Some of you may have heard the news that I’m the chair of Colchester Borough Council’s Governance and Audit Committee for the next year, after being Deputy Chair of it last year. As I wrote last year, Governance and Audit is a committee with somewhat of a dull reputation because its main job is to review the council’s procedures and oversee the various audits the council undergoes, and they’re the sort of things that usually only get very interesting when something has gone, is going, or is about to go wrong.
However, one thing my predecessor as chair of the committee, Chris Pearson, introduced last year was to make it a bit more proactive in looking at ways we could improve the governance of the Council. That’s why last year we had the snappily-named Review Of Meetings And Ways Of Working (the ROMAWOW, as no one has yet been heard to refer to it in public) which I wrote about here, and which has its final report coming back to the committee tonight. There are a number of changes coming about as a result of it, most notably to the public that Have Your Say public speakers at council meetings will now have the opportunity to speak again in response to the answer they’ve been given, but there are a number of other changes in how we present information at meetings and how they’re run that should hopefully make them better for members of the public and councillors. One of these changes is starting some meetings later, which is why tonight’s meeting will be starting at 7pm instead of the usual 6pm.
Having done that review, though, I’m aware that a lot of people’s frustrations can’t be addressed by just changing the way we do meetings. So, that’s why I’ll be suggesting tonight that we build on this review with another one that will look at issues around elections and public participation in the democratic process. This will hopefully have two element. First, looking at the procedural elements of how the council runs elections to see if there are ways it can be improved to make it better for the public. Obviously, this has to be done under the rules set out by the Representation of the People Act so my favoured solution to a lot of problems – change the electoral system to Single Transferable Vote, like they have in Scottish and Northern Irish local elections – is a non-starter for now, but there are other aspects that can be looked at. For instance, I know people have suggested the design and information provided on polling cards could be improved, but I’m sure there are lots of other suggestions that could be made.
The second part is a bit more nebulous at the moment, but I want us to also look at how to improve public participation in elections and local democracy more generally. One thing I’ve always tried to stress is that democracy isn’t just an event, it’s a process, and for that process to occur we need to have those public spaces – which can be physical or virtual – where people can access information and share opinion. What the council can do directly here is perhaps limited by law and current levels of funding, but how can we as a council and a wider public improve the levels of information and debate available to everyone so we can move towards a better and more responsive local democracy?
All thoughts are welcome, and we’ll hopefully have a wider discussion on this at the next committee meeting on 25th July and see how to move this forward. (And yes, I should have posted this a while before the meeting, but I was on holiday last week…)