Cllr Julian Ellacott: The importance of personal contacts (and officers are human, too!)
Even after 7 years as a Councillor it still surprises me how important informal contacts can be in local government – just like in the “real” world of work, really. As a Councillor you learn very quickly that the formal meetings are usually just set pieces, that even the longest formal report can say very little, and that even the best piece of oratory at Full Council usually leads to absolutely no change in the Council’s policy. Conversely, even the shortest chance conversation with a fellow member or officer over the water cooler can uncover a goldmine of information, or set in motion a brilliant new idea.
My latest thoughts on this matter were prompted by a walkabout recently with some highways officers in my ward. Firstly, being a Borough Councillor in a two tier area, where the County is the highways authority, even this could be considered a great achievement. On paper, all we were doing was going through the motions to confirm that a traffic calming scheme, agreed by committee a few years ago, was still relevant to go ahead now that funding was in place. In practice, between us we ended up redrawing the whole scheme and ditching the speed humps, instead focusing the available funds on improvements to pavements and crossings, which are much more at the forefront of residents’ concerns in the area.
The point about “informal contacts” was really that I had no business participating in this process, and it was only the fact that I am well known to the County officers involved that (I think!) led them to ask for my input. I think (by some fluke) I have managed to balance on that fine line, between being a Councillor who is so compliant that there is no point involving them, and being a Councillor who is such a nuisance that the only option is not to involve them.
I guess the other lesson it reiterated to me was never to assume that other people’s views are entrenched. When I suggested, quite tentatively, to ditch the speed humps and improve the pavements instead, I was half expecting to be met with a tirade of this being “against current thinking”, or “not best practice”, or “not in accordance with adopted policy”. In fact, the response was more like “what a good idea”. Which brings me to my final lesson – officers are human too!