|Social Media Mr Howes|
Commenting on a discussion about dumped bags of rubbish in Ramgate and the lack of street cleaners to collect them, Howes, or someone purporting to be him says “Did the council put this rubbish out in thin plastic bags? We all have to pay for someone else’s thoughtless actions”. When challenged as to whether he was Council’s Director of Corporate Governance and Monitoring Officer he curtly replied “Not at weekends!”.
Weekends or not, photos on the Facebook account of the Tim Howes who commented about the rubbish in Ramsgate bear a striking resemblance to photos on the TDC and Linkedin website of TDC boss Tim Howes. I therefore assume that the social media commentator is the same highly paid Tim Howes who works for TDC. If I am wrong and if this transpires to be a hoax then I will publicly apologies to TDC’s Mr Howes. In the meantime this episode has raised some very interesting questions, particularly about the nature of Mr Howes comments and the impression they create about TDC.
|LinkedIn Mr Howes|
First of all it’s worth knowing that its extremely unusual for a TDC officer to become involved in a general social media debate about the day to day operation of TDC services. Whilst a TDC councillor, and afterwards, I don’t ever recall a single instance of a TDC employee, especially a very senior employee, becoming involved in general day to day debate on social media debate about council business.
This is because TDC has a well established custom and practice whereby day to day social media commentary about council business is something which is left to elected councillors, some of whom are very active in this sphere of communication. The rationale behind this practice is that council officers, should endeavour to remain politically neutral and that engaging in social media debate about how the council operates could result in ill-considered comments being made which may be construed as being politically motivated.
But that’s not to say Mr Howes has broken any rules. On the contrary, TDC’s Constitution says that “Employees' off-duty hours are their personal concern” and Mr Howes is technically correct to say, as he did, that he is not TDCs Director of Corporate Governance and Montoring Officer during his weekend break. So why not comment on Facebook if he feels like it?
Well its not that straightforward. What appears to be a carte-blanche to do as you will when off duty is qualified by a number of conditions set out in TDCs Officer Code of Conduct including the following - “The public is entitled to expect the highest standards of conduct from all employees who work for local government” and - “Local government employees are expected to give the highest possible standard of service to the public” then - “Failure to meet such standards can result in adverse public comment to the detriment of the Council and the service and in certain circumstances can have serious consequences for the employee and put their job at risk”.TDCs constitution also provides extensive guidance to councillors and officers, such as Mr Howes, about how to engage with the media, including social media, on matters relating to Council business like uncollected rubbish. It says they must “Consider the likely consequences for the Council of their statement”. It says they should “Consult with the Communications Team for the Council in advance of speaking to the press or to the media”. It says they should “Consider whether to consult other relevant members” . I would also image, particularly at at Mr Howes elevated level within the organisation, that there is also an expectation that he would have consulted colleague directors if he was making comments about the services they manage rather than his own, no matter how benign and non-controversial these comments might be. Taking these constitutional issues into account it should be asked -
1) Were Mr Howes comments about the rubbish “Did the council put this rubbish out in thin plastic bags? We all have to pay for someone else’s thoughtless actions” representative of the highest standard of conduct of a local government officer?. Personally I don’t think so. On duty, or off, surely Mr Howes, as one of the most senior officers at TDC should, rather than criticising others, have been proactive and demonstrated leadership by saying instead that he would make contact with the relevant service manager to have rubbish removed at the earliest opportunity.
2) Did Mr Howes “Consider the likely consequences for the Council of his (my insertion) statement. Once again I don’t think so. Bearing in mind his blaming of others and his statement that he is not the £121,000 Director of Corporate Services at weekends I believe that Mr Howes may have generated a negative “jobsworth” impression of TDC which is not something which would normally be expected from one of of its highest paid officers.
4) Did Mr Howe’s comments “result in adverse public comment to the detriment of the Council and the service”? Yes, in my opinion, they did and this is precisely why I am writing this blog post because I believe Mr Howes was wrong to become involved in this Facebook discussion and because I believe his comments were not helpful. I am not alone in this view and others on Facebook were less than impressed with Mr Howes intervention.
5) Before making his comments on social media about rubbish collection did Mr Howes consult , as is constitutionally required, with TDCs Communictions Team? Did he consult with the Cabinet member with political responsibility for street cleaning Councillor Suzanne Brimm? Did he consult with the Director of Operational Services, Gavin Waite, who is responsible for managing the street cleaning teams? I don’t know the answer to these questions, but I have a suspicion the answer may be no, which brings me to some much a more serious points.
It is my understanding that the number of street cleaners and refuse collection staff, who are virtually all employed via employment agencies, rather than directly by TDC, have been massively reduced in the past 2-3 years, which might explain why bags of rubbish are often left uncollected in Ramsgate and elsewhere in Thanet. I have now submitted a Freedom of Information request to find out by exactly how much the staffing levels of these services have been reduced over the past 3 years and I will post a blog as soon as I get answers from TDC.
But most worrying of all, recent and extensive media coverage about the aftermath of the appalling Grenfell Tower disaster has focused on an alleged culture of unresponsiveness, aloofness, disdain and a lack of effective team working at higher management levels in Kensington and Chelsea Council. This unacceptable management culture is alleged to be one of the reasons why Kensington and Chelsea Council is said to have failed abysmally to cope effectively and compassionately with the dreadful, heartbreaking, tragedy. It is also said to be one of the reasons why the Chief Executive and Leader of Kensington and Chelsea Council were forced to resign and one of the reasons why the Government was forced to send in outsiders to takeover over the running of many of the council’s key services.
Not that I saying for a moment that TDC is in the same managerial position as Kensington and Chelsea Council. It is not. But Mr Howes comments, if indeed the commentator was Mr Howes, reflect, in my opinion, a lack of pro-activity and sympathy in heeding residents legitimate concerns and an unfortunate “jobsworth” attitude to the out of hours responsibilities of one of the Council’s most senior and well paid officers. Furthermore, his comments about services he is not responsible for managing, if made without consultation with colleague directors and cabinet members, demonstrate a worrying lack of corporate cohesion at the most senior levels within TDC.
Whilst these matters are clearly not on par with Kensington and Chelsea Council it is nevertheless important for the Leader of the Councillor Chris Wells and the Chief Excutive to investigate this incident and ensure similar comments are not posted by well paid senior managers again. As they say its always best for those in charge to nip even the most minor examples of bad practice in the bud before they become endemic within an organisation, preventing it from being as effective as it could be in the event of a major crisis.