Open reply to #Manchester City Council on their EAP “consultation”

The story so far: in mid-March I sent a detailed set of proposals to Manchester City Council about a much-needed refresh of their “Environmental Advisory Panel” (I am an original member of it). The recipients liked the ideas so much they sent out an email to all EAP members saying that they would work with me to produce a survey to be sent to all members”before Easter.” Then… no contact from them for the next two months… So I published an article.  By total coincidence, shortly after that, (in late May) they sent out an email to all EAP members.  You can read it (in italics) – and my replies – below.  Warning: Sentences of a sarcastic nature. Parental guidance recommended… NB see editorial note at end re: alterations to this blog post since publication.

Dear [name removed because we don’t – usually – name Council officers],

below you will find my answers to the questions in your email. Before we get to that, I have some questions of my own, relating to this survey and the events around it.

As I am sure you are aware, in mid-March I sent a detailed email to Councillor Nigel Murphy about the Environmental Advisory Panel, suggesting a way of canvassing the existing and past members. In response, two days later, on March 20th, an email was sent out to EAP members. It included the immortal lines.

There has been some informal discussion about the future role of EAP and, following discussions between Councillor Nigel Murphy and Marc Hudson, we propose to conduct a survey/questionnaire of EAP members ahead of a discussion at the next meeting – likely to be held in early May. We will be working with Marc on the content of the survey/ questionnaire and intend to get that out to you before Easter.

As I am sure you are aware, March came and went. Nothing. April came and went. Nothing. May came and went, and nothi… no, wait; On the 29 of May your email below (in italics) went out. My questions are as follows;
1) why did it contain no acknowledgement of the March 20 “intention” email?
2) why did it contain no explanation of why the “proposed” actions didn’t happen? (Cold feet? Forgetfulness? Something else? A combination?)
3) why did it contain no apology for this (not to me so much – I am beyond caring – but to the Panel members for a false impression created)?
4) has there been any reflection on how maybe this sort of unexplained inaction undermine’s the Council’s already limited credibility?

[Given 1) to 4), presumably there has been no learning so as to make this sort of debacle marginally less likely in the future.]

You will doubtless remember that last week I sent you an email asking for an explanation as to why there was no follow-up on the March 20th email. I am still waiting for a reply of any sort. If you had replied, there’s a goodly chance I wouldn’t have written this blog post/open letter as a reply.

Now, with all that out of the way, let’s have a look at the email you sent out at the end of May, and answer its questions. Let’s go to the end first;

“Detailed  feedback will be treated in the strictest confidence and we would welcome any comments you may have.”

“Strictest confidence” means you will not show it to other people. It does not mean anonymity, does it? I mentioned this lack of anonymity to two social science academics I know. One laughed out loud, the other had to scrape jaw from floor. I pointed it out to a couple of fellow EAP members.  They were shocked too. Maybe that’s why you’ve had to send out a final “please answer” email earlier today (Thurs 14th June).  I can’t really begin to describe to you how ridiculous it is for Manchester City Council to expect to get unvarnished truth from people who are dependent on it. And almost every single member of the Environmental Advisory Panel fears retribution from the Council if they step out of line/make enemies. Grants turned down, information/assistance requests “forgotten” or delayed so long as to be useless – there are a thousand different ways that vulnerable organisations can be hurt, without hope of recompense or appeal. Now you will surely argue that these fears are unreasonable. Well, you can argue that till the Lib Dems take power, but it doesn’t make those fears less real or less likely to inhibit frank discussion. {Update: minor edit to the following sentence] If the Council had, as stated, worked with me, then before ANYTHING ELSE, we would have established that this survey – to be useful – would have been not “in strictest confidence” but genuinely anonymous. I personally cannot believe I am having to write that sentence. But there you have it.

Dear all,
I am writing to canvass your opinion on the function, format and viability of the Environmental Advisory Panel: everyone on the Panel’s current mailing list is being sent this email.

[Minor edit] Why was an email not sent to people who are NO LONGER on the email list? Might not they have some very interesting things to say about why they no longer felt the EAP was worth their time? Surely this is elementary?

We appreciate that the Panel has not met for some time, and there have been comments made about its role and function dating back more than a year. Following consultation with Councillor Nigel Murphy, we have decided that it would be useful to gather your thoughts before arranging further meetings.

Erm, sorry, but I appear to have been thrown down a memory hole!! As someone wrote in March “following discussions between Councillor Nigel Murphy and Marc Hudson, we propose to conduct a survey/questionnaire of EAP members ahead of a discussion at the next meeting.”  Remember that? Everyone else does.

The questions below provide a framework of the issues we would like you to comment on, but please feel free to address any aspect of possible futures for the Panel:

  • What function do you think EAP should have going forward? How do you think it should change from the format of previous meetings and how would you like to see it operate to ensure attendees benefit from the meeting?

Sigh. Well, you can read some of my proposals in the original email that set this sorry train in motion. Lost it? Never fear, I’ve uploaded it here. I have lots more ideas, I really do. Can you see, though, how I might choose not to spend my time typing them up when they are – quite obviously – going to go straight into [the Council’s] circular file?

As to the function. There is so much the EAP could do for the Council, and that it could do for the members of the EAP. No financial burdens. No time burdens. All the Council would have to do is … do what it say it wants to do – work collaboratively. But this would mean it would have to give up a little control. I see no evidence that it is capable of doing that. In fact, I see plenty of evidence that it is not capable of doing that. So it goes.

  • How regularly would you like, and are able to attend EAP meetings? When do you think these should take place?

Every two months, if they are better than what we have had so far. Probably never if they continue to be the same soul-sucking rubber-stamping called-at-the-last-minute (and almost as often cancelled at the last minute because of the number of apologies) that we have had so far. Why [does the email not] ask about WHERE they should take place? Did that not occur to [the Council]? That people might feel freer outside to the Council’s home turf? If [the Council] had worked with me as it told everyone that it would, I’d have pointed that out.

    • Would you prefer a board that meets on key issues rather than a strictly defined bimonthly/quarterly basis? Meetings would be held when a topic is called by a number of the group or a key issue arises within Manchester rather than a strict timescale.

And who defines what a “key issue” is? Lemme guess…
Clearly this is what those who run things want – a rubber-stamp/fig leaf they can drag out when needed. Do you understand the concept of a “leading question” and people assenting even if they think it’s a bad idea because they have learned helplessness, or Stockholm Syndrome? I have some books on behavioural psychology I would happily lend you.

  • Do you consider yourself a regular attendee? If not, why not?

For the life of me I do not understand what useful information [the Council] expects to gain from this question. It knows who the regular attendees are. All that is achieved by asking this is making people admit they don’t devote time to the EAP. And this achieves what, precisely?

  • How do you think EAP should relate to other bodies such as Manchester – A Certain Future Steering Group?

What Steering Group? I see no evidence of a Steering Group. There’s no blog posts, there’s no events, there’s no minutes of their meetings (which are, I’m told “tedious”). There’s no media profile. The only function it serves is as a stab vest for the Council. But I digress…

As ever, what is NOT asked is more important than what is. Surely the right question – the missing question – is this;  “How do you think EAP should relate to other bodies such as the Environmental Strategy Programme Board?” You know, the ESPB that we on the EAP are supposed to have oversight of, so we can be the “critical friend” we were told the Council wanted us to be. You know, the same ESPB whose minutes have not been circulated in ages, or posted on the Council’s website The same ESPB which EAP members are not able to attend. That ESPB.

  • Any other comments?

More than you could possibly imagine. And many of them are useful and constructive, as [the Council] seemed to acknowledge in March, before… ???   But I have – as I am sure you will understand – very little stomach for being a fig-leaf in what is a farcical Potemkin Village of a participatory process. (1)

I look forward to seeing you at the next EAP.

Detailed  feedback will be treated in the strictest confidence and we would welcome any comments you may have.

Yep, we did this one at the outset of this blog post.

Please let me have your comments, if possible, by Friday 15th June.

Not quite “before Easter”, is it?  Still, plenty of time; I mean, it’s not as if Climate Change is any sort of emergency, eh?

Best wishes,

[name redacted]

(1) My apologies for the mixed metaphors. It’s late, and I’d rather be working on the genuinely game-changing idea that four of us came up with in the pub last night.

[EDITORIAL NOTE:  15/6/12, 16:38   I got the pronouns badly wrong in this blog post, and that made the tone wrong (the sarcasm I stand by. The inadvertant personalisation I apologise for to the person this letter goes to). 

I have gone through and removed most “you” with [The Council].  The person who sent the email out was doubtless NOT the person who chose the questions, and who chose not to follow-through on the March 20th “proposal”.  In future – if every I have to write a blog post like this again – I will be much more judicious in my pronouns.  Marc Hudson, who cycled home from work at top speed to try to beat the scheduling of this post, but missed by 6 minutes.]



About manchesterclimatemonthly

Was print format from 2012 to 13. Now web only. All things climate and resilience in (Greater) Manchester.
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