Like many others I tuned in yesterday to watch ITV’s Don’t Blame the Council, billed as a ‘behind the scenes’ look at Wigan Council.
Back in October, when Wigan announced they were going to take part in a BBC documentary, Call The Council, I blogged about it and was hopeful that it would help shine a light on the real challenges faced by local authorities like Wigan. Maybe it would help ‘ordinary’ residents understand what the unprecedented cuts to budgets really mean for the services that many people take for granted.
At the time, Donna Hall, Chief Exec of Wigan Council, wrote a piece for the Guardian Public Leaders Network explaining why Wigan had decided to let the cameras in. She said:
“The last time there was industrial action, in Wigan we had to cancel our household waste collections. That went down like a contaminated bin at a recycling centre. Our social media accounts were inundated with questions from angry members of the public whose bins were not collected. Many asked: “When do I get a refund for the service you’ve not provided?”
This reaction told us one thing – an awful lot of council taxpayers appear to believe all we do is empty their bins.”
And she explained what she hoped the programme would achieve:
“I’d guess most of our residents wouldn’t be able to name more than 10 services we provide. In fact, Wigan council provides more than 700 services to 310,000 residents.
“Call the Council won’t be able to reflect all those services but it is going to show a rich mixture of our work. The film crews have only been with us for a few weeks but they have already followed our officers doing spot checks on taxi drivers, organising an Expo for small businesses, taking food samples from shops, dealing with illegal traveller sites and installing LED street lighting.”
I really admired Wigan Council for taking the brave step of letting the cameras in. Their aim was noble – highlighting the many and varied services that local government provides, and to demonstrate the tough decisions that councils all over the country are having to take.
Since then it seems that Wigan Council also permitted ITV to film with them for yesterday’s Don’t Blame The Council.
The BBC series is yet to be aired. But ITV’s effort was broadcast last night and left a bit of a sour taste. Despite all the interesting and varied jobs that their Chief Exec described the BBC filming in the quote above, ITV’s hour long programme focused instead on… you guessed it… BINS.
Their portrayal of council staff was purposely negative – showing a sleeping bin lorry driver (legitimately on the break he is legally required to have maybe?); made the officer in charge of dog fouling and flytipping look over officious (despite the fact she was carrying out a very tough job that most members of the public, in my experience, support); poked fun at the stereotype of council workers always having meetings and generally being inept.
Not what I (or Wigan Council, I imagine) had hoped for.
And a missed opportunity I felt. Lazy, stereotyped fly on the wall nonsense that had no real intention of highlighting the very real issues and challenges facing local councils, but just wanted to follow a few ‘characters’ and have a bit of a laugh at their expense.
The comments on Twitter were particularly depressing, with lots of ill-informed anti-council hate being posted. Early local media coverage hasn’t been much better. Not exactly what Donna Hall set out to achieve.
I feel for Wigan Council. They were brave enough to take this risk, and it hasn’t worked out as well as it could have. That is ITV’s fault for taking the easy, lazy approach.
A transmission date is yet to be confirmed for the BBC’s Call The Council series. Let’s hope for a more thorough, carefully considered programme from the Beeb. Perhaps they can put ITV to shame. But ITV’s treatment of this subject matter is bound to make other councils think twice about taking part in any future project as a result.
I would love to hear what other local government workers and communicators thought of the show – and I can’t wait to see how differently (hopefully) the BBC approach this issue.