Harry Phibbs: Memo to new Conservative councillors
Harry Phibbs is a councillor in Hammersmith and Fulham and a regular contributor to the Social Affairs Unit's blog.
Congratulations. By now you should have caught up on some sleep, booked a date for a thank you party for the activists in your Ward to whom you owe your election, filled in the form for your bank account details to receive your £9,000 a year (leaving the section on your ethnic group blank and firing off an indignant email to the relevant Council officer asking why it was not made clear on the form that the completion of such a section is voluntary).
Soon the official photograph taken of your blurry eyed after your result was announced will be put on the official Council website. Perhaps you have already had a schedule of briefing sessions for new councillors on the 27 different things that your Council is responsible for. They will be held over the next couple of weeks with lots of bullet points and slide shows and briefing papers - while impressed by the knowledge and intelligence of the Council officers conducting the briefing you will be befuddled by the jargon and have to keep asking them to use plain English.
You will also wait with eager anticipation to see what Scrutiny Committees and outside bodies you have been appointed to. Go to the meetings. Make notes. Ask questions. It is vital to have a grasp of how the Council works and what it does if you are going to make a difference. But don't confuse process with substance. Simply attending meetings is not enough. You have been elected to reduce the Council Tax and improve the services. When you see waste and inefficiency you have a duty to challenge it. I fear you will find no shortage of material but if you want some ideas for questions click here.
As well as asking what the Council does also suggest ways in which it could be done differently. How does your Council compare in its performance on a particular area with other Councils? (If you want to use the jargon say: "Could we do some benchmarking on this please?") Don't be shy of copying good ideas from elsewhere. "How does what we are do compare with what they do in Wandsworth?" has been a familiar cry in Hammersmith Town Hall this past year. If Barnet can get rid of humps why can't we? Etc, etc, etc.
Those of you where the Conservatives control the Council should start the process of identifying savings in the budget as soon as possible. Freeze recruitment (then read the Society supplement of The Guardian on Wednesday to check if this is happening in practice). Get rid of the Political Advisers - they cost money and just get in the way between the Council officers and the councillors. There is nothing magic about our ability to have delivered a 3% cut in Council Tax in Hammersmith and Fulham. Sometimes other Conservative Councils suggest it is easy for us but impossible for them. Wrong on both counts. It was difficult but possible for us and that would apply for them as well. Look for some early initiatives that make a difference. In Hammersmith and Fulham we took to he streets Grot Spotting compiling lists of hundreds of cases of fly tipping and graffiti and then followed up to make sure they were removed by the Council.
No doubt the Editor of this site will be keen for you to start a blog. I have yet to do so myself but I rely heavily on email. If you have fellow Conservative Councillors in your ward copy them in on case work (complaints from local residents which you take up with the relevant council officer) to avoid duplication. If you don't have broadband you had better get it. Furthermore I use Google Mail which has a very large capacity so there is no need to delete emails and also a search function which enables me to search a reference to any term in all previous email correspondence. I have no shares in Google and there may well be other email systems that are just as good. Make sure you are using one of them. If you want to be an effective councillor be prepared to keep track of a lot of correspondence.