Wednesday, April 14, 2010

From the man of the people ...

It’s what friends are for
by Ray Mallon, Mayor of Middlesbrough
Northern Echo
Friday 9th April 2010

I FIRST came across Neil Herron during the debate on the regional assembly. His side won, mine lost, as he is good enough to remind me every now and then.

Despite our differences, I formed a high opinion of Neil and his determined and principled way of going about things. His activities began with the “Metric Martyrs” campaign where – never one to shirk a challenge – he successfully took on Whitehall and Brussels.

He is now focusing his considerable energies on what he and many others see as the abuse of decriminalised parking legislation by some local authorities.

Neil often harks back to the day it all began, when a shiny-suited official came into his shop and brusquely told him to stop using his scales or face prosecution. I suspect that if that official had his time over again, he would adopt a more customer-friendly approach.
I am rather glad that he behaved the way he did. It was the catalyst for the career of a proper people’s champion.

I know this sounds odd coming from me. I am, after all, responsible for the direction and management of a council, a large public body. Whether I like it or not – and often I don’t – I am a member of the establishment that Neil takes on with persistence and gusto.
But I also have experience of what it is like to be outside the establishment. So I know first-hand what a large and intimidating beast it can be.

I know that when it gets something wrong, the establishment’s first reaction is often to cover up the misdemeanour, rather than put it right. I know that when challenged, it often has recourse to lengthy, expensive legal defences rather than seeking quick, commonsense conciliation and agreement. I know that the bureaucracy which is so familiar to those who work in it every day can be a frightening machine to people who have never had to deal with it before. I know that rules and procedures originally meant to ensure fair play and openness can be manipulated to produce quite different results.

Finally, I know that when people in public office forget they are accountable servants of the people, it is bad for consumers, citizens and government itself.
In this respect, public life is really no different from private. Critical friends – the ones who tell you “you look terrible”, “you need to lose weight”,you have made a complete mess of things” – and yes, praise you when you manage to get it right – are the real friends. We should value people who tell us what we need to know rather than those who tell us what we want to hear.

That is why I will always be ready to challenge, I hope in a constructive way, the things that my own organisation does. I’ll welcome the comments of the critical friends who can point out ways we can do things better.

Most of all, I will try to help people realise that there’s no shame in admitting they’ve made mistakes. There’s an old saying that the man who never did anything wrong never did anything right either – because he did nothing at all. It applies to organisations as well as individuals.

In Neil’s current campaign, he is seeking a constructive solution to what he sees as a manifest injustice and abuse of process. He realises that councils have a job to do, but wants them to do it fairly and transparently.

I believe that dialogue is better than diktat, so I hope the two sides reach agreement.
I hope, too, that those of us in power realise that we need people like Neil to challenge, question and make life awkward for us.

It’s what friends are for.

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