Rhion Jones and Elizabeth Gammell: Politicians and Civil Servants keep on asking us our opinions. But are they listening?

  • November 09, 2009 12:46
  • Katy Scholes

Are we living in a mature consultative culture where the debate in the country matters more than in Parliament? Or is it all a big charade with those in authority making up their minds first and then going through the motions of a consultation, and only pretending to act upon what the public is saying?

The Art of Consultation looks at the industry that has taken market research and allied techniques to create a never-ending stream of dialogues that, in theory empowers thousands of representative bodies and millions of citizens to contribute to decision-making. It is openly honest about what goes wrong, but also finds much that is good about modern public consultation. Thousands of public servants and also many others in the private and voluntary sectors work hard to understand the conflicting messages heard from different elements of society and this book may help them figure out if it is all worthwhile.

As for local Councillors ... and Members of Parliament? They might do well to read it closely; it has many lessons that need to be learnt if democratic institutions are to regain the public’s trust.

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Tim Coates - Open letter to Boris Johnson

  • November 09, 2009 11:50
  • Katy Scholes

What follows is an open public letter sent by Biteback author and libraries campaigner Tim Coates to Boris Johnson and Ed Vaizey over the weekend about a programme called 'The London Libraries Change Programme' (LLCP). LLCP has been going on for over two years and is run by a quango called MLA London and The Mayor's Cultural Initiative. It has already cost over £300k in fees for consultants and Tim Coates has been trying to alert people that it is a waste of time and money and directed at the wrong problems.

Public Letter to Ed Vaizey and Boris Johnson
To Ed Vaizey and Boris Johnson : London Libraries Change Programme

Just once more and further to all our previous correspondence.... I am going to start making public statements about the London Libraries Change Programme

My view, and I suspect it will be widely understood and supported, is this, and it is probably best if you regard this as a public letter.

1. The Public library service in London is an essential part of the cultural fabric of one of the great learning centres of the world.
2. All the figures tell a simple story; the buildings have been allowed to decay and the facilities they offer have fallen behind the times; stocks of books and other reading material have degenerated to a terrible low standard; opening hours, in a 24 hour city, where people study night and day, are no reflection of people's lives nor their expectations; staff are sometimes good and knowledgeable, but not always, in a world where people expect good service
3. At over £200m per annum with further considerable annual capital expenditures in total amounting almost the cost of BBC TV licenses for London families-- the cost is huge but fails to deliver respectable value for money. There is obviously a significant wastage of money and therefore there should be no need to seek additional finance to do anything.
4. Users don't believe that those responsible understand their needs and therefore when making changes will probably do the wrong things. Public communication of the actions of the service is poor
5. The metropolis needs central libraries, good large libraries and a network of small community, or suburban libraries, the values of each of which are properly and clearly understood and appreciated by those responsible for them. People don't want to have to fight all the time to keep their libraries open or well stocked.
5. A London Libraries Change Programme (LLCP) should have addressed all these matters with urgency years ago. The service desperately needs improvement across the whole of its activities.
6. The current plans expressed in LLCP documents are deeply depressing to people of London and miles away from making immediate improvement. They need to be re-energised so that they bring beneficial change-- people need a promise of regeneration that is public, clear, credible and in the hands of people trusted to deliver it. They want to hear about longer hours, improved collections and smarter buildings designed for reading and study, funded out of the money they already pay and have paid. Savings should be possible, in these times, but only if the management of resources is properly directed and effective.
7 People don't want to be told about endless administrative failings and confusions and about how one council won't listen to the advice of another or how reports have been ignored or technical changes in cataloguing and non standard cataloguing systems are debated at library conferences . Not do they want to hear half baked theories about how council services have to be delivered nor about the possible needs of libraries in future centuries. They want the attention of those responsible to concentrate on the public library service now- and improvements to be urgent.
8. In drawing up these plans, those responsible for the current LLCP appear to have made no attempt to hear, listen to or understand the public needs of the various and many groups and individuals who use, or would use libraries. That failing runs through almost every page of both the consultants' reports (which have already cost over £300k) and the summaries and directions being given by the LLCP Board. The factual basis of the consultants' work relies entirely on information from within the service and is largely a regurgitation of observations of management incompetence and obfuscation that has been reported time and again over the years. The reports totally lack any clarity of understanding or vision. The allocation of priorities and the management of the project has been put in the hands of those who failed to address these issues in the past decades.
9. So for all these reasons, the LLCP is a shambles and needs immediate political redirection. It is hard not to say that those who are charged by the public with the care of the service have not been naive, gullible, distracted and less than attentive in letting a project run for two years at such enormous expense without correction. That needs to change.
10 The only place from which that redirection can come is from those in positions of political leadership upon whom the public depend. Because so many of the councils in London have Conservative administrations, that means you Ed Vaizey as shadow minister and aspirant minister and it means Boris Johnson as Mayor and I think you should work together and express a joint vision- to which you should insist that the administrators, officers and civil servants respond with more energy than they have so far.
11. I beg you both not to tolerate the secret scheming which has brought us to this position and not only to attend the meeting on 13th November at which those responsible are to discuss these issues with London Councils but also to make that a public meeting
12 I also call on you to dismiss from office the entire Board of the LLCP and replace it with a small effective body that will conduct the improvement work with appropriate expedition and urgency

In this way we will at last see some improvement in public libraries in London. We should be ambitious and seek a world class public library service for our capital which it needs and deserves.

I offer you my support in all this - and believe that a wider public understanding of this project will also give you the mandate for change and recognisable improvement. It will be a good matter for you and a new government to tackle well.

With kind regards

Tim Coates

For more information, contact Time Coates on timcoatesbooks@yahoo.com

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Tim Coates, author of “Delane’s War”: Article in The Times, Saturday 31st October

  • November 02, 2009 10:35
  • Katy Scholes

How The Times went to war with a government over Crimea

Tim Coates
 

The combined British, French and Turkish armies, with a fleet of 700 ships, invaded the Crimean peninsula on September 15, 1854. John Delane, Editor of The Times, reported the landings from the troop ship Britannia.

The Times had criticised the delay in bringing the troops ashore and was particularly harsh in its assessment of Admiral Dundas, the commander of the fleet. Delane — who had been made Editor at the age of 23 — and the Times correspondent William Russell had written of Dundas's incompetence and lack of foresight.

This criticism was typical of reports that revealed how ill-equipped the army was, the incompetence of commanders that resulted in the loss of the Light Brigade and the conditions at the military hospital in Scutari. It was as a result of a later appeal in The Times that Florence Nightingale and her nurses went to Scutari, the first such newspaper appeal on record.

The Crimean War was an attempt by the two great Western powers to prevent Russia continuing the invasion of Turkey. Czar Nicholas had claimed that Christians in Turkey needed the Russian Government to protect them against Turkish Muslims.

In 1853, Lord Aberdeen, the Prime Minister — a friend and political contact of Delane — and The Times believed that the problem should be solved by diplomacy.

When reports that the Russian navy had destroyed the Turkish base with a massacre of civilians at Sinope arrived in December 1853, Delane sensed the mood of the people had changed. The death of many English soldiers at the battle of Alma brought on Delane’s first attack on the collective of ministers.

On November 11, 1854, the story of the loss of the English cavalry at Balaklava reached London when Russell’s letters to Delane arrived. Delane was unforgiving: "If it were an accident it would have been tolerable: but it was a mere mistake, evidently a mistake and realised to be such when it was too late to correct it. Two great armies saw seven hundred British Cavalry proceed at a rapid pace and in perfect order to certain destruction."

In his view, the cause lay in the aristocratic control of the army. Raglan, Lucan, Cardigan and Nolan — commanders of the Army and the Light Brigade — behaved with such foolish hauteur that we are able, from a distance of time, to laugh at their blunder; but for Delane what was at stake was not only the fate of the Army, but the whole essence of Britain.

On November 29 The Times began to question the competence of the Government. Financial reports were telling of a situation far worse than that which Mr Gladstone, the Chancellor, had described.

Parliament was recalled. On Friday, December 15, the Prime Minister proposed a Bill to create 15,000 foreign mercenaries to be based in Britain whose presence would allow the soldiers based at home to fight abroad. The Opposition and the entire country were outraged.

The onslaught from The Times provoked hostility but, unknown to Delane, also produced the first serious disagreements in Cabinet. Lord John Russell went to Lord Aberdeen and complained about the incompetence of the War Office. He offered to resign if the Duke of Newcastle was not replaced.

On 26 December The Times printed long articles from [William] Russell and Chenery. The leading article said: “We believe we have fallen into considerable disgrace among well-fed gentlemen in well-warmed houses and well-aired beds from the taking of what they are pleased to call a ‘croaking’ tone about the state of affairs in the East ... it does force itself on our recollection that the most terrible disaster that has fallen upon British arms during the present generation happened just at this time of year. It was in a merry Christmas that a large British force disappeared in Kabul.”

He was referring to the complete annihilation of the British Army in Afghanistan at Christmas 1841.

On New Year’s Day the paper declared itself against the commanders of the Army: “No excuse will be admitted against immediately superseding in their commands those who have proved themselves to be incapable of performing the duties to which favour, seniority or mistake has advanced them. Let every officer be sent home who is not thoroughly up to his work.”

Some 21,097 men died in the first four months of the war: 2,755 in action, 1,619 of wounds and 16,273 of sickness not related to fighting. The number sent home ill or injured was 14,901. In a total of 50,000 men, 35,598 died or were incapacitated, fewer than 5,000 died as a result of fighting.

Parliament gathered on Tuesday, January 23. Delane’s leading article carries the weight of history that day: “The session of Parliament will decide: is England henceforth to be a military power? We cannot even cope with the elements, never mind a respectable foe. The immense organisation of war, which costs us twenty millions each year, is a snare and a delusion because we cannot make them work. Our result is failure, failure, failure ... The Ministers of War, the Commander in Chief in the Crimea, the Commander in Chief at home, down to the purveyor of stores at Scutari and the miserable lad dozing, hungry, naked and frostbitten in the trench are all equally dummies. They can do nothing.”

The request by John Roebuck, the MP for Sheffield, to set up an inquiry seemed to have little significance. Lord Aberdeen intended to reject the idea. However, on Monday, January 29, the debate took place. The House divided: those in favour of Mr Roebuck, 305; those against 148. It was the largest defeat of a Government in history. It took 12 days for a Government to be formed.

The Times increased its daily sale during the Crimean War by nearly 100 per cent in a year, from just over 30,000 copies to just under 60,000. Delane remained Editor of The Times until 1877.

From Delane's War by Tim Coates, Biteback, £19.99

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On consulting Scientists

  • November 02, 2009 10:19
  • Katy Scholes

If you consult the public, having already made up your mind, you break one of the key principles of The Art of Consultation, for ‘Integrity’ demands that you are open to being influenced.

The row over Professor Nutt illustrates how difficult it can sometimes be to apply this rule. No doubt the Home Secretary (the ‘consultor’ in this case) would claim to be open to advice on many aspects of the problem from its own Advisory Committee (or consultee), but quite correctly asserts for himself the final decision on any specific policy aspect. That is exactly how consultation works.

The problem is that the Professor says that the decision had already been taken, and quotes the Prime Minister to prove the point. If that is indeed the case, then clearly no valid consultation can happen. But is there, I wonder a grey area where politicians feel the need to state a firm policy, whilst still being open to persuasion? Might the Committee’s work still be valuable in stating an alternative view?

If all the Government’s Advisory Committees were sacked this morning just because there was a firm policy which was not quite in line with their thinking, we would see a significant contribution to our looming public expenditure cuts! It won’t happen but we could do with a better understanding of how to consult the scientific community

Rhion H Jones
Elizabeth Gammell

The Art of Consultation is published by Biteback Publications on 16 Nov

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Mavis Batey, author of Dilly: The man who broke enigmas

  • October 30, 2009 11:42
  • Katy Scholes

Normally an obituary in The Times would provide a framework for a biography of an important person in any given field, but that simply wasn't true of the one written for my boss at the British wartime codebreaking base at Bletchley Park. This was the wonderfully eccentric but outstandingly brilliant Alfred Dillwyn Knox, known to his many friends and admirers simply as ‘Dilly’.

George Steiner, the American writer and philosopher, has described the codebreaking achievements that took place at Bletchley Park as ‘the single greatest achievement of Britain during 1939-1945, perhaps during the 20th century as a whole’. If that is true, then Dilly’s own achievements must be ranked among the greatest in their own right.

Dilly’s work on the various Enigma ciphers was certainly among the most important and significant carried out at Bletchley. Enigma was not one single cipher machine, as is often suggested, but a family of many different ciphers and it was Dilly and his research section, of which I was a proud member, who were asked to find a way into each new cipher as it appeared.

The failure of his obituary in The Times to do him justice when he died in early 1943 was caused by the absolute secrecy surrounding the work on Enigma. The obituary mentioned that his father was a former Bishop of Manchester; that his brother was Monsignor Ronald Knox, a famous Catholic theologian; and that another brother, ‘Evoe’, was editor of Punch. It also mentioned his work as a Classicist reconstructing the mimes of the Greek poet and playwright Herodas.

What it could not mention was that he was one of the leading members of Room 40, the Admiralty’s celebrated codebreaking section during the First World War, broke Bolshevik ciphers during the 1920s and 30s, and Enigma ciphers during the Spanish Civil War and Second World War. What it would certainly not have been possible to mention, even without the understandable secrecy, was that Dilly’s greatest triumph had not even taken place when the obituary was written.

Shortly before he died, in great pain from the cancer, Dilly broke the Enigma cipher used by the German secret service, the Abwehr. It was this that allowed MI5 and MI6 to manipulate the intelligence the Germans were receiving through the Double Cross System and fool them into leaving too few troops in Normandy to counter the allied landings.

Now that many more previously secret records have been released into the archives, I have at last had the chance to give my old boss the credit he deserves. I felt a strong sense of déjà vu in seeing once more the same secret enemy messages that we handled over sixty years ago, but then the secrecy was such that even I was unaware of the effect Dilly’s work had on the allied success in the war. I was determined in writing this book to ensure that what Dilly did was never forgotten.

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