Saturday, 29 March 2008

Working on skills for good scrutiny

Over Friday the timeless sea rolled in from the south as a half gale shook the windows of the room where I was working on a series of workshops about scrutiny with a cross-section of interesting and interested councillors and officers:
Workshop 1: Scoping may involve only 10% of an enquiry, yet its significance in focusing an investigation is inestimable. While its theme is the process and selecting and filtering candidates for scrutiny, this two hour workshop is closely linked to accompanying workshops on questioning and weighing evidence. The tutor will assist participants as they explore face-to-face methods appropriate to scrutiny, with emphasis, in this workshop, on agreeing the purpose, range and outcome of a review and the skills and values required in the chair who leads the process.

Workshop 2: The aim of this interactive workshop is to identify and practice habits of intelligent conversation among all involved in scrutiny under the guidance of a skilled chair. The tutor will assist participants to explore face-to-face methods appropriate to scrutiny, with emphasis, in this workshop, on questioning skills that foster a spirit of enquiry, demonstrate curiosity and allow silences for shared thought. This material, drawn from research, with accompanying workshops on scoping and weighing evidence, offers an opportunity to fine-tune skills, share experiences and debate their importance for successful scrutiny. Open, closed, probing and reflective questions and their combination along with riskier ones - leading, challenging and multiple.

Workshop 3: This in-house skills training, accompanying workshops on scoping and questioning, focuses on ‘weighing evidence’. The demise of the committee system can be offset by the exercise of skilled scrutiny in collecting and analysing information relevant to local governance. By spreading understanding about the variety of ways of collecting and analysing information, scrutiny can widen and deepen members’ contributions to evidence-based government. Assessing evidence; distinguishing qualitative and quantitative, ‘hard’ & ‘soft’ data, witness accounts, evidence from visits and inspections; drawing conclusions and making recommendations on the basis of the evidence; reviewing, digesting and analysing evidence; political, managerial and professional data and the tensions between them; the politics of evidence; the intermediary role of the chair.
I got my usual pleasure from cycling through Brighton and Hove, taking the train, reading and gazing at the passing scenery, then cycling through the busy traffic of the capital. Looking at a film of someone else threading the city on their Brompton I'd like to try making a film like this. It is a special kind of pleasure - urban cycling. Part of me supports the idea of carfree 'eco-towns', but a subversive impulse says I'd miss mixing with cars, buses, vans, trucks, walkers and cyclists in the noisy metropolis - maybe that's why I like the vision of shared space.

The other day, Joel Crawford, who I’ve never met directly and for whom I’ve much admiration circulated what he called a ‘hateful post’ from a ‘Jeremy Clarkson wannabe’ – Jen Dunnaway’s peeved response to the announcement of ‘eco-towns’:
… this sounds like my idea of hell: a city populated entirely by self-righteous pedestrians and cyclists, with senseless 15-mph speed limits for cars on the roads leading into it, and a center from which cars are prohibited entirely. The UK is hoping to make this grim prison-camp world a reality, with the establishment ten ‘eco-towns’ throughout its countryside. While I think it'd be great to have some place to quarantine all the militant pedestrians, where they could hate on cars without marching out in front of them, ‘driver pressure groups’ (bless them) are predicting that the eco-town project will simply become a platform from which to bully the rest of the motoring public. UK Housing Minister Caroline Flint says, "These developments will be exemplars for the rest of the world, not just the rest of the country." Yeah, great. It's exactly this kind of pompous banner-waving that's gotten New York and other US cities considering a ‘congestion tax’ like the one so ‘successfully’ imposed in London. Now that we're approaching the saturation point for laws persecuting smokers, the lobbyists and other professional busybodies are clearly casting around for the next acceptable group to persecute. Guess what: we're up.
I thought I’d have a go at matching the rant - in a reply to Joel:
Take heart. Know that when reasoned argument, even that with which you disagree, turns to rants like this you have your opponents rattled. You'll never win them all, but the people who should be celebrating cars – the intellectuals, the creatives, the elites - whether of education, class or wealth - have withered away. The car defenders have lost the middle ground. More and more, those who proselytise against rebalancing relations between movement and interaction, in favour of the latter in cities, are being pressed into the outfield - not into the wilderness that breeds innovation, but into the isolating desert of autophilia. While city life improves, as access by proximity begins to replace access by mobility, they fume in the sprawling ex-urbs, where - deprived of stimulation - they enthuse about stretched limos, even longer food chains, and ever larger parking lots across the zombie world of placeless strip-malls, embracing increasingly grand guignol automobiles, excoriating invented monsters – ‘self-righteous cyclists’, ‘militant pedestrians’, ‘grim prison-camp world’? Plee-eese! Before such rants begin people remain reasonable – susceptible to debate and arguments of the kind that accompanied defences of slavery and the subordination of women e.g. Proslavery: A History of the Defense of Slavery in America, 1701-1840 (Georgia University Press, 1987), or see these and many other arguments against female suffrage, but as the abolitionists and the suffragettes (and their supporters) began - after prolonged struggles - to take the middle ground, their outfield values becoming common decency, so the language, and in some cases the actions, of those who saw themselves as losers, turn irrational and venomous or, like the antics of Jeremy Clarkson, increasingly comedic – helping, through boyish antics, and grumpy diatribes, to dissipate the frustrations of retreat along a broadening front. Best, Simon
* * *
We are busy with preparations for leaving on Monday for Venice, from where we'll take the train to Ancona, and from there the ferry to Igoumenitsa, thence to Corfu. For my birthday Lin has bought me a delightful and poignant Edward Lear reproduction, a tranquil landscape painted about 150 years ago, near the end of the British Protectorate in 1864
There was an Old Man of Corfu,
Who never knew what he should do;
So he rushed up and down, till the sun made him brown,
That bewildered Old Man of Corfu.

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