‘Strong start’ for scheme helping to hold West Sussex decision makers to account

Karen Dunn, West Sussex LDR
Karen Dunn, West Sussex LDR

To mark the first year of the national scheme, West Sussex’s LDR Karen Dunn explains why keeping people informed about decisions at town hall meetings is so important.

After 20 years of working in almost every post journalism has to offer, the Local Democracy Service presented a unique challenge.

One role, no distractions, and the chance to plug a hole in local reporting that had been getting wider and wider as newsrooms get smaller and smaller.

Once upon a time, as a green trainee, town hall committee rooms were places of awe for me, accompanied by a desperate fear that I would not understand anything being said. Ah, youth!

It has been good to return with a more critical attitude.

It had been some years since I’d regularly reported on democratic goings-on – and given, the reaction of some of the councillors and officers, the regional reporter had become something of a lesser spotted beast in the jungles of the average town hall.

That first week was one of extremes.

Walking into some meeting rooms felt a bit like opening the door to a rural pub in a bad horror movie. They never actually said ‘we don’t like strangers round here’ but the feeling was there.

In others, though, it was a mixture of surprise and astonishment, with wags coming out with lines such as ‘are you real?’ and ‘I haven’t seen one of you in years – you’re an endangered species’.

Having spoken to other LDRs, I get the feeling I’ve been lucky with West Sussex. The councillors at county and borough level recognise the importance of democracy being seen to be seen.

They may not like it all the time but the recognition is there.

Some people work on the mistaken belief that the role of an LDR is to tear every council decision to pieces; to belittle the work being done and imagine conspiracies around every corner.

That’s not how I see the role.

My role is to tell people what is happening at town hall meetings, to let them know about the decisions being made and the debates and arguments which preceded them.

It’s to tell them when that one line hidden away in a 100-page agenda could end up hitting them in the pocket and to ask questions about the way things are being done.

It’s to make sure that every councillor knows that everything they say and do while working for the people who voted for them is a potential story.

So what does a typical day hold?

Being unable to drive, every day involves public transport.

If I was being flippant, I would say the largest part of my role centres around waiting for trains, running for trains, standing on trains and feeling pathetically grateful when I get a seat on a train.

If nothing else, this job has given me a healthy dislike of certain railway companies.

The workload is high, meetings and agendas are long and the challenge of turning ‘council speak’ into something understandable by the average person in the street is, I believe, an art.

The best thing about the role is the complete lack of press releases – we’re not allowed to touch them. Our articles are all the result of having sat for hours, taking notes with one hand while tackling social media with the other, before firing off questions and filing copy.

Every now and then a council will put out a press release after an important meeting, and it’s been interesting to see their ‘spin’ on some stories.

If you want to know why the LDR service is important, take a look at the figures. In one year, 50,000 articles have been filed. That’s 50,000 times reporters have told their communities what is going on in their town halls; 50,000 times they’ve asked questions and shared the answers; 50,000 times they’ve held their elected representatives to account.

With the best will in the world, local newsrooms have taken such a battering over the past ten years that they simply could not have produced so much copy on top of the mountain of tasks the average day brings.

Of course it’s not perfect – what new venture is? But this year has laid down a strong base on which to build.

The Local Democracy Reporting Service created up to 150 new journalism jobs to help fill a gap in the reporting of local democracy issues across the UK.

The journalists are funded by the BBC as part of its latest Charter commitment but employed by regional news organisations.

These organisations range from a radio station to online media companies and established regional newspaper groups.

Local Democracy Reporters cover top-tier local authorities and other public service organisations.