Campaign Trail – Days 11 and 12
There’s been a lot going on in my life, and it feels like the first four months of this year have been concatenated into one week. I finally finished The Casual Vacancy, and while some folk have been telling me that it stretches the boundaries of credulity, I was left feeling disappointed at how normal it actually was, and part of me felt, too, that it was written in a very patronising tone towards those of lesser means. Maybe I got the wrong impression. However, it did focus my mind on how we should define the position of an unpaid elected representative.
Some schools of thought would define it as volunteering. I’m not so sure about that. I know that volunteers are difficult to find, for local clubs, societies, charities and the like, and that the time they give up to do their volunteering is extremely precious, both to them, and to the organisations they volunteer for, and that their contributions in time can be measured as financial benefits for those organisations. However, I don’t believe that those volunteers are publicly accountable, nor are they relied upon to represent the views of those who have elected them (because they haven’t been elected, for one).
Entering public service, on the other hand, be that paid or unpaid (as in the case of serving at most levels in local government), immediately makes you publicly accountable. You have a duty to disclose your interests, financial and otherwise, you have a duty to listen to those who elected you, and, to be frank, to those who didn’t elect you. You have a responsibility to think about the effects your actions will have on the entire community you serve. I have said this before, and I’ll say it again – parish councils are businesses, just like charities are businesses, just like large public or private limited companies are businesses. It doesn’t matter if you’re counting funds in terms of a few pounds and pence, or in terms of millions of pounds. In public service you have a fiscal and pastoral responsibility, and, possibly even more significantly, a duty of care to the public body you serve on and to the public served by that local government body. And one of the most important facets of this duty of care is the reputation management of the body you serve on.
My day job is to manage a charity which has an annual income of about £3 million, and which has assets of around £57 million (and those numbers are in the public domain, so I’m not disclosing what I shouldn’t disclose). I work towards a budget. The charity accounts are published annually, and are available for everyone to see. Even though there is no duty on the charity (or me) to disclose in those accounts precisely what my salary is, I have insisted to the charty’s auditors and trustees that the accounts continue to disclose what I earn, because I believe that the charity and I should be, must be, publicly accountable, and that, in an age where the salaries of charity chief executives (and CEOs of commercial organisations) are under increasing scrutiny and criticism, we can demonstrate that our pay structure is not one that deprives the charity of money it could more effectively be paying out in grants.
That is why, if I am elected onto the parish council, I will be asking for the financial processes (and the actual numbers) to be made much more transparent to the general public. In specific, I think the Parish Council should publish, via notice boards, via its (publicly-accountable and governed by specific local government legislation) web site, via the Stradbroke Monthly, and via any other media, the following:
- monthly management accounts (to the last penny, not a summary), including performance against budget;
- records of attendance by parish councillors;
- records of how parish councillors have voted on all parish council votes;
- a monthly statement on what activities have been undertaken by the council and its employees;
- a quarterly assessment its own performance.
And that’s just for starters. I don’t believe the Parish Council is at the moment as publicy accountable as it should be, nor its processes as transparent as they should be, nor its councillors as recognisable in the village as they should be. A separate requirements should be for the parish noticeboards to have photographs of all the councillors on them so that people living in Stradbroke are actually given the chance of recognising their elected representatives when they meet them in the street, or the baker’s, or the shop, or the butcher’s, or anywhere.
And before anyone says that surely the recording of the parish council meetings now makes the council entirely transparent and publicly accountable – it doesn’t. It gives some of the public a chance to listen to what’s been said at meetings. It doesn’t make public and open all those things I have itemised in the list above.
Elected representatives have no right to live in the shadows – nor should they.
Promoted by Richard Pierce-Saunderson of Spring Cottage, Church Street, Stradbroke, Suffolk, IP21 5HT.