Archive | July, 2013

Scrutiny and Police & Crime Commissioners

26 Jul

Police and Crime Commissioners are hugely powerful and have direct and sole control over multi-million pound budgets. Those of us who have closely followed the implementation and election of PCCs know this, but still many of the public don’t understand exactly what this role is. Awareness is growing, in part due to intense media scrutiny and many offices are groaning under the weight of huge levels of correspondence, FOI requests and a genuine desire from the public to engage in decision making around policing.

There is also a backdrop of increased public concern about police behaviours: How intelligence gathering officers’ conduct themselves, phone hacking, public order tactics and increased roll out of Tasers. All of this in the wake of the lowest ever electoral turnout and heavy criticism of how the public were informed about candidates and the role of PCC prior to that turnout.

These issues combined raise questions of democratic legitimacy and this question should be turned into an engagement and scrutiny challenge for PCCs and the bodies that scrutinise their performance, Police and Crime Panels.

Recognising the unique challenges facing OPCCs we worked with the APCC (Association of Police & Crime Commissioners) to produce guidance for ‘digital democratic engagement’ which was published in December 2011. This guidance takes account of the fact that all PCCs have areas with far bigger electorates than MPs do and that to have a meaningful relationship with all communities that PCCs will need to harness digital as part of their overall engagement strategy.

Some OPCCs got off to a flying start, engaging and empowering the public, as well as setting up their own layers of scrutiny in addition to that provided by the Police and Crime Panel.

These are some of the reasons to take a proactive approach:-

  • Publishing information proactively and sharing it on social media might actually decrease the office’s workload in responding to enquiries
  • It is not enough to continue to act like a police authority staff team…the office has to adjust to working in a fast paced political environment
  • Staff resources are tight so proactive communication and ‘listening’ saves resources and digital is a way of ‘showing who you have listened to’ as well as being more transparent

Police and Crime Panels are there to scrutinise the Police and Crime Commissioner and their decisions. Key issues that have been scrutinised or discussed to date have been around senior appointments, publication of financial data and relationships with the Chief Constable. The House of Commons Overview and Scrutiny Committee called a number of PCCs and PCPs in for questioning around these issues though an in-depth session in part there was a concern around how robust the scrutiny challenge locally is, with a further session due later this year.

Aspects of the role of Police and Crime Panels that were examined:-

  • Public access to meetings
  • Clarity over role to scrutinise
  • Access to legal advice

In some areas, there is no digital engagement direct from OPCC or PCP with the public, and in some this vacuum is being filled by armchair scrutineers. The problem with this situation is that nobody has provided them with any mandate to represent them and, additionally they may be reporting in a highly biased manner and yet, there is no alternative digital presence for the public to view. There are many ways of taking a proactive approach digitally which provides increased confidence and engagement.

Communities will be interested in how well policing is scrutinised, but not everyone is able to get directly involved. How do you ensure they see ‘scrutiny done’? Some practical examples we have seen are:-

  • Live tweeting public engagement events and the Q&A
  • Webcasting management meetings with the Chief Constable
  • Direct public Q&A sessions online using various tools – CoverItLive, Twitter, Facebook
  • Web publication of the transcripts of public meetings
  • Police and Crime Panels webcast (sometimes on a one-off basis, sometimes on a regular basis)

Stop press –

 Centre for Public Scrutiny and LGA are providing Police and Crime Panels with optional support of 10 days to help them carry out this important function – find out more here.

See Jon Harvey’s article in the Guardian on the role of PCPs (Police and Crime Panels)

Credit to Katy Bourne, Sussex Police and Crime Commissioner who today (26th July 2013) webcast the Performance and Accountability meeting she holds with the Chief Constable.

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Networked councillor – sticks and stones

15 Jul

I have been asked to blog about my experiences as a brand new candidate (and now, brand new Councillor) and finding a way to deal with cyber-attacks. My case was pretty extreme so I won’t dwell too heavily on it as it is atypical. However, discussing this issue at the LGA conference with Councillors from all parties gave me an insight into the common themes and some of the attitudes/ responses that Councillors have taken. This is an emerging area as more and more people use social media to directly contact candidates and Councillors. Probably the most interesting aspect is how not just the target but how the online community responds to the cyber-attacker.

What is a troll or a cyber-bully? Just being challenging is not a reason to label someone this way. People in public life have to be able to respond to challenge. But, it is acceptable to leave a query until the next day if you are tired, dealing with something else or you need to do some research to answer properly. It is always better to think before you answer. Try to answer the content rather than the tone it is expressed in.

Personal attacks, which are a matter of one person’s opinion, or malicious untruths, or intrusive behaviour are cyber-bullying. It is unpleasant. Most Councillors have experienced it to some extent if they are online. Some will say it goes with territory, they are right, but many of you aren’t career politicians groomed from childhood to expect it. Most Councillors, as is the whole point of local government, are ordinary people who want to improve things for their community and it can be quite a shock. Even experienced Councillors who first go online can be surprised at it and put down the social media tools as a result, but please don’t!!

Here are some questions to consider if you experience this behaviour:

  • Who is making the attack?
  • Are they anonymous?
  • Do they influence people’s thoughts and behaviour?
  • What networks do they belong to and how are their networks reacting to their behaviour?
  • Does it reflect it well on them?
  • Do people admire what they are saying and their approach?

All of these questions should tell you how seriously to take what they are doing. If they aren’t influential, if they are anonymous, if their network is not supporting their behaviour then simply block them. If you need help to find out how to ensure they can’t post on various social media platforms, someone in your council or a friend will be able to advise you. Unless you relish this type of thing (I don’t, but I know people who genuinely do enjoy ‘troll baiting’ so it’s up to you) just not reading it will prevent you having energy drained from you that you could more productively use to engage with people who actually do want a discussion.

  • If they are influencers, and you feel you do need to respond, in my opinion it is fine to call out bad or rude behaviour. You are not obliged to engage with people who are being rude or abusive and you are entitled to say so.
  • It can be helpful to have ‘rules of engagement’ stated somewhere, perhaps on your blog for example.
  • You don’t have to respond to every message, if you have answered a question – you don’t have to respond to the critique of the answer.
  • Sometimes the best thing to do is to do nothing. Often the ‘crowd’ will tackle the behaviour for you if they believe someone is abusing the forum or you unfairly. Typically they will jump in, often with humour.
  • If someone within your network or party is behaving badly, consider how it reflects on you and whether or not you should act personally or corporately on the issue. Do you have any guidelines or mechanisms to deal with this?

Every digital Councillor will have a story to tell; talk to each other. There is no one way to respond, but hopefully some of these questions will help you think through how you deal with it.

Ultimately, it is unlikely to affect your campaign unless you allow your time and energy to be sapped engaging with it. In fact it can be measure of the fact others are anxious about how well your campaign is going.

In the conversations I have had with experienced Councillors from around the country and across parties, there is an agreement that women suffer worse abuse online than their male counterparts. There is a growing body of evidence for this sense, and it would be interesting to know why this is, and how to reduce it. Here is the experience of BBCQT Ghost Guest by Martin Belam. See also this article by Ray Filar in Liberal Conspiracy and here is a brilliant article from the Telegraph (20 May 2013) by Dr Brooke Magnanti on How to deal with twitter trolls

“thanks for the pain, you made me raise my game” – Jessie J ‘Who’s laughing now’