Tuesday, 22 April 2014

Handbags At Dawn

You ever get the impression that you are a nuisance?

If in doubt then write to Bedford Borough Council and ask a question or two. It’s not for the faint-hearted and it will take up quite a lot of your time. And don’t expect answers or to be told that you are indeed a nuisance. The Council’s response and their tone should serve to confirm that you are though.

Here’s a recent sequence of emails initiated by me to elicit information (edited only to save space and embarrassment, and with what are intended as helpful comments contained in the square brackets).

1 April – My query:

May I ask what proposals are in train to open up the [public rights of way] network please?

Are there other proposals unconnected with opening up the network, and will any take priority over those dealing with anomalies [Council speak for unusable/unconnected paths]?

And when is it hoped that current proposals will reach the report stage [when one council officer asks another officer if an order to create, close or divert a path can be made]?

3 April – Council reply:

Thank you for this email:

I have only formally taken responsibility for this time and so it will be some time before I fully understand their workload and priorities. I will bear your comments in mind when looking at workloads etc.

4 April – My chaser:

I’m disappointed that you weren’t able to answer any of my questions and note that you didn’t give me any indication when you might do so.Therefore, may I ask again, that I be provided with the following information please?

1. What path proposals (anomalies) are in train to open up the network?

2. Are there other proposals (applications, schemes) unconnected with opening up the network, and will any take priority over those dealing with anomalies?

3. When is it hoped that the above (current) proposals will reach the report stage?

16 April – My second chaser:

I wrote to you on 1st April asking questions which it seems to me you brushed aside in your reply of 3rd April. I wrote to you again on 4th April and I have not received any response.

Regrettably, I cannot say that it’s a situation that surprises me; all too often Council officers and elected members do not respond to my letters without me having to chase a reply. It seems inexcusable to me that anyone at the Council should not respond to correspondence from the public as a matter of obvious working practice, let alone good manners and your Customer Care Response Standards policy.

I would be grateful if you would answer the questions posed in my emails of 1st and 4th April please.

16 April – Council reply:

Thank you for this email. I not been in the office recently as I have been on annual leave.

I replied to your email of 1 April and explained my position in that I am getting to understand work loads, priorities etc of the team since I became their line manager on 1 April. I will need time to look at how the team can maximise its potential and, as I stated at the LAF [Local Access Forum], to raise its profile within the Council.

I will be asking [named council officer] to provide you with the information that you require.

16 April – My response:

Your explanation regarding your position as line manager is inadequate and you neglect to give me any indication as to when you will provide me with the information that I seek. The council has a policy regarding correspondence and you don’t seem to have adhered to it. If my email to you of 4th April was received before you were absent on leave then you should have informed me of what you would or were unable to do. If my email arrived when you were absent on leave then I should have been informed automatically that you were out of office. If you are recently returned then perhaps you could have found time for an explanation.

You had warning of the Rights of Way Team’s move to Highways [Department] so I do not fully accept your reasons …..

16 April – A council Officer provides me with most of the information that I sought.

That is the end of the sequence. You will draw your own conclusions. I would like to emphasise that there were no apologies to edit out of the emails. And I would like to clarify that the Council's Rights of Way Team moved officially from one department to another but within the same directorate on 1 April. It was a move planned last year - although "notified" might be a better description than "planned". 

I'm not sure who a council officer serves; the council's elected members, its chief executive, the public, themselves or all of these? If Bedford Borough Council officers' serve the public then do they think that they do it well?

My view is that local authorities are closer than any other public body to their communities. They should understand and articulate the needs of their residents, through officers as well as local councillors. As finances become more squeezed and councils cut back to only the top priorities, community engagement will become even more important. In days like these, the support of local people and a mutual trusting relationship between councils and the residents they serve is even more important.

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