Talk to us, don’t use PR speak

SIR – Last week, we saw the PR response from our local authorities in full swing responding to the criticisms they have faced over snow and ice clearance, leaf clearance and the collection of rubbish from households.

This response is a pity as it reinforces the views of residents along the lines of ‘they are not listening….again!’

So perhaps it is worth just going into this in a bit more detail as each of these issues have some common themes.

First of all, we have reread the correspondence of the previous week and for our part we are clear that no criticisms have been made of the Serco workforce themselves.

The comments that have been made relate to the service and not to the workforce as it is clear that, for many residents, the service simply does not work as they feel it should.

This is understandable enough as they pay large sums in council tax and, while the odd error is bound to happen from time to time, they have a perception that it does not work well under pressure and that they, the residents, are not listened to when they complain.

The real criticism should be aimed at elected officials and management as together that is where responsibility lies.

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First of all, let us deal with elected politicians.

They are under enormous pressure to keep costs to a minimum. The result is that all these local government operations run at a very high level of efficiency, most of the time; but there is little or no slack to handle the out of the ordinary or the exceptional; and there are minimal budgets set aside to buy in additional resources at short notice when things become difficult.

So this improved efficiency has a hidden cost – breakdown – when things go wrong.

That is what we appear to have with the rubbish collection system.

Larger vehicles were obtained to maximise the loads carried so ensure greater ‘efficiency’ but did anyone think through the consequence when these same large lorries could not get about in the snow?

Who knows?

Elected politicians talk about ‘efficiency’ and how well they have done, but we are never warned about the downside, if there is one.

So they are bound to face criticism when things go wrong.

Now let us turn to management.

Under pressure to work at such high levels of efficiency and with minimal budgets to handle exception cases, service is inevitably going to go very wrong when they are bowled a ‘googly’ like unplanned for snow.

We have been fortunate that the snow has been relatively short-lived.

What would happen if snow came before Christmas and stayed with us until the following March?

Yes; it has happened before, though we are told that, with global warming, it is statistically less likely to happen.

However, our understanding of global warming is that not only will the climate become warmer on average over time, but that swings in temperature will become more violent.

That means we are liable to have more ‘exceptional’ events: so perhaps management should start thinking now about how they should be handing these.

‘Exceptional circumstances’ is becoming less of a defence, particularly when residents’ perception is that some other councils seem to cope better.

Now let’s turn to the issue of PR.

It is never a good idea to tell residents facts that are simply misleading or incorrect.

We are told: “All refuse collections from the festive period were made by January 4.”

That may refer to dustbin and bag collections only, but brown bins now include household waste. These were held over in some streets from before Christmas until January 27.

Such misleading statements let the council down at every level.

We were honoured at seeing a letter signed by both a county councillor and a borough councillor, in response to our own, indicating that whatever the problem was between them as regards the clearing of snow, it had now been resolved.

That is good news.

However, we would never have said what we did unless we had received an email indicating that there was an issue and that, “the situation between HCC and WHBC is one we are trying very hard to bring to a conclusion. I am as frustrated as you with the current arrangements”.

Too often residents’ concerns are brushed off, issues never addressed, emails to councillors are not answered or matters simply disappear into an enormous black hole from which they may surface at some future date.

While the council, its management and elected officials understand what goes on, there is little communication or explanation back to the resident who first raised it as it is assumed he or she understands what is going on.

This is infuriating and, regrettably, it is not surprising most residents have simply tuned off.

We think this is something that the council, at senior levels, needs to address.

Moreover we do not think our view is confined to members of this society.

It gives us little pleasure to quote from a recent report by the Audit Commission: “There are low levels of satisfaction amongst residents, especially around the council doing a good job… Residents also feel they cannot influence council decisions”.

We would strongly urge elected councillors to talk to residents rather than respond in PR speak as, in our opinion, this simply makes matters worse and fails to address the real issues.

John Marks,

WGC Society.