We kind of thought we’d be done writing about the restriction of public questions at Medway Council. We did our little experiment, published our thoughts more than once, and the whole thing was inevitably waved through at last month’s council meeting. So imagine our surprise when Cllr Andrew Mackness, the portfolio holder behind the changes, got in touch following the vote to comment on our approach. His statement is presented below, unedited:
I can appreciate the frustration of running a political blog and only getting a limited response from members, I really can. I would also note that any resident committing time to blogging about local government should be commended. Not least the commitment to still be at full council going into the 5th day of Local Democracy week!
However, it is disingenuous to infer that because members haven’t responded to an overtly political blog that they are not responding to constituents. I am sure that my colleagues from across the chamber won’t mind me saying that the great majority of ward work is apolitical and that as a ward councillor you don’t assess a case for its political volatility or opportunity to score points. Having just given evidence to the Independent Remuneration Panel, when their report comes out, I understand it will have an analysis of the time commitments made by ward councillors. I hope that this will be a more concrete form of evidence than a round robin email. When it comes out, I would be happy to bring the report to your attention, if this would be of help.
We appreciate the fact that Cllr Mackness has taken time to respond to us on this issue, but unfortunately, we also feel we must take issue with some points he raises.
We accept that a “round robin” email isn’t a good way to assess how well councillors are doing their jobs, nor was it necessarily supposed to prove that one way or the other. The intent behind our experiment was to simply see how likely one was to get a response, as email has often been cited as an alternative option given the removal of questions in the chamber.
The problem here is the removal of the public record. Of course this kind of email isn’t an ideal way to see how well a councillor does their job, and nor should it be, but when the on the record options in the chamber was severely restricted, exactly how else are we supposed to judge how responsive a councillor is? We know a good number of councillors from all parties go considerably above and beyond their duties, just as we know there are some that don’t. The issue is that as each aspect of public scrutiny is removed, it becomes increasingly difficult for the average member of the public to gauge how much their councillor is doing.
It’s also disappointing that we’re being painted as an “overtly political blog”, though we’re not entirely sure how to be a covertly political blog. We have stances, but we have gone to great lengths to engage and give a platform to parties and politicians of all stripes. Even if Cllr Mackness feels we don’t deserve to be regarded as press when it comes to politics in Medway, it’s unfortunate that we weren’t seen as deserving as answers as residents either.
We’ll be very happy to look at (and cover) the findings of the Independent Renumeration Panel on how much councillors are doing, in the same way we’re happy to look at anything that gives us a glimpse into how councillors are or are not performing. Until then though, we’ll go on the evidence we’ve managed to collect so far.
Unless something changes in the coming months, this will likely be the last gasp of the public questions issue for now.