9. I Challenge DCC Over Their Public Questions Initiative

November 8, 2008

On 15th February 2007, I wrote to the DCC Chairman, Councillor Ernie Foster, pointing out that in my opinion Councillor vasey had made a mockery of the Public Questions initiative by not answering my second question. I asked for his views on how the Public Questions initiative could possibly work if councillors refuse to ask perfectly straightforward, properly submitted questions.

I further pointed out that Councillor Vasey, who had replied to my questions in the chamber, had e-mailed me to say that she was prepared to meet me to discuss the matter, but I had declined her offer because she clearly knew that such a discussion would be off the public record. I also told him that I felt that her observation that the meeting was probably unnecessary because I had already made up my mind on the subject, was insulting.

Councillor Foster replied to me on 20th March 2007, having discussed the matter with Councillor Vasey. he first dealt with my assertion that no amswer had been given to my second question and that as a result there was no DCC response on the public record. His position was that the second paragraph of Councillor vasey’s response explained that the opportunity to use Omega 3 supplement was facilitated by Officers in their normal advisory role to autonomous schools. “This opportunity was supported by officers of the authority in their advisory role to autonomous schools. Schools and toung people and their families were thenable to choose to particiapte or not.”

He went on to say that in a subsequent Radio Four programme on 15th February, in which he understood I had taken part, David Ford, DCC Head of Achievement Services, explained this again and was able to give some further contextual background. he therefore could not accept my claim that DCC had simply chosen not to answer my question.

Let’s look at a transcript of that You and Yours programme of 15th February 2007, to see what David Ford actually said:

Y&Y Well, David Ford from Durham County Council, mentioned in that interview, is on the line.

Could we deal with the first point then? Year 11 pupils in Science could have done better than this in devising some kind of trial/initiative/experiment, call it what you will. Did the members of the County Council really understand what you were about?

DF Firstly, we are not a scientific research orgamnisation and we never claimed to be. We are a local education authority with a long-standing commitment to try to do everything we can to raise pupils’ opportunities in the GCSE exams. So when there is an opportunity to put to our schools to allow pupils, at no cost, to obtain this unique free supplement, we believed there was sufficient evidence of its positive impact on engagement and concentration, to put that to our schools. As far as the involvement of Officers and Members is concerned, Officers of the education authority regularly will put together opportunities for schools and recommend them to schools. members, and particularly the Lead member are aware of that, but it was never seen to be the kind of piece of work that would need full council debate or discussion. It was very much something that, rightly in our view, was between Officers and the autonomous schools with which they deal.

Y&Y So the short answer is that the members were not involved in the detailed planning of it – you think that was a suitable role for you as Officers?

DF I believe that it is an exactly appropriate role in the relationship between a local authority and the autonomous schools, who in the end made the decision.

Y&Y Let’s look again at the second point that Paul Thompson makes. here you had a golden opportunity to do some proper evaluation in an important area of discussion, and you ducked it – why?

DF We believed that this was an opportunity that would be advantageous to our students in Year 11 and therefore we took that opportunity to work with our schools in order to put it into place. It may well be, and I have to disagree with Mr Thompson, it may well provide some qualitative indications that future scientific research might want to build on and we have always said that. And obviously, we would be very happy to co-operate with any scientific institution that wanted to follow it up.

Y&Y Well, it would be hard, wouldn’t it, if you were devising a way of evaluating a project, to choose something that is more subjective than the thing that you have chosen, because what we are going to look at is what teachers expected pupils to do, is entirely subjective evaluation, and then how they got on compared with what the teacher thought they would do.

DF It is not entirely subjective. Education these days is awashy with data. We have very clear indications of how pupils have made progress and what future progress can be anticipated. We also have very good measures of attitudes and engagement and it is those areas that we will look at, and it is those areas that other scientific researchers might want to take up in the future.

Y&Y Could I look, finally, at the last point that Paul Thompson made, that there is no such thing as a free lunch and what about the ethical considerations? Can I just be clear here that although these pills have come free, is it the case that absolutely no money has flowed from the company Equazen to anybody in the employment of the local authority, not even in fees or expenses for attending conferences and discussions and that kind of thing?

DF First of all, to talk about pills is a bit misleading because this is a food supplement and not any kind of medicine. Secondly, it is absolutely true that we don’t receive fees or expenses.

Y&Y Nothing? Not a penny? Not a penny has flowed from Equazen to any individual in the local authority?

DF This project has been completely at no cost to the authority and no fees or monies have been paid to anyone involved in it.

Y&Y Again, looking at the ethics, what about the point that you set a very poor example to school children in carrying out what is an experiment or a trial, an initiative, call it what you will, which will add absolutely nothing to the sum total of human knowledge when you have finished?

DF We are very clear that we were talking about something that we were trying out, no more than that, and we said right at the very beginning that we didn’t see this as a scientific experiment and I spent a lot of time explaining it to a number of press outlets that we weren’t claiming that, nor were we saying there was absolute evidence that it would be advantageous. We believed that there was some strong evidence of that. I have to say I think we are setting a very good example in doing everything we can to support our learners and their families and their schools, to improve education in an area of the country which suffers considerable challemges to that and to say that we are setting a poor example, I think is misleading and I have to say that I am disappointed that the whole discussion about this has been taken down one particular vein.

Y&Y David Ford from Durham County Council. Sorry about the interference on the line. The supplement company, Equazen, sent us a statement from the Chief Executive Officer, Adam Kelliher. He said, “Equazen offered millions of EyeQ capsules free and without conditions to Durham County Council, because we believed the project was worthy of support, despite the considerable administrative and financial costs.”

So at this point, the “supplemental” answer to my second question in the chamber had not yet been posted on DCC’s Public Questions website and Councillor Foster is trying to fob me off by saying that David Ford had given contextual background information in his response to my interview on the YOu and Yours broadcast. In other words DCC was trying to say that my question had been answered, but it had not. Furthermore it was clear that a Radio Four broadcast was no place to try to answer my question in the chamber, which required a posted response on the DCC website. Nice try though!

I give below my letter to the Chairman of DCC, Councillor Foster:

15th February 2007

Councillor E. Foster

Chairman DCC

County Hall

Durham

DH1 5UL

 

 

Dear Councillor Foster,

 

 

“Just the Facts!” – Public Questions at Council Meetings

 

 

I recently sent you a message by e-mail regarding the three questions I asked in the Council Chamber on Wednesday 7th February at the meeting held under your chairmanship. I had previously written to you commending the Public Questions process, in particular the work of the council’s officers involved in it.

 

The County Council’s leaflet on the Public Questions process proudly “trumpets” the following statement, accompanied by an eye-catching pictogram meaning “No Bull!” :-

 

“Straightforward questions deserve straightforward answers…….no fancy spin, just the plain honest truth.”

 

I asked three perfectly straightforward questions and Councillor Claire Vasey gave, what were in my opinion indifferent, answers to two of them. Politics being politics and politicians being politicians, her answers were pretty much what I would have expected.

 

Putting aside any argument about whether or not Councillor Vasey’s two answers were “straightforward answers…………no fancy spin, just the plain honest truth,” there is a more fundamental and crucial issue to be dealt with.

 

Councillor Vasey gave no answer to my second question and in so doing ensured that no County Council response is on the public record. The written record on the County Council Website clearly shows my three questions and her two answers. What kind of council is it that allows members to ride roughshod over initiatives like the Public Questions procedure, one must assume, because she does not wish to answer the question, for whatever reason?

 

Councillor Vasey’s action has made an utter mockery of your Public Questions programme and to add insult to injury, I must wait for three months before being able to ask any more questions. One is reminded of the old joke about the Trappist monastery where the monks were only allowed to say one word per year, other than prayers. It took a new inmate five years to tell them “the porridge is too salty!” (And the Abbot said, (he had a special dispensation to speak) “You’ve only been here for five years and you’ve done nothing but complain!”

 

Jokes aside, can you please explain to me how your Public Questions initiative, with all its publicised talk of “Straightforward questions deserve straightforward answers,” can have any credibility at all, when councillors simply refuse to answer a straightforward question?

 

 Durham County Council’s Public Questions initiative is a “sham” and the initiative’s publicity is “spin,” – so what’s new?

 

I should appreciate your views as Chairman of the Council on how such an initiative can possibly function if councillors do not answer perfectly straightforward questions, properly submitted.

 

Councillor Vasey has e-mailed me to say that we can meet to discuss any unfinished business, but she knows full well that any such meeting is off the public record, having already ensured that there was no answer to my question on the public record.  She also seems to think that a meeting may be unnecessary because I have already made my conclusions on the matter. This is insulting, because I cannot reach any conclusions unless or until Councillor Vasey answers my question. I find her attitude somewhat flippant and her actions morally reprehensible.

 

I suppose what I am seeking from you, as Chairman of the County Council, is answers to the following questions:

 

 

1.      What is the point of your Public Questions initiative, if councillors simply don’t address the questions?

 

2.      In accordance with the procedures of the initiative, I properly submitted three straightforward questions. Why did Councillor Vasey not answer question No.2?

 

3.      Although Councillor Vasey did not answer my perfectly straightforward question no.2 in the chamber, why is there no written answer to that question on the County Council’s website, alongside my three questions.

 

4.      Why does Durham County Council appear to not want any answer to this question to be on the public record?

 

 

Your views, as the leader of Durham County Council, would be appreciated.

 

 

Yours sincerely,

 

 

Having read Councillor Foster’s reply to my above letter, I replied to him as follows:

 

       1st March 2007

 

Councillor Ernie Foster

Chairman DCC

Durham County Council

County Hall

Durham

DH1 5UL

 

 

Dear Councillor Foster,

 

Public Questions at Council Meetings

 

Thank you for your reply of 26th February.

 

In it, you deal with four key issues:

 

  1. The second paragraph of Councillor Vasey’s reported response.

 

  1. My adverse comments on the Public Questions initiative.

 

  1. Councillor Vasey’s attempts to meet with me.

 

  1. My suggestions for improving the Public Questions initiative.

 

 

Councillor Vasey’s Second Paragraph and Public Questions (1 and 2)

 

I cannot understand the logic of your statement, when you refer to the second paragraph of Councillor Vasey’s reported response as explaining, “…..that the opportunity to use Omega 3 supplement was facilitated by officers in their normal advisory role to autonomous schools.”  I take facilitate to mean, making things easier or, assisting the progress of something. (Councillor Vasey actually uses the word, “Supported,” in her response; the word, support, having at least twenty meanings of which I am aware.)

 

I am therefore unable to understand how stating that officers, in their normal advisory role, made the opportunity to participate in the initiative easier for schools, in any way can be construed as providing a remotely satisfactory answer to the question, “Were members of Durham County Council involved in the planning of the Durham fish oil trial (or initiative) and its methodology, prior to its implementation……..”

 

The paragraph to which you refer, states that the opportunity for schools to participate was “supported by officers.”  This refers to the supporting role of officers in the initiative and avoids the substantive issue of the question, which concerns the involvement, or otherwise, of members in the planning of the initiative and its methodology.

 

My question, therefore, has not been answered, because its substantive issue has not been addressed.

 

Your assurances that “Public Questions is a genuine attempt to provide a further opportunity for the public to raise issues with the Council and the responses provided are an honest attempt to explain the situation as we see and understand it to be,” are therefore meaningless, particularly when one considers the “Spin” in the Public Questions leaflet:

 

“Straightforward questions deserve straightforward answers……no fancy spin just the plain honest truth.”

 

My question could not have been more straightforward and  straightforward answers might have been, “Yes,” or “No,”  suitably qualified by additional information (and no doubt a bit of “spin”).

 

Your comment about people sometimes being disappointed with the responses they receive is somewhat patronising. I would have hoped for a straight answer to my straight question (“no fancy spin just the plain honest truth”) and was naturally disappointed when Councillor Vasey did not even address it, let alone answer it. Had I wished to know about the supporting role of officers in the initiative, I would have asked an appropriate question about officers.

 

 

Meeting with Councillor Vasey

 

There seems to me to be little point in continuing a debate with a member, off the public record, when that member has not addressed a legitimate, straightforward question on the public record. Councillor Vasey cannot have her cake and eat it. I am still prepared to meet with Councillor Vasey, but I cannot see what purpose might be served by such a meeting.

 

 

 

My Suggestions for Improving the Public Questions initiative

 

Thank you for your acknowledgement of my submission of suggestions to improve the process of Public Questions.

 

In my opinion, the whole process would have relevance and meaning and would facilitate democracy if the substantive issue(s) were identified, addressed and answered, in accordance with your published leaflet:

 

 “Straightforward questions deserve straightforward answers……no fancy spin just the plain honest truth.”

 

It is as simple as that.

 

To appear to adopt a policy of evasion when faced with questions that may be politically embarrassing, reduces your Public Questions initiative to a sham and to the level of farce.

 

Yours sincerely,

 

I also sent an e-mail covering a point I had missed in the letter:

 

Dear Councillor Foster,

 

Thank you for your letter of 26th february, to which I have appropriately replied by letter, a copy of which I attach.

 

I have also forwarded an electronic courtesy copy to **** ********.

 

One further point, not in my letter, I should perhaps make is that I simply cannot undersatnd how your assertion that david Ford’s explanation in his interview on Radio Four’s “You and Yours” programme, (“explained this again and was able to give some further contextual background.”) can have any possible relevance to Councillor vasey’s response in the chamber to my questions.

 

Does it not occur to you that it was only because I gave my interview to You and Yours that David Ford was constrained to reply? In other words, information is being dragged out of DCC, in dribs and drabs. Why could not Councillor vasey have said this in her response, in addition to perhaps saying, “No, members were not involved in the planning stages of the initiative, nor were any presentations on it made to them by Officers.”? If that indeed were the case, it would represent a “straightforward answer” within the terms of your Public Questions leaflet.

 

I feel that your use of david Ford’s subsequent comments on this affair are a “red herring,” and having been made post facto, his comments have no relevance whatever to my substantive complaint, regarding Councillor vasey’s response failing to address my question, let alone answer it. She had her opportunity – why didn’t she take it?

 

Yours etc etc

 

Councillor Foster replied on 20th March to say that he had studied my letter and discussed it with Councillor Vasey and David Ford. he went on to give the, now official, explanation as to why members had not been involved in the planning of this initiative. he assured me that there was never any deliberate attempt to avoid answering my question (oh, yeah? McC) and that the DCC website and the record of Public Questions had now been officially amended.

 

He went on to assure me, again, that the Public Questions initiative was a genuine attempt to offer the opportunity to the public to raise questions with DCC.

 

So, another phase of the unfolding saga of the great Fish Oil Farce unfolded and in response to Councillor Foster’s, in my opinion, feeble reply of the 20th March, I took the gloves off and gave him both barrels (to mix my metaphors!)

 

 

 

                                      30th March 2007

Councillor E Foster

Chairman DCC

County Hall

Durham

DH1 5UL

 

 

Dear Councillor Foster,

 

Public Questions at Council Meetings

 

Thank you for your letter of 20th March in which you provide an informative and authoritative answer to the questions I asked at the council meeting on 7th February.

 

In response to your contention that your answer represents essentially the intended meaning of the response provided to my question at the Council meeting, I have to say that whilst Councillor Vasey’s response may have intended to say what you have now stated, I think that were you to re-read her text, you will not find any of the essential information you have now given me. The old saying about the road to hell springs to mind! The intention was, demonstrably, not realised and one may be forgiven, therefore, for wondering, why?

 

Are you, for example, telling me that what you have now said is what Councillor Vasey intended to say, but clearly did not? In other words that Councillor Vasey was less than competent in her response to my question, or are you telling me that her response was appropriate and that I should have divined its intention to inform me that whilst members were not directly involved in the decision, key Members were made aware of it and supported it, from what she said (or perhaps what she did not say)?

 

There is absolutely nothing in any part of Councillor Vasey’s response that could be remotely construed as giving that information, which was what my question required, and which you have now given me. You will note that she never once uses the word “Member,” nor ever refers to the involvement, or not, of Members.

 

You state that there was never any deliberate attempt to avoid answering the question. My three questions were perfectly clear. The second question;

 

“Were Members of Durham County Council involved in the planning of the Durham fish oil trial (or initiative) and its methodology, prior to its implementation, or is the Council simply blindly supporting a trial (or initiative) implemented by its officers?”

 

could not have been more specific and yet Councillor Vasey did not answer it.

 

If, as you appear to suggest, Councillor Vasey’s response was intended to say what you have now said, then one can only conclude from the written questions and responses that there is no evidence whatever to support your contention. I can think of only two possible conclusions from the available evidence; either Councillor Vasey was deliberately evasive, or she was incompetent. I have to say that my money is on the former of my two conclusions.

 

I cannot see what other possible explanations might be.

 

Given that my two conclusions are, in my opinion, the only solid ones that can be derived from the available evidence, where does either of them leave Councillor Vasey with regard to the stated objective(s), which I quote below, of the Public Questions initiative of the County Council?

 

q       “Just the facts!”

 

q       “Straightforward questions deserve straightforward answers………..no fancy spin, just the plain honest truth.”

 

q       “If you feel the same way, and have a question to ask about the services we provide or any of the plans, activities or initiatives in which the County Council is involved, you should be able to take it to the very top. AND YOU CAN.

 

q       “It’s as simple as ABC.”

 

All of which brings me to your second substantive point, concerning the Public Questions initiative.

 

Your assurance that this initiative is a genuine attempt to offer the public the opportunity to raise issues with you (DCC) falls back upon the word, “attempt,” in much the same way, it seems to me, that you have used, “intended” with regard to Councillor Vasey’s evasive (or perhaps “e-Vasey-ive”) response to my questions.

 

Anyone looking at the above statements, the published questions and responses and the correspondence between DCC and me, could only conclude, it seems to me, that any, “genuine attempt,” as detailed above, demonstrably failed miserably in this particular case. That is the charitable view. My own view is that, for whatever reasons, Councillor Vasey deliberately evaded answering my questions appropriately and in so doing, severely compromised the integrity of your Public Questions initiative. Put more simply, she made a mockery of it.

 

Your explanation about your remarks regarding my disappointment at the response I received, representing the reality of the situation is interesting, but I am not sure what you mean by that, in particular the meaning of reality. I was disappointed for two reasons. Firstly, because one of my questions had not been answered and secondly, because Councillor Vasey’s response was the very antithesis of the, very laudable, tenets of your Public Questions policy. Are you telling me that the policy is aspirational only?

 

I am aware of political reality and that statements are often coded and contain many subtexts and nuances. I am aware that people, and in particular politicians, can appear to answer questions, when in fact they do not. (Watch any edition of BBC’s Question Time!)

But we are not considering any “normal” political statements here. We are considering very special ones, promised by your Council:

 

q       “Just the facts!”

 

q       “Straightforward questions deserve straightforward answers………..no fancy spin, just the plain honest truth.”

 

q       “If you feel the same way, and have a question to ask about the services we provide or any of the plans, activities or initiatives in which the County Council is involved, you should be able to take it to the very top. AND YOU CAN.

 

q       “It’s as simple as ABC.”

 

Now I took, and still take, this to mean what it apparently, unequivocally says. 

 

Are you now telling me that the reality is different?

 

In other words if the reality of the situation is that despite the proud boasts of your Public Questions initiative, you can evade questions you do not wish to answer and thereby disappoint members of the public who ask them, then where does that leave the allegedly, “simple as ABC,” Public Questions initiative?

 

From where I sit, it leaves it as a worthless sham to be manipulated by the Council who set it up, for reasons of political expediency.

 

You have reiterated that Councillor Vasey did offer a further meeting with me. In so doing, you have either missed or studiously avoided my point on this matter. It is yet another piece of political sleight of hand. Councillor Vasey did not answer my perfectly clear question in the Council Chamber on 7th February and, as a result, her answer is not on public record. What is the point then, of Public Questions? Apparently, to answer those that it is politically expedient to answer and evade those that it is not. All of these issues being in contravention of the stated principles of the Public Questions initiative.

 

Having not answered my question, Councillor Vasey then offers a meeting to discuss it. This seems very reasonable of her, but of course it would be off the public record and she has contained me.

 

Further correspondence with you elicits a little more information and you also try to tell me that David Ford explained matters in his Radio Four, “You and Yours,” interview on 15th February, conveniently ignoring the fact that this was a week after I had asked my question in the chamber. As I pointed out to you in my reply of 1st March to your letter of 26th February, I cannot see what possible point there could be in such a meeting, off the public record and I cannot understand why you keep mentioning it. I ask a pertinent question in the public chamber, Councillor Vasey dodges it and then offers to meet me to discuss the matter. You then tell me that she is still willing to meet me to discuss the issues surrounding the fish oil supplement, but you have not even begun to address the fact that she would not answer my question in public, despite all the promises in your Public Questions leaflet.

 

Finally, after much correspondence, radio interviews and newspaper articles, you write to me with an appropriate answer on 20th March, your council having been asked the question on 7th February and a Supplemental Answer appears on DCC’s web page.

 

One wonders just what was so worrying for DCC in revealing such a simple matter as whether or not members had been involved in the planning of the Durham fish oil initiative? Why, for goodness sake, could Councillor Vasey not have said exactly that in the first place?

 

One also wonders what the chain of responsibility for the answers to my questions was? In other words, having presumably been briefed by officers, were Councillor Vasey’s responses to my questions her sole responsibility, or did they require further approval from whatever source?

 

The fish oil saga will play itself out over the coming months and opinion will remain divided over it. As a side issue, you might perhaps make some discreet enquiries as to how many secondary schools are giving year 11 students custard creams, juice and other incentives, probably full of e- numbers, in order to get them to take the fish oil capsules! This doesn’t seem very healthy to me, but I suppose it is the responsibility of the autonomous participating schools and no fault of DCC’s officers in their normal advisory role, who probably never dreamed in their wildest imaginings that schools would do such things.

Anyway, since the results of the initiative have no validity, what difference will a daily custard cream make?

 

Thank you for your explanatory letter and for arranging for the explanatory supplemental answer to be placed on the DCC website. However, I think I may be forgiven for thinking that this is too little, too late.

 

The Public Questions initiative remains problematic, however, and I should appreciate your further comments on what you describe as the “reality” of the situation. I suppose basically, how do you intend to fulfil the underlying principle of your Public Questions initiative:

 

Straightforward questions deserve straightforward answers………..no fancy spin, just the plain honest truth.

 

Assuming, of course, that they ever get answered at all!

 

All the evidence so far indicates to me that political expediency will override the “spin” in the Public Questions leaflet.

 

You could, of course, grasp the nettle and cover all your options by changing the wording of the leaflet as follows:

 

Straightforward questions deserve straightforward answers………..no fancy spin, just the plain honest truth,

unless of course, we don’t like the questions.

 

Now that’s what I call reality!

 

Yours sincerely,

I think I need a rest!

No.10 soon! (I don’t know why I bother becuase no one seems to read them)

 

 

 

Paul Thompson

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

                 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

                                               

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

                                               

 

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