Councillors on an influential scrutiny panel say they fear being “undermined” by a pattern of slowing responses to their enquiries on behalf of residents.
The average time it takes to get an answer to a so-called members’ enquiry, which can involve complaints, requests for a service for residents or for information, has slowed to 18 days for a first response from 13 days in 2014.
The amount of cases brought up by councillors has increased slightly since 2014, when it stood at 1,993, compared to its current level of just over 2,000.
When quizzed on why the length of time to respond is going up, Town Hall officers emphasised part of the reason was that they were doing their best to provide the fullest possible responses to questions.
Cllr Nick Sharman (Lab, Hackney Wick) said: “The issue for me is that the role of complaints as a way to look at this organisation is a very important one. It’s not just us bellyaching, it’s us looking into the organisation and seeing how it’s performing.
“Time for responses is important. We’ve got complaints going up, and clearly pressure on resources, and surprise, surprise, the times are going up.
“I think we ought to be taking this seriously, and if it requires more resource, we ought to be put it into it, because to me this is one of the most important elements that councillors have.
“If we have any credibility in this process, it’s that we can ask these questions and get reasonably responsive answers. If we don’t, our role becomes undermined. We need to look at these numbers and think how we’re going to do it.”
Cllr Sharon Patrick (Lab, Kings Park) added: “I understand that you’re trying to get us a better response, but I would like a good response and quicker, because constituents are waiting on those responses and think they’re not being dealt with.
“The longer they take, people get frustrated with the council.”
The length of time it takes the Mayor’s office and cabinet members to get responses has also increased, from 18 days in 2014 to its current level of 28 days.
The volume of cases taken up by Hackney Mayor Philip Glanville and his cabinet has increased by around 300 in that period, now sitting at 1,859 for the year.
Cllr Mete Coban (Lab, Stoke Newington) highlighted a further problem with the levels of response time, pointing out that any answer received is often what residents have already been told, and called for a “better way” that avoids getting duplicate outcomes.
It is understood that Town Hall officers are now planning an “end-to-end” review of the members’ enquiry process.
Councillors raised particular concern with the Town Hall’s head of governance and business intelligence Bruce Devile over the length of people waiting for a response on complaints over adult social care currently standing at 55 days.
Devile said: “In terms of time taken around members’ enquiries, yes, it’s longer than it should be. We’re undertaking a review of casework currently.
“We’ve been in touch with members to be willing participants in the test phase of a new system.
“Something else we need to look at is, is the members’ enquiry process the right process for everything that has been raised?
“Are there better processes that we can use for some of the issues that members want to raise that will give a response that does not require a long process.”
This last suggestion, however, was met with scepticism from Cllr Polly Billington (Lab, De Beauvoir), who noted to Devile that councillors are “the triage system” for residents who have exhausted every other means of remedy the Town Hall has to offer.
Cllr Billington said: “We’re all pretty savvy about making sure that we enable and empower our residents to do absolutely all they can themselves, but we do find quite often that the reason why they are spending their time coming to us is because every other avenue seems to have been exhausted by the processes.
“We are the triage system for the council. Almost every other part of the council, it seems to be, if people get in touch with them, they’re told it’s not their department.
“Every department is our department, and that’s why we’re quite often seen as the best way of getting something done when everything else has failed.”