The night John Biggs was finally elected mayor last June, a number of senior councillors from all parties chatted to me about ways in which the borough could now move forward.
The one word I offered up in every conversation was ‘transparency’. There needed to be a culture change, not just from the Lutfur Rahman years but also from the decades before that.
This wasn’t just about the elected mayor answering questions at council and scrutiny committee meetings, nor being more open in the way grants decisions were made. But more a change in mindset at every level; a need to encourage councillors and officers to invite scrutiny.
So credit to Labour’s John Pierce (pictured), the chair of the Overview and Scrutiny Committee, for establishing last July a new Tower Hamlets Transparency Commission which included the likes of Tory leader Peter Golds.
And of course credit to John for inviting me and Mark Baynes of Love Wapping to offer our thoughts and advice at one of his early sessions.
I tweeted this at the time:
After 10 yrs covering LBTH,tonight got 1st invite to address a council meeting instead of being evicted. Helping new transparency commission
— Ted Jeory (@TedJeory) July 27, 2015
Mark, an expert in open data and data analysis, wrote about this last August in an excellent detailed post here. His thoughts centred on essential technical issues about how data should be presented in a clean and readable way.
Love Wapping’s four Open Data recommendations for Tower Hamlets
Open Data Payments to Suppliers payment thresholds
Open Data endpoint identification
Presentation of council data
Identification of Local Election Candidates and their proposers
1. Open Data – Spending
Currently every local authority is required by law to publish all Payments to Suppliers over £500. While this is useful and has been the basis of the majority of LW’s data investigations into grants payments recent events have shown that this threshold is too high.
LW recommends that Tower Hamlets Council should publish all payments to suppliers above £100.
LW also recommends that the threshold for publication of credit card payments should be £10.
For my part, I made clear my well known views on grants, spending, registers of interests and Freedom of Information, as well as making some other points.
For example, I suggested the council publish on the home page of each councillor (the one where they include their contact details) the total amounts they are paid in allowances and expenses. I said this should include not only their current fees, but also the total amounts paid to them since the last election.
Taking John Biggs’s page as an example, you currently see this:
As you can see, there’s nothing about his salary. It should be the first thing on the list.
I also told the committee that Tower Hamlets now had the chance to become a beacon for transparency. The council’s image was mud in this regard and things could only improve. Handled well, it could set the standard for local government generally.
Having given our thoughts, Mark and I were told we’d be kept informed throughout the process and until the commission’s report was published.
So it was a bit of a surprise and a little disappointing to learn when I Googled the “Tower Hamlets transparency commission” late last week that the report had already been presented without any fanfare at all to the mayor on Jan 29. Another search revealed a small press release had been sent out on February 5. Neither Mark nor I were included in the distribution list.
This is what the press release said:
Sparkling it most certainly was not. I think the statistics issued on tractor production by the Communist Party of the USSR had more passion and news sense.
So no surprise not a single mainstream media outlet has picked up the relatively good news.
The council is currently recruiting for a new head of communications to replace my old mate Takki Sulaiman who is now upsetting the hacks of Aberdeen. The job is offering a £100k a year salary, which should attract someone with a top background in local government comms. According to the Appointments Committee, the interviews will be held on March 31. The new person will have the chance to help transform the image of Tower Hamlets, but they will need an understanding of what’s gone wrong.
The transparency protocol sets out a series of pledges from the Mayor:
• The Mayor will take all decisions in public through Cabinet, and where this is not possible, a clear reason will be provided to explain why
• The Mayor will be open to the public, scrutiny and opposition questions at all public decision making forums
• The Mayor will create more opportunities, through public meetings, for residents to ask questions and raise concerns
• The council will involve residents and Councillors in consultation at the earliest possible point in any policy or decision making process
• The council will make information available to the public and all Councillors in a timely and easily accessible format
• The council will actively communicate with residents and respond to queries positively
Cllr Pierce in his foreword to his own report says:
The ambition of the Overview and Scrutiny Transparency Commission is to move Tower Hamlets Council forward to enable it to become a beacon council for openness, transparency and accountability.
This agenda is paramount if the Council wants to regain the trust of our residents while turning around our reputation.
It was right for the cross-party committee, which holds the council and decision-makers to account, to establish a commission to begin this journey. Our goals and recommendations set out the building blocks needed.
It has become clear we need to create an organisational culture, led by senior management and the Mayor, which values and presumes openness. I welcome the Mayor’s transparency protocol, and the commission’s recommendations enhance this work.
The challenges for the council in the coming years are unprecedented. We need to enhance the role of the Overview and Scrutiny Committee to support the council to meet these challenges, along with the requirements of the Best Value Improvement Plan.
With this, transparent open data is essential for accountability, and providing access to our data can empower individuals, the media, civil society and businesses to achieve better outcomes for themselves and for our public services.
Tower Hamlets Council’s motto is ‘from great things to greater’. So let’s aspire to set the gold standard for local government transparency.
And its first section says this:
- Make the council a beacon for openness, accountability and transparency by the end of 2017-18
- Enhance the role of Overview and Scrutiny to enable greater openness, accountability and transparency in 2016-17
- Publish all data by default wherever possible by the end of 2016-17
Recommendations to achieve key goals
To make the council a beacon for openness, accountability and transparency by the end of 2017-18, the Commission recommends that:
- The Mayor considers additions to his Transparency Protocol to include actions to create an organisational culture, led by senior management, which values and presumes openness. This should include explicit support for whistleblowing.
- The Mayor extends his Transparency Protocol to include required conditions for the use of individual mayoral decisions.
- The council implements a protocol governing the use of planning pre-committee briefings with applicants present, and includes materials used and any outcomes in reports to the development committees.
- The new process for deciding on the spending of planning contributions is open and transparent, and includes some resident involvement.
- Information on spending of planning contributions is publicly and easily available delineated by ward, and sent to members, with regular progress reports to the Overview and Scrutiny Committee.
- The council increases opportunities for community engagement in democratic processes, including by:
- Exploring holding committee meetings in a variety of venues more amenable to the public in different parts of the borough;
- Providing plain English summaries of items on upcoming committee agendas via the council’s existing communications channels, and reporting these afterwards;
- Making Council and Cabinet webcasts viewable from the Council’s main social media accounts and on popular video hosting sites such as YouTube;
- Exploring options for remote and electronic participation in committee meetings, such as offering live streaming and tweeting, and allowing questions via social media;
- Enabling e-petitions on the council’s website; and
- Allowing the public to propose items for Overview and Scrutiny workplans.
7. The new Community Engagement Strategy, and changes planned under the Mayor’s Transparency Protocol to the consultation process for policy development and service change, takes account of the findings of the Commission’s consultation.
8. New localised consultation forums allow a key role for ward councillors.
9. Licensing and planning teams explore the feasibility of enabling the public to sign up to receive weekly email bulletins detailing applications received, consultation arrangements, and the status of existing applications, at ward level. They should also:
- Explore utilising social media and text alerts in relation to consultations; and
- Use plain English as far as possible in communications, and include guides to technical language that cannot be avoided.
To enhance the role of Overview and Scrutiny to enable greater openness, accountability and transparency in 2016-17, the Commission recommends that:
10. The council undertakes a full review of its Overview and Scrutiny arrangements, and amends these as necessary.
To publish all data by default wherever possible by the end of 2016-17, the Commission recommends that:
11. Officers undertake a full review of compliance with the requirements of the Local Government Transparency Code, and take any action required to secure this compliance on a regular basis.
12. Officers explore approaches to achieving three-star status for all relevant information required to be published by the Local Government Transparency Code (as applicable) within six to nine months; and assess the feasibility of achieving five-star status for different categories of data published by the council on an ongoing basis, in the longer term.
13. The Mayor’s Transparency Protocol is extended to include exploring the feasibility of publishing all of the information recommended in part 3 of the Local Government Transparency Code.
14. In the short term, the council develops a frequently-updated online hub of information accessible from the council homepage, including all information required by the Local Government Transparency Code, as well as additional categories of information suggested in the body of the Commission’s report.
15. In the longer term, the council explores the costs and benefits of regularly publishing all of its data, with exceptions, as recommended in the Local Government Transparency Code.
16. Officers explore options to allow the public to access data published by the council
via user-friendly, visually appealing and easily-navigated interfaces, using Redbridge DataShare and Bath:Hacked as benchmarks.
17. The council appoints an open data champion for each directorate.
18. Progress on implementing the above recommendations supporting open data is reported to the Overview and Scrutiny Committee on a six-monthly basis.
So an awful lot of fine words and theory. We’ll have to wait and see how it works out in practice (something the new head of comms will have to play a major role in).
As for the question of councillor allowances, there is sadly just a single mention of that in the report. It says on page 22 that not only is the council is already publishing those details, but that it is already doing more than required.
The council has a dedicated transparency webpage to access this information, which also links to other information not specifically required by the Code, including the council’s log of Freedom of Information requests and responses; details of allowances paid to members since 2010; and business rate charges for premises.
Which kind of misses the spirit of reform.
But so you can see what the council does actually publish in this regard, go to this page and select any year.
I clicked on 2013/14, which gives you this:
Which doesn’t give a councillor’s first name and so makes an independent Google search of them more difficult if not useless (we have an ‘AR Khan’, and ‘AR Khan’ and an ‘R Khan’ for example); and nor does not it explain or link to what the Special Responsibility Allowance refers to.
And neither does this list include the value of other benefits received by councillors, such as laptops, mobile phones, call charges, and borough wide parking permits.
Were I a councillor running the commission, this would be the first thing I fixed.
Charity begins at home, as they say.