Monday, May 26, 2008

Dealing with councils

I know it's fashionable to knock local government - they're generally seen as corrupt, useless, hopelessly politicized and riven by factionalism and petty hatreds.  The general impression that you get from the media is that councils are so messed up, they make Iraq look like Switzerland. Council workers are often said to do less work than patients in a coma ward.

It's unfortunate that this is how many people think, because I've found local government around here to be pretty responsive.  It's worth remembering that the council where I live has less than 300 employees (it had even fewer last year - I have no idea why the numbers have jumped up, but that is a separate issue).  I have worked in organisations of many sizes, and I have always found that those that we around the 200-400 staff range were far and away the best performing, most efficient and most enjoyable places to work.  They're small enough for everyone to know everyone else, and if run well, the place runs on people talking to each other - as opposed to pushing paper from one desk to another.  People can get things done by simply picking up the phone, or yelling across the office, because the staff see each other enough to build up a level of trust that does not exist in a big organisation.  Formalities can be dispensed with.

It helps that we also have some active councillors.  I know that if you write to one of them, you can expect him to turn up on your doorstep to look at your problem with his own eyes.  These people are local - if you tell them about a problem in a certain spot, chances are they will know exactly where you are talking about, will understand the problem, and will get it fixed quickly. It might even be in the street where they live!

That's been my experience at least.  Your council on the other hand might be a collection of mongs.  If that's the case, run for office.  You only need a few thousand votes to get elected, and it does not cost much to run for local office.  

My local council, which is Canada Bay, makes life easier for residents by putting an awful lot of stuff onto their website - including forms that you can fill out on line to request various services.  The forms are not perfect, and some of them are very well hidden in the bowels of the site, but they've made a good first attempt, and it should only get better from here.  In the usual spirit of things, I have already suggested to council three improvements to their web form system:

  • When you submit a form, you get an automated email response from the system confirming that your form has been accepted.  My suggestion is that it needs to include a reference number in case you want to follow it up.
  • When you tell the council about a problem, they should contact you when it's fixed to let you know what they've done.  They need to close the loop, and it will help improve perceptions about them fixing stuff, and not being a bunch of mongs in a coma.
  • Everyone has a phone in their camera these days (except me - but I prefer to use a proper camera instead of a crummy phone camera).  Allow users to submit photos with their forms.
I'm told that all three suggestions will be included in the next release of the system (although I haven't been told when that will be coming out).  If that happens, I will give it the somebody else's problem tic of approval - ie, it will be SEPTIC.

Our council also has a fairly effective call centre that you can speak to about problems.  They're based just down the road from me, rather than in India, so if I tell them that there is an issue 200 metres from their office, they can wander out at lunchtime and see for themselves.  

I'll give you a recent example of dealing with council.

I was at a local playground with the family.  When we arrived, I noticed that the gate to the playground had a few missing panels - it appears that someone had ripped them out.  That rendered the gate useless - kids of 2 and 3 were walking straight through the hole in the gate and heading for the road outside.

Just as we were about to open the gate (adults still needed to open it to get through), one of the other parents made an exasperated noise about the gate and said that, "It's been like that for at least two weeks."

I felt like removing the gate and whacking him over the head with the remains of it.  If he knew that the gate was broken, why didn't he do something about it?

Somebody else's problem I guess.  It was actually at that moment that I resolved to create this blog.

I bit my tongue, and made a mental note to report the problem to council when I got home.

Which is what I did.  I used the online form and got a lovely email back to say that someone will look into it.  I have faith that they will, because I have reported some breakages in that park in the past, and they have all been sorted out quickly.

But I'm still going to check.  As Ronald Reagan said, "Trust, but verify".

As for that father that knew about the problem, but failed to act......... let me just say that I would be very annoyed if I found that his kid ran through the gate, out onto the road and was hit by a passing car - and he then sued the council for not doing anything.  Accept some responsibility!  Take some action!  It's not like you have to drive down to Bunnings to buy the hardware to fix it yourself - just report it and let council take care of it.  Is it that hard to pick up the phone, or fill out an on line form?

Making things like playgrounds safe is not somebody else's problem!  Aaaarrggh!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

How do you know that the father had not reported it already?