This afternoon Cornwall Council's Leader and Chief Executive subjected themselves to a grilling by one of the authority's scrutiny committees. It was the first time there had been a formal question and answer session of this sort and the first thing that ought to be said is that it was a very good thing. Well done to John Keeling and Dave Biggs (chair and vice chair of the committee) for arranging it and thank you to Kevin and Alec for coming along and fielding the questions. Some will ask why there hasn't been such a session before, but I hope that it can now be a regular fixture in the calendar.
It won't shock anyone to hear that there were no startling revelations today. We heard again the claims about going early and also about the awards that are being won by the authority. The Chief Executive said that winning a single award might be a fluke but winning lots means the council are doing something right. (A commenter on Twitter reacted by questioning whether the best use of officer time was filling in application forms for awards rather than providing services.)
The interaction on twitter which has characterised a lot of Cornwall Council meetings really came to the fore today. With the meeting being webcast, there were lots of members of the audience ready and eager to have their say. One area where Cornwall Council is genuinely ahead of the game is in webcasting the meetings and publishing the comments made on the broadcast page.
Ironically, perhaps the biggest gripe came about the council's communications. In the meeting we were asking why the council often fails to get the response right first time. In the case of both the council credit card story and on the issue of the Chief Exec's expenses for going to London to attend an interview for a job councillors didn't think he should take, there was a perfectly good explanation. But this explanation was not what Cornwall Council put out to the media first time. I think that the council recognises that there are times when it doesn't get the comms right and the Chief Exec admitted that the bad publicity is usually of the council's own making. I thought that this was a bit more mature than the Leader's whinge early on that the local media never reports the good news.
On Twitter the demand from two local papers was for council bosses to make themselves more available to the media for interview. They claimed they never had the chance to question Cllr Robertson. I was able to pick this up and ask the Leader about it and he pledged that his door would always be open. I hope this is a successful outcome for both parties.
At one stage the Leader claimed that various (un-named) councillors who are new media savvy had repeatedly made false statements about the council and that he had a three page dossier of evidence to back this up. I'm not sure what 'facts' he has, but he reminded some of Rafa Benitez at his most paranoid when referring to his dossier on Alex Ferguson.
Another area of contention was the perception that the Council is 'Truro-centric'. This was brought up by my Lib Dem colleague Ann Kerridge. Rather to the astonishment of both audiences, Cllr Robertson asked what was meant by the term Truro-centric. He claimed that he regularly got out and about in Cornwall and that the authority was 'Cornwall-centric'. Via twitter, respondents from all around Cornwall seemed to take the view that the initial perception is just about right. Whether in Penryn, Penzance or Launceston, the feeling seems to be that the council is out of touch with local needs and feelings. I suspect that they even feel this in Truro.
Interestingly, I have just got an email from an officer telling me that both the Chief Executive and Council Leader have declined our invitation to come to talk to the annual meeting of the Launceston Community Network because they do not attend this sort of meeting. I would have thought that a leadership keen to prove that they care about the whole of Cornwall would have jumped at the chance!
I shouldn't try to pretend that there aren't some good achievements being made by Cornwall Council. There are lots of inspections and peer reviews that show that some of our services which were performing badly are now a lot better. And the Chief Exec told us that the council is twice as popular as the government (I'm asking for the details of that survey). But my guess is that although some key things are getting better, a lot of the services which the public think are important are being neglected - and that is where this administration will come unstuck.
If you want to know more or simply want to see for yourself, the meeting was webcast and will be available in archive to watch again (and again) very soon via the Council's website.