Slowly, local government in the UK has been moving towards 'accountability' and 'consultation'. Arguably, it is all a sham and a waste of paper. E-government is also full of promises, most of them probably false.

This letter is from the Sidmouth Herald of 30 January 1999.


So much for genuine accountability!

SIR - For how much longer must we finance the stream of supposedly 'consultative' glossy leaflets and booklets produced by East Devon District Council and Devon County Council? The function of government at any level is to govern. This requires that those in power have both ability and knowledge.

I have just read a glossy booklet entitled "Crime and Disorder in East Devon". Lavishly produced by EDDC with help from the police and DCC it purports "to aim to engage all members of the East Devon community" in "developing a three year Crime Reduction and Disorder Strategy". It is yet another public consultation exercise!

We need to be on our guard. There is large type and pretty pictures, as if few words on a page and multicoloured artwork can help to disguise lack of content and competence. Count the buzz words: "impacts on community safety, an ongoing process for the foreseeable future (read: jobs for the boys and girls), consultation, audit", and the inevitable and all-telling lie: "the strategy is as much yours as the authorities".

Has there ever been a time when cynicism and distrust towards MPs and other 'leaders' has been accompanied by so many false accolades to accountability? We pay for all this psycho-babble telling us how much our views are earnestly sought and truly genuinely valued. We have Ombudsmen, Citizens Charters and Charter Marks, and yet pretence, insincerity and weasel words have spread to engulf every tier of government.

Allow me therefore to examine from a detached scientific standpoint, the reality of questioning EDDC and some of their elementary mistakes in data analysis. Faced with someone who knows what is talking about, they clam up so tight it is impossible to extract more than a postcard in reply to a 20 point letter. Yet this is entirely in line with performance standards! EDDC recently took out full page adverts in local papers conveniently just before Christmas when no-one might read it.

Under the headline "but how did we perform for you?" they give a range of statistics including that their target for answering letters is five days or an acknowledgement card to be sent within three days. In reality therefore, any letter that may not stretch their abilities too far may get answered within 5 days. Any that are in the least demanding may never be answered! I delivered one on 22 Oct. A postcard from EDDC dated 27 Oct promised "a detailed reply will follow shortly". Many reminders later I am still waiting and the Ombudsman's Office tell me there is little they can do because EDDC can set whatever 'performance targets' they like. So much for genuine accountability!

The Crime and Disorder booklet seeks comments by February 1, now extended to February 7. It runs to 20 glossy full colour pages. The information content is virtually zero and because the document has a useful life of two weeks, expensive paper and artwork are unwarranted.

Page 3 is a map and of no value in any of the arguments. Page 4 contains the only digested statistics in the whole document. It is claimed that East Devon is one of the safest places to live in the country. So it should be, it has one of the highest proportions of respectable retired people. Claiming credit for a low crime rate here would be akin to claiming credit for the sea washing on the shore. Only CHANGES in crime rate are significant, as are comparisons between different areas on a 'per head' or 'per household' basis.

Page 4 also contains a simple guide to the costs of crime. The statistics are so incomplete as to be almost meaningless - but consider that East Devon has the second highest cost of burglary per head of all the listed areas. Assessment on a per dwelling basis might have been more sensible, to remove bias owing to different areas having different ratios of home occupancy. But it is in reading all the subsequent pages that we must contain our laughter. The real gems are pages 7 to 18.

Instead of following Home Office guidelines to present data normalised to 100 or 1000 population (car theft per 1000 population etc) the data is all presented as simple numbers of incidents. I asked the police for a copy of the guidelines. "Only available on the Internet, Sir". I protested that the majority of residents would not find this useful. They did confirm the printed guidance ran to hundreds of pages. Guess who pays for this, and for so-called research officers at EDDC. Why is data only provided on the small number of new houses to be built in each area, and none on the existing numbers? The words "Key problems are vandalism, theft from vehicles and antisocial behaviour" are repeated 17 times within 10 pages.

This is known as padding. Comments given on each town and area are drawn at random and could be swapped around with no loss of accuracy: their information content for comparative purposes is therefore zero.

I could continue in this vein but why bother? Councils will continue to produce glossy rubbish and refuse to answer legitimate questions until they are brought properly under control. The obvious problems of policing East Devon could be written down on one side of a piece of paper.

It is the central bureaucracy that still requires attention, including that police officers should be doing a proper job of policing and scientists (even awkward ones) should be employed on an ad-hoc basis to produce competent analysis when and if it is required to support strategy development.

DR STEPHEN J WOZNIAK


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