Edinburgh: Aiming to be the co-operative capital

I think you’d need to be inhabiting a wholly different world from the one I live in, if you weren’t aware that trust between the electorate and those...

I think you’d need to be inhabiting a wholly different world from the one I live in, if you weren’t aware that trust between the electorate and those of us either elected, or employed, to serve that electorate, has broken down badly.

It’s not a malaise that just affects councils, or is unique to Edinburgh, but as a starting point, I believe it has to be openly acknowledged. For me, we’ll never successfully re-invigorate our local democracy if we can’t even bring ourselves to acknowledge that there’s a problem to solve.

Once acknowledged, it’s clear that we need to change the way we do things, business as usual cannot be an option for local politics in Edinburgh.

And following 2012’s local elections, a coalition between Labour and the Scottish National Party here in Edinburgh, came as a bit of a surprise to many who did not believe the two parties could ever work together. And it did mark a change to the way politics is conducted in Scotland’s capital city. In essence, Edinburgh’s new “Capital Coalition” wants to radically transform the way services are planned, managed and delivered; and move Edinburgh towards being a truly Co-operative Council.

We want council services to be transformed by shifting power; so the council is working much more ‘in partnership’ with local people it is ultimately here to serve.

Our electorate and city stakeholders can only interact positively with us if they know what we stand for and have the ability to judge us on delivering it. That is why our Capital Coalition published a new ‘Contract with the Capital’ which sets out over 50 clear service and policy commitments in some detail and within weeks of the local election, the ‘monitoring against delivery’ of our promises was live and very visible via the front-page of the council website: www.edinburgh.gov.uk

But the delivery of those promises can’t be a one-way street. There has to be an ongoing, two-way dialogue, with the citizens of Edinburgh, about their role in determining what the council does for the next four years.

We have some excellent examples of community engagement taking place already, particularly through our neighbourhood services, but it stops short of a genuine shift in the power dynamic. The current default position of organisational conservatism is slowly shifting, but needs political clout and leadership to take us to the next level. The change I expect is a radical organisational and cultural shift and I’m realistic enough to know it won’t happen overnight.

However, small beginnings can lead to a major transformation in service design and delivery and, crucially can lead to a real transformation in the relationship between the electorate and those elected and employed, to serve them.

The way different services work, will vary, but the objective of finding new ways of working in partnership with local people will remain constant

In September 2012, we decided to hone in on four key areas to provide some clarity, focus and the positive experience of success. The areas of housing, childcare, energy and social care were all identified as key issues by the electorate so we decided to put the co-operative approach at the centre of policy making and service provision for those agendas.

And in October, a follow-up seminar event will provide an opportunity to report on just how much progress has been made within the last 12-months, in each of the four target areas.

But, if I’m expected in an organisation of over 17,000 staff members to do things differently and make the vision of a co-operative council a reality, we as elected members must be equally committed to a shift in power. To this end we have embarked on a wholly new approach to the way we work too. This has included some very positive actions, including establishing the first Petitions Committee in Edinburgh.

This has enabled local residents to have an additional channel to raise issues of concern, with their elected representatives, and directly with the council.

We have completely revised the budgetary processes, to be much more open and interactive across the political divide, as well as with the public by openly publishing a draft budget, allowing months of debate and discussion before any final decisions are made.

We have also agreed to direct, parental representation within our education decision-making processes and a renewed focus on neighbourhoods and communities within our decision-making structures.

We have also established a small “Cooperative Development Unit”, which is helping facilitate the implementation of the co-operative approach within our four target areas, and is also helping us remained focussed on the continuing efforts to try and ‘do politics differently’.

With all of these building blocks in place, I’m confident that we have at least re-laid the solid foundations for a healthier, and more vibrant, democracy in Scotland’s capital city.

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