21 July 2017

Power to the People?

I have been thinking recently about democracy and accountability.  Not in any great philosophical way but about how it works in my life, where I live, what local issues concern me and whether I or any other ordinary people actually have any say in what happens. Coupled with these thoughts have been others on freedom of speech, particularly with regard to blogging. Do I have any right to inflict my own opinions on others? Do I feel a responsibility towards those who ask me to speak in their behalf?

Freedom of speech is a phrase banded around usually by those who don't have any idea that freedom of speech does come with a responsibility of which, I am acutely aware; that of saying what you want to say but without insult and injury to those who you speak to and of  not breaking any laws designed to protect certain groups of people and individuals. It's a difficult line to follow sometimes. I never actively go out to insult someone but occasionally what I have written is taken that way. As a person who tends to call a digging implement a spade, I can be taken aback when it is deemed that I have caused offence but if I have, I  always apologise and hopefully things move on from there.

Now and then something is said that is possibly a little too close to the truth for some people to deal with and that is when the accusations of insult come out to play. I don't believe in going around in circles to explain my discomfort with someone or something. I just say it, in a polite manner and without breaking any laws!

In recent times I have blogged about local issues and the accountability of those that have been elected and those who have not! I have been concerned that local democracy has been subverted by unelected, unaccountable individuals, groups and organisations. In searching for a definition of the word democracy I find that every publication has its own take on the word. No surprise really in the age of spin. I find one of the Harper Collins definitions (yes, even dictionary publishers have more than one definition available!) 'a political or social unit governed ultimately by all its members' as an understandable definition but how does that definition fit in with the definition of 'accountability'? Both words are interleaved and locked, for surely you cannot have democracy without accountability and if it is the unelected that make the decisions and runs the show, then accountability is none existent.

Accountability has in recent years become a rather negative word in that is it's generally used in a negative context. In our blame culture someone always has to be accountable when the proverbial poop hits the fan. Yet the definition of the word talks of accountability being 'the quality or  state of being accountable; an obligation or willingness to accept responsibility for one's actions'. Politicians for the most part, take their obligation to mean that accountability will be taken care of at the ballot box and if they haven't done well they will not be re-elected! Unfortunately  in the words of Larry J Sabato, "Every election is determined by the people who show up"! In a democratic society lots of people exercise their right not to vote because they fail to see how their one vote will change anything, make their life any better or worse. They fail to see and understand that politics pervades every part of life, from waste disposal to pot holes to schooling, to social services and care for the elderly, the disabled and the young, to policing, to health services, to transport, to parks. You get the picture. Life is political and therefore to participate in an election is to hold to account those who stand for office.

But what about those who take on responsibilities for whatever reason and yet can never be held accountable? There are small groups of people, even individuals who are not elected, not accountable to anyone but themselves and who make decisions on behalf of local communities that can change the face of an area. I have seen this happen in Aldridge and I have blogged about it. The reason behind the blogging of such episodes is to inform people what is being done in their name and with their money and of decisions made behind closed doors. Sometimes I am approached to give a voice to an issue that someone cares about and for whatever reason feels unable to do so themselves. I'm happy to help and yes, I do feel a responsibility to those people even if I disagree with them!

I have blogged about Aldridge, Walsall and what I care about for years. They are my own thoughts or ramblings of a mad old baggage. I don't need permission from anyone to write about what is on my mind or to report upon local events because I don't claim to speak on behalf of the whole community nor represent them. I hopefully stick to the law, don't insult and help keep people informed. I do this because I care about where I live and what happens. I care about those who are disenfranchised in some way and do not have a voice. Recent local events have been tragic and truly awful. A call was made by someone, a local resident whom I have know for years, for a public meeting and another person who had contacts very kindly liaised with others to bring together that meeting. However, unless you are a member of a certain group on Facebook there is no input for you. So those who don't do the internet, those who don't do Facebook and those who are not members of one particular group are disenfranchised because I have seen no other form of communication about this apart from leaflets advertising the meeting.

This concerns me.

At the meeting the Chair said that people would make reports and get back to 'you'. Who is 'you'? Now apparently there will be another meeting at some point so at least those who attend that meeting will learn a little of what is happening but what about everyone else? And who should be disseminating information, passing it on and deciding what can and cannot be said or asked? Should it be an unelected and unaccountable individual or should it be one of our local councillors perhaps? Or possibly a council officer who can use the resources available to ensure that there is more than one platform for people to report to and learn from?

My ramblings on what goes around in my head at 4am. Welcome to my world! I'm not sure if I've reached any conclusions here or even made any sense but I feel better for writing about what is troubling me. If what I have written troubles you in some way then possibly you need to think about your attitude towards local democracy and accountability.

I welcome discussion and debate especially about how we should now deal with the consequences of the recent meeting. All comments are published whether I like them or not apart from any that are deeply nasty or insulting. If you resort to that, I have no time for your comments.

I would also like to take the opportunity to thank the many dozens of people who have contacted me in various forms to thank me for raising issues and also to thank my fellow local bloggers who as always, have been most supportive, even if they can't stand me and disagree with everything I say!

8 comments:

  1. Well said Linda, some people only believe in 'Democracy' when it suits them and they control the terms of their so called 'Democracy'. There many groups within the Village who fall into this category.

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  2. An interesting blog with some fair points.
    The Facebook Group concerned had 4,000 members, (not all Aldridge residents). Aldridge 26,988 (wikipedia 2011) , it therefore has input from quite a small proportion of Aldridge residents, the meeting was advertised however through leaflets and press interview.
    I understand there is a further meeting planned. Have you any suggestions how better to inform the residents of Aldridge? Also any suggestions on how to get their input into the agenda?

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    1. Yes Chris, I appreciate that there was the radio interview broadcast just after 7am one morning and also some leaflets:-) I meant to edit the blog but hadn't got around to it!
      I can think of several ways that any further meeting could be publicised however, that still doesn't solve the problem of accountability; perhaps that is something that should be put on any future agenda should the situation not be resolved prior to any meeting. I've asked questions about accountability in the blog and these do need addressing.
      One of the reasons for addressing the accountability factor is the subject of funding for say publicity for the meeting. Publicity tends to cost a few pence especially if posters say for many retail outlets, public houses, restaurants were to be used. Leaflets also cost money as does distributing them unless sufficient volunteers make themselves available.
      Then there is the design and thoughts on the best ways of communicating with everyone (as in posters and leaflets). If accountability was to go to say a councillor or council officer then wider expertise becomes available.
      The Area Panel could authorise funding for these things but someone has to ask and to account for monies spent. So we are back to accountability once again.
      There are other forms of social media, twitter is excellent for getting a message out to an awful lot of people. There are other Facebook groups. There are the local free newspapers and also the E&S. All of these mediums can be used to increase inclusiveness. Plus there are specific routes used by those with disabilities such as the talking newspaper that the local branch of the RNIB produce. There is also the radio route and not just the normal local radio such as BBCWM but internet stations. Schools too, in order to broaden the age of those who are being reached. There can be no doubt that there was a distinct lack of young people at the public meeting.
      All of these require forward planning in order to get the message out. Then you have the problem of the agenda. If you are having people turn up who are not members of a particular Facebook group then the agenda has to be more flexible to allow for subjects that naturally arise during the meeting to be discussed and addressed. I fully appreciate that an agenda is needed in order for a meeting to progress but if the making of the agenda has been restricted to one area, then it has to be flexible and a very strong, non-partisan and experienced Chair would be required.
      It's a tough cookie but for local decision making to be effective it has to be inclusive, everyone has to feel that their voice has been heard and someone needs to be accountable in a democratic sense for ensuring that all of this is done.
      I don't pretend to have the answers. I have many questions myself and I've asked some in the blog. There has to be a wider discussion and debate and those who are in publicly accountable positions need to listen to all and not just those that feed them!
      Another thought, in years gone by there have been residents groups in the area, some of which have been most successful, although usually only for a small number of years. Maybe another group is now needed with elected officials, set meetings and so on.
      Finally we have a couple of neighbourhood watch groups in Aldridge. If people really want to help, assist and keep an eye on things,, whilst getting an opportunity to talk to the police directly about what they would like to see them concentrating on, the being active in one of those groups is a must. Personally I think those groups hold the key to all of this but that's just a personal opinion.

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    2. Linda the council did produce the leaflets and I and a few others walked round distributing them to shops, library, doctors and many other venues so members of the public whom are not in social media may have a chance of gathering the info and shops put them up in windows as posters all around Aldridge including outside of the centre. This was broadcasted on Central News, BBC news, Radio WM, Free Radio, Capital Radio, Birmingham Mail, Walsall Observer and Guardian....is that not sufficient in your eyes? Also in terms of democracy everything was done democratically every step of the way. Nothing was done without agreement of the majority of the residents whom, like Chris said, over 4k on the Aldridge group who also share with family amd friends....I mean, how else would all the people you refer t have known about it and turned up????!! Also there is a democratic option available to step in and with the agreement of residents take this forward

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    3. Linda I have just left a comment on this. Has it come through?

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    4. I have replied separately below. I've also made the following suggestion with regards to democracy and transparency. "Just a thought Erika but if you really want to be democratic how about advertising a meeting in which a properly constituted group and committee are formed? Call a meeting for interested parties to attend, say in a local hostelry or a room(?) (it's a little hard to know how large a group you may entice) get proper proposals and seconds for a committee and officer posts and then adopt a formal constitution. Keep your meetings open for everyone and publicise them in advance and not just through one group (!), circulate minutes, decisions etc. At least then it is not ad hoc."

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  3. Erika ( you have confirmed that it was you that made the anon comment) so I address my response to you. As I explained to Chris above, I had meant to amend the blog to include references to the leaflets (none of which I saw) and the radio BBCWM interview but hadn't got around to it. As I have now acknowledged both in two separate replies on the blog, I think that acknowledges that point.
    The Walsall Observer has not been around for years so I'm not sure how you managed publicity in that and I don't believe there is a local Guardian so if you managed to get it in the national one, then fair play to you but I don't think Aldridge is prime Guardian reading territory!
    The population of Aldridge is 27000 give or take a few. You acknowledge as does Chris that the facebook group has 4000 members. It's one group. Not everyone will 'follow' posts made, so it's reach is considerably less. There are others. Facebook is not the only platform on social media.
    I have not said for one moment that you didn't do a decent job in fact I haven't made this into a personal thing at all (the blog is impersonal) but please don't fool yourself that it was democratic. There were no votes, no elections. You completely controlled what was to be asked and the agenda from one group. That is not democracy. I take my hat off to you for volunteering to help organise all of this but read what I have written above please, this blog was about democracy and accountability not the way the actual meeting was organised. I have not criticised anyone merely raised concerns about how a few things are organised in Aldridge not just over the meeting but in other areas too!
    I will not be stepping in. Firstly it is not a post that has proper accountability and if you think someone taking over with the agreement of just a small number of residents is democratic then I suggest you think again.
    Our local councillors get paid a decent sum for acting on our behalf. They are accountable if only at the ballot box. Perhaps one of them should take this on and represent the electorate?

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  4. Just a thought Erika but if you really want to be democratic how about advertising a meeting in which a properly constituted group and committee are formed? Call a meeting for interested parties to attend, say in a local hostelry or a room(?) (it's a little hard to know how large a group you may entice) get proper proposals and seconds for a committee and officer posts and then adopt a formal constitution. Keep your meetings open for everyone and publicise them in advance and not just through one group (!), circulate minutes, decisions etc. At least then it is not ad hoc.

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