because he doesn’t seem to place too much emphasis on transparency, which can be a problem when it comes to communications. However, he’s done well (for himself) and is paid the best part of £100,000 – every penny value for money, I’m sure.
Prior to Tower Hamlets, he was in charge of publicity at Cafcass, the advisory service for the children and family court system. While there he set up something called….My Cafcass. It was set up in 2008/09 and was described as an e-communications portal, through which children could ‘talk’ to social workers via emails or text messages.
The company Takki hired to do the work at Cafcass was Spitalfields-based Captive Minds; in fact, you can see Takki eulogising about the My Cafcass service in a video on Captive Minds’ website here. In total, Cafcass spent £406,000 on the project over three years, including £163,000 on building the portal and a further £75,00 a year running it.
Although Takki described his initiative as a crucial tool, it is now defunct. In the wake of Whitehall spending cuts, Cafcass said that while it was nice to have it, it was a luxury it could do without. So almost £500,000 down the drain.
Within two months of joining Tower Hamlets in March last year though, Takki embarked on something similar for this borough…et voila, My Tower Hamlets.
And who did Takki get in to produce the portal…Captive Minds. According to the council’s response to my freedom of information request on the issue here, he did not even declare any interest about previous involvement with the company. I suspect it would have been more transparent for him to have done so. The FoI request also revealed that Captive Minds’ initial estimate for the project was £45,100, but that ballooned by 33 per cent to £56,295 on delivery. Some £12,500 has also been spent on text messages.
So it’s interesting that while Whitehall deems these portals a luxury, our town hall seems them as a crucial marketing tool. Why? My Tower Hamlets aims to deliver news about the council and its services via text messages and emails on a regular basis.It will also send those who sign up to it details of regular council consultations.
In theory, this is laudable. You only have to read the detail of the report produced for last week’s cabinet on the future of East End Life to show how completely misleading the results of such surveys can be.
For those unaware, Lutfur Rahman has decided to ignore the Government’s new Code of Conduct and continue East End Life as a weekly paper, albeit on a reduced pagination. (He says its budget will be cut by £200,000, but that will, I’m sure, come about through sleight-of-hand accountancy techniques, eg by getting press officers to do much of the writing but not count the cost of their work, or increasing some advertising rates.) Part of Lutfur’s rationale for the Carry On Wasting chirade was the result of a consultation exercise showed that East End life was liked by 72 per cent of residents. Hmm, read the small print at paragraph 11.4 on p208 of the cabinet report here and you see how many people took part:
11.4 The review panel sought the views of the public through a consultation exercise. The following responses were received through the following routes: • Open response 108
• Online Survey 444
• Councillor workshop 7
• Advertiser survey 14
• My.TH survey 51
That just seven councillors (three Labour and four Tory) took part in two workshops on the future of the newssheet is a story in its own right. However, the broader conclusion is that not that many people take part in these exercises. If My Tower Hamlets can achieve an improvement in this area and the details of all such numbers are published then that will be a good thing.
The cabinet report also states that My Tower Hamlets, via the ability of residents to provide feedback, will become a major factor in fulfilling the long term aim of moving East End Life from costly print to online. This is where localism can really work.