Tuesday, November 19, 2013

It's No Game

The Conservative Group press release, welcoming the TDC Standards Committee findings, has provoked the anticipated reaction on both Twitter, the BBC and the more popular local weblogs. I would like to pass some comment of my own but that's always going to be difficult given my own political position and long experience here, of people reading between the lines and reaching conclusions, quite opposite to what I might be trying to say, neatly wrapped in my own literary straightjacket.

As I'm fond of Chess and my iPad just gave me a drubbing again, let's use an analogy from the game to try and express my argument.

Local government in many ways resembles a game of chess. It delivers some six hundred services, the moves on the board are governed strictly by volumes of different legislation, including human rights and any position, from bins to benefits starts to look pretty complex indeed within a few moves.

While the pieces may be moved around the board by professionals, in this case civil servants who know which moves are legal - well at least most of the time - the players are elected from the public at large to take part in a game lasting five years. As you might expect, the level of play reflects society at its best and worst from both ends of a wide spectrum of suitability.

There are those who can draw on their career, are intimately familiar with the game and its rules and then there are those whose life experience and limited education has never prepared them for a higher level of management or responsibility, have never sat in front of a chessboard and have absolutely no talent for the game. Invariably, this is a recipe for disaster as those same individuals, who may be Party or Trades Union stalwarts or perhaps a Captain Mainwaring or a Hyacinth Bucket look-alike, are thrown into local government tournament play, at the highest level with sadly predictable results.

Some of these may get as far as the middle game before a visibly weak position in the centre of the board collapses, others might even try and cheat by making an illegal move or more. This may temporarily elude the sharp eyes of the watching civil servants, who may be taking a nap at the time but who will eventually spot the move if one of the watching audience shouts loud enough.

Democracy may offer the best system of government but it was Winston Churchill who once said: "The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter." Thanet, has in the past, suffered very badly from placing individuals who were simply names to tick on a ballot sheet, into positions of influence and responsibility, who, to quote a well-worn phrase, 'Shouldn't be left alone to push a shopping trolley around Sainsbury" and this sense is reflected in many of the comments I read elsewhere.

I wrote in my earlier piece, that we need to move on from the miners' strike and the glory days of Maggie Thatcher. In advance of 2015, we need to attract people with skills, experience and education that can be called-upon to improve the battered-looking political process here in Thanet and we need chess players who can think for themselves and not simply move the pieces around randomly to suit the status quo agenda in local government or to achieve some vague political mimicry of a real game of chess?

Over the years, we have had several characters involved in local politics who have done real damage to the name of the Council and to the reputation of politicians in general. Like my Conservative colleagues, I welcome the report of the Standards Committee but equally recognise that we have a way to go in changing a political culture which has attracted such shameless opportunism in the past.

Now would be a good a time as any to start.


Duncan Smithson said...

Well written piece. Good analogy.

I see local politics like a hobby for some. Rather than gardening, fishing or bowls, local politics is a hobby anyone can play.

For some they can find themselves - after an amount of time - in a position where they are in charge of a huge, multi-million pound corporation that employs hundreds and serves over 140,000 people.

It's only then that people realise that this is not the local bowls club. There may be issues they know about but if they do not have experience of the business world, people can quickly become lost in the quagmire of acronyms and budgetary constraints.

Where as in the past, councillors may have been able to take the fungi approach to the electorate(keep them in the dark and feed them bs), the internet has exploded over the last ten years. Suddenly, groups can get together to discuss the issues close to their heart and scrutinise the decisions made. The electorate will no longer accept this ineptitude and are using new media channels to voice their opposition.

As you say, the current administration seem to be stuck in the 70's - back in the day when Reg Varney was in vogue.

They are out of touch, in over their head and "stumbling from one disaster to another" (as one cabinet member said recently).

I said to Michelle Fenner over the summer that we needed more people with a strong business background to run as councillors. She disagreed and said we need more people like Alan and Clive. Personally, I think she's wrong. Because people like Alan and Clive are running the Isle into the ground and giving away the last few assets that we have. We need change. And change needs to start now

Anonymous said...

Very eloquently put, Simon. Now, how do we go about effecting the kind of change you appear to be embracing?

Simon Moores said...

Well put Duncan. The world has changed but rather too many people have yet to notice.

In a week or so I have to give a lecture on the shape of the world in 2043 but locally, as some kind of temporal paradox, only Einstein might explain, we are still waiting for the millenium.

How we achieve that change I don't yet know without appealing for common sense to suddenly break out.

Barry James said...

Simon it seems at last you have stated the obvious which sadly has eluded some. However I take issue with the thought that it is a "game" In reality it is played like that by some but a game it most definitely isn't. It is reality and has left a lasting legacy of distrust.
Openness and transparency is the only way forward

Simon Moores said...

Barry.. that's why the title is "It's No Game"

I should have made it more clear!

Barry James said...

Simon sorry if I gave the wrong impression I was actually agreeing with your article. For some it is a game for others it is serious the problem we have is that we perhaps have a situation that some believe is donkeys leading Lions. Maybe we need an effective coalition working for the good of Thanet. Again keep up the good work

Joe Turner said...

Well, I think it is squarely the fault of councillors corporately. Not, as far as I can see, the Labour party or the Conservatives or anyone else. You all brought the council into disrepute, and it is down to you to put it right.

And you can start by admitting there are problems and doing things about them rather than pointing at each other, people who happen to be in the public sphere, random bloggers or anyone else. You are in an elected position, do something about it.

Because if you don't, someone else will.

Bemused of Birchington said...

The problem with democracy is that we only get those people who are prepared to stand for election. Many of those who stand wouldn't make it to a short list if they were applying for a job where a business might fail if the wrong person were picked. Once elected we are stuck with them till the next election, no trial period, no dismissal for incompetence, and all decisions based on party politics rather than common sense, though sometimes the two do go together. Sadly the best person for the job will often fail to get elected simply because the electorate traditionally vote in a particular way.

The likes of our party hopping councillors would have been dismissed from "PROPER" jobs if they had behaved in the way they have in any company I have worked for, and had they been in the military then the glass house would have been their punishment. Instead they can do as they like safe in the knowledge that they have five years before retribution catches up with them, and even that is not guaranteed. Churchill's quote is very true.

Simon Moores said...

Can you develop that argument please?

You write:"You all brought the council into disrepute, and it is down to you to put it right."

Do you really mean every Councillor, me included?

Duncan Smithson said...

In terms of technology, can I cite Moores Law??? (sic)

And I think Joe was talking about perception of the public. Rightly or wrongly, there is a perception that councillors are either corrupt, in it for their own good or inept.

I personally think there are 17 members of the council (on all sides) that are brilliant. With your commitment to transparency of discussion through this blog, I count you as one of them

Joe Turner said...

I mean the total inability of councillors to find solutions to problems in Thanet. I have been working on street cleaning issues, I can't tell you how many times I've reported different things to TDC. I have been told several times that things only ever get tackled on these issues when residents complain. Well, that isn't good enough. Residents should not have to complain about obvious things in our town that Council officers and Councillors walk past on a daily basis. You should know what is happening in major council-owned infrastructure, you should know about issues on main thoroughfares, you should know about issues on the streets where you live and in your own towns.

So you lot need to start waking up and become proactive. It isn't good enough for the dog warden to tell me that a) there is no enforcement and b) no money in the tin for new dog bins - because that just means residents have to live with the mess. Why should we have to report every time we stand in dog poo? You must know this is an issue.

So - forget all the pathetic party posturing, work out some forum you can have officers and councillors around a table and work out solutions to these problems. Work out how you are going to deal with graffiti so it is not just left for years on end. Work out what you are going to do about abandoned cars. Ask residents where problem areas are for dog poo and work out how you are actually going to address the problem. Be aware that we have signposts which point to things that haven't existed since 1999. Make sure council services work properly. Make sure litter is picked up from parks before you cut the grass. Etc and so on.

The public is sick to the back teeth of a council which doesn't give a monkeys. And if we can't trust you to do something without being told to do it on little things we know about, how on earth do you expect us to trust you on the bigger things?

Why do I even need to tell you this - isn't it obvious?

Because I'll tell you this for absolutely free, if you don't start taking notice of these (and other very obvious things in our towns), you'll open the door to others who do. And they may well be a lot more unpleasant than you are.

Simon Moores said...

" And they may well be a lot more unpleasant than you are."

But would they do the job any better I wonder? Voting in UKIP's 'Dad's Army' to KCC is an unmitigated local disaster at a local level because if you feel little was achieved before, you can be confident that rather less will be achieved over the next five years.

I fundamental problem is that the public simply don't fully understand the role councillors play. They make decisions based on policy and direction. "The Council" is under the control of civil servants who execute that policy well or badly, based on resources, cash etc etc.

The Council also has a number of core services which it is obliged to provide and many more it is not but has done so over the years when money and county/central government subsidies were freely available. Today we have yet to feel the real bite of austerity, as to date, we have been shielded from the consequences of huge government debt, however bad it may feel at present. So the Council is struggling to provide even its most core services on a steadily reducing budget and we live in a place that floats on welfare subsidies and requires a huge uplift in council tax subsidies, simply to stand still.

I grant you that many more councillors need to be proactive and invisible because far too many are not. At the same time, there is simply no mechanism to impose a universal will upon the civil servants and even getting rid of the worst non-performers in local government can prove very expensive indeed to the taxpayer as you will no doubt have noticed around the country.

As for knowing what is happening in every aspect of the Council, that's pretty impossible given its bureaucratic complexity. All energetic and caring councillors can do is try to alter the course of a huge supertanker, inch by inch and if you have ever watched "Yes Minister" then you will completely understand what I mean!

Barry James said...

Simon understanding that Councillors are not all seeing is difficult when you are trying to clean dog shit off the wheels of your buggy for the nth time.
If the problem is money them we need to look no further back that the austerity after the 2nd WW when community spirit was the buzz word.

There are groups who take responsibility for their area and TDC needs to applaud that and encourage more of it, not bury them in red tape and stifle it. The Council needs to feed back their problems so we are working together for the good of all.
As has been said there is good people and bad people but mainly indifferent people who are fed up with complaining and have given up. "We are all in this together"

Joe Turner said...

I suspect you'll find UKIP rolling up their sleeves and cleaning the streets themselves.

So the choice is essentially yours - either work out a better way to run the services of the council, or find that you lose out to UKIP at the next election.

Joe Turner said...

Also I challenge the point that this requires more money. What it requires is civic pride in everyone - council officers, councillors and the public.

If TDC is emptying money from pay machines in a carpark, it is an act of will not to notice graffiti in the car park and abandoned cars/litter within metres of it!

Simon Moores said...

Joe while I encourage debate I also encourage constructive debate. There is no 'better way' to run the Council as the Council is wrapped in a Gordian knot of regulations. You certainly won't find one in two years before the next election.

It's like a balloon. You squeeze one side and hope a result pops out somewhere else useful

Joe Turner said...

So, Simon, you are saying that nothing can be done on these issues. This is why there is a problem at TDC.

Simon Moores said...

Barry. After the second world war it was a very different generation that lived here in Thanet. Even when I was a boy in the sixties and seventies.

Community is a word much-loved by the BBC with increasingly less meaning in a modern context which is increasingly one of isolation. There are of course many community-minded volunteers who achieve great things around the island and I'm very grateful to them but there are equally many residents in areas under 'special measures,' some of whom really don't give a damn whether their dog defecates freely in the street of eats your chihuahua as a passing snack. They would have no intention of paying a fine for anything and the law and all the community wardens in the world are pretty powerless in such circumstances.

Simon Moores said...

No.. I'm saying that many of the things that people most want done, can't be achieved, either through cost or because our very liberal human-rights-oriented justice system has removed what the older generation recall as sanctions.

Simon Moores said...

The man who empties the parking machine will likely work for a different department to that of street cleaning or graffiti removal. The latter is a constant task, costing the taxpayer thousands each year, thanks to the artistic impressionism in public of so many of our talented artists

Simon Moores said...

One thought before I return to concentrate on my task, which is predicting the world in thirty years.

Local government, the NHS and virtually every public service you can think of is viewed and shaped through three lenses

1) The avoidance of liability
2) Human Rights legislation
3) Employment Rights Legislation

With these in play at any time achieving substantial progress in any direction is akin to wading through very thick mud.

Wanda Rogers said...

An interesting & thought-provoking post with comments to match. Refreshing indeed.

Barry James said...

Simon "democracy is a 5 min chat" agree councillors should do more chatting

Anonymous said...

Yes, a well written post Simon, and one that should draw its fair share of constructive comments. Much or what has been said about cllrs not fit for their responsibilities and consequently fail the people they were voted to serve is true. However, there are many on both sides of the divide that do good work and go unsung and, barring the fickle voter, will be re-elected to carry on. But the report on TDC is light on its critisism of council officers and all of us have stories of badly performing examples. This is perhaps the true underbelly of the animal and changes in cllrs will not address this problem. 'Yes minister' is so true as I have found to my frustration. So I would advocate change throughout TDC at all levels. With strong leadership from the top we can all turn this 'tanker' round to a better and brighter future.

Alasdair Bruce

John Hamilton - talking sense and cutting through bullshit said...

Having read the OP, and then the usual drivel from James, Smithson and the boy Turner, the phrase

"The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter."

is bought into very VERY sharp focus, and the conclusion

"Shouldn't be left alone to push a shopping trolley around Sainsbury"

would seem to be highly appropriate.

To whine about dog shit, and blame TDC for it is not only laughable, but it would seem that to please certain sections of the whining classes in Thanet, every street would have to be inspected every day, and even that wouldn't guarantee dog shit free strollers!

Clearly those whining the loudest about EVERY subject, most of which they have no actual involvement in beyond whining about it, mostly the three in this thread that I have mentioned, simply represent a kind of statistical irrelevance whose noise far out weighs it's relevance, and should be rightly dismissed.

It's about time TDC dismissed them as the fringe element, that represents nobody, and actually got on with making Thanet a better place to live in.

Simon Moores said...

I see that in direct contradiction to the very same Standards Committee report that is sharply focused on his antics in teh chamber, Cllr Driver, once again paralysed a Council committee last night on the pretext of his "right to film"

It says rather more about "his right" , this former militant, Scargilist, socialist, and Labour politician, to constantly try and draw attention to himself


John Hamilton - talking sense and cutting through bullshit said...

I think it's more than clear that Driver regards TDC as a vehicle to publicise Driver.

He clearly has no intention of aiding TDC in any way shape or form, and certainly has no interest in Thanet beyond what it and it's people can do to further his political ambitions.

He is a disgrace, and should have had the courage of his convictions to contest a by election when he abandoned the party he was elected to represent, and maybe even the 3 others he has claimed to represent since.

It's unlikely any progress will be made in Thanet, until this political chancer is thrown out in 2015, or he is excluded from TDC for ignoring rules he knew existed when he was elected.

Simon Moores said...

Here's the Conservative press release following last night's fiasco:


John Hamilton - talking sense and cutting through bullshit said...

Very well put!

In future, can Driver be censured/thrown out/removed/prevented from attending and thus disrupting meetings for his own engrandishment? Perhaps have security ready to remove him for obstructing TDC from carrying out it's business?

There MUST be some way to prevent this chancer continuing to prevent TDC from making progress in Thanet? As he no longer has a mandate from anyone, is there a any mechanism to force this clown to contest a by election..

"Following the closure of the meeting, three of the Group Leaders who had been present, Cllr Clive Hart, Cllr Bob Bayford and Cllr Jack Cohen, all expressed their profound disappointment that Cllr Driver was yet again holding the democratic process to ransom and wasting enormous amounts of taxpayers’ money.

Michael Child said...

Let me get this right, Driver’s antics have caused a united front from both the Labour and Conservative group to the extent that they have just released the same press release.

Which I take to be an indication that finally both groups are behaving as though they were responding to the message that the electorate sent them at the last election with no overall majority, which may be “work together for the good of the district” perhaps something else was meant, any ideas?

I wonder if this should be viewed as some sort of political failure, given this country’s history of progress through civil disobedience.

And yes excellent post Simon, but nonetheless the view of the average voter is what you actually have.

Barry James said...

Simon, Last night I and many others wanted to hear clear answers from Cllrs Bayford and Hart on how they managed to get shafted by the owners of TEF. In my opinion showing that TDC is a soft touch when it comes to getting value for money. The antics and agenda caused the meeting to be postponed which is completely wrong. Asking to film was good as I believe all meetings should be streamed live but when he was refused permission by the chair as was her prerogative he should have accepted that decision.
Further having read Michael's comments above I agree totally with him. The Electorate want to see both sides of the house working together for the good of Thanet

John Hamilton - talking sense and cutting through bullshit said...

Happily it seems that Labour and conservative intend to unite to deal with one of Thanets most divisive wastes of time and money, Driver, the people of Thanet will be best served when that clown is finally dealt with.

Tony Ovenden said...

A good honest response however I just wonder why someone who does take a moral line has to refer to me as militant beachcomber when it is obvious I am not.

Simon Moores said...

It's tongue in cheek good humour Tony connecting Militant and a passion for Beachcombing. Nothing malicious!

Anonymous said...

Seems like poor old Hammy would rather live in the dark ages, where dinosaurs like him could roam freely and munch on anything or anyone they liked.