5 animal traits to help hold politicians to account

Barnet Council has had a campaign running for a couple of years now to achieve 50% recycling of waste by 2016. It was launched on the back of considerable investment and a major revamp of the recycling and waste service – and a big piece of consultancy work for a couple of firms.

Laudable ambition. Challenging target. Important issue.

So, as we enter the last few days of 2016 you might have expected to hear how it was going. Has the council achieved its target? Did all the investment deliver value for money?

I don’t know. I’ve trawled Barnet’s website, I’ve tweeted them, I’ve looked through their suggested hashtag (#barnetrecycling – which threw up some interesting results but nothing on progress), I’ve even tried to navigate the London Data Store to find out.

I only single out Barnet because:

  1. I live in the Borough and so I have a ‘citizen’s-eye-view’, and;
  2. They have emblazoned their recycling lorries with the 50% target – like a sort of mobile ‘EdStone’ – to remind me.

I have no idea whether they’ve met their target (though I have a suspicion that their silence might speak volumes!). But I would like them to account for their actions by being clear and open about what has happened. Thinking about how I might go about that, it occurred to me that maybe we can learn a thing of two from the animal kingdom to help us go about it.

zooHere are my five animal traits that can help us better hold our politicians to account:

  1. The memory of an elephant – we must remember those promises and be able to recall them some time later if we’re going to hold politicians to account. There are often good reasons why things don’t happen the way we expect – but we need honesty in how we report progress. But if we don’t remember, we’ve got no chance of being able to ask questions about how things have gone.
  2. A dog with a bone – tenacity is a mainstay of any activist (and I suppose I would describe any citizen seeking to hold politicians to account an ‘activist’). This is the trait that is possibly most likely to infuriate officers and politicians but also serves an important purpose. Single-mindedness, fixating on an issue and going after it like a dog with a bone is often the difference between successful campaigning and being easily forgotten.
  3. The skin of a rhino – it can be tough questioning politicians and political institutions (like councils). Power is unequal and challenging power can be uncomfortable. It’s important to have sufficient resilience to withstand criticism, ridicule and attack if you’re going to hold politicians to account. When those with power feel attacked their reaction is often to attack right back – but it’s usually not personal, however much it might feel like it is.
  4. A bird’s eye view – being able to see things strategically, from upon high, is hugely helpful in order to identify the right ‘buttons to press’ and to develop tactics that are likely to succeed. Effective accountability requires the ability to switch between microscopic detail and big-picture thinking in the blink of an eye.
  5. The roar of a lion – it’s all very well having the personal fortitude and ability to understand issues and ask the right questions, but you have to make your voice heard. Effective communications are crucial – okay so it’s not always necessary to roar, sometimes a quiet word can be just as effective. What matters is having a clear and compelling message and getting your point across.

They say politics is a zoo… so maybe we need to learn from the animal kingdom if we want to ensure our politicians deliver on their promises and are held to account for their actions.

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