One of Sadiq Khan’s first actions as Mayor was to overhaul the Transport for London Board, jettisoning almost all the members he inherited from his predecessor and bringing in a new, diverse membership with a range of skills and experience to help the organisation meet the challenges it’s likely to face in the coming years.
There’s no doubt that this has led to a more robust questioning of managers by Board members, but recently some London Assembly Members and other interested parties have starting questioning whether this increased pushback has led to changes in the way information is presented to the Board and its committees.
Good news is frequently highlighted while poor news is downplayed.
A timely example of this can be found in papers to be presented to one committee next week which highlights that:
“London Underground passenger journeys were eight million better than the same period last year, with customer journeys continuing to increase following suppressed demand in the previous year. The first week of December was a record-breaking week. Friday 7 December was the busiest day ever on the Tube, with slightly more than five million journeys.
“Bus passenger journeys were two per cent lower than last year. Initial analysis shows a reduction mainly in off-peak journeys (evenings and weekends), and we are carrying out further analysis of the decline.”
Eight million extra Tube journeys – brilliant news. And a 2 per cent fall in bus journeys doesn’t seem so bad does it?
But committee members who take time to properly consider the accompanying bar chart will spot that the 2 per cent fall is actually 10 million fewer bus journeys.
Using numbers to highlight a positive development and percentages to report a negative one is nothing new, but it’s an approach more suitable for a press release or a marketing document than in papers being presented to a board that’s meant to be the ultimate source of authority within the organisation.
In fairness to TfL, it has made great improvements in transparency and, following the urging of Sadiq’s former transport deputy Val Shawcross, improved the consistency in how key data is reported – the days of figures being rebased every few months, thus making meaningful scrutiny of the numbers almost impossible, are thankfully over.
But the above example usefully illustrates why some long-time TfL observers think it’s not entirely ditched the spin and on Thursday one of them, Liberal Democrat AM Caroline Pidgeon, raised her concerns directly with TfL Commissioner Mike Brown when he appeared before the Assembly.
Citing the most recent Board meeting as a example, Pidgeon highlighted how Brown’s report to the Board failed to mention delays to the introduction of new electric trains on the Gospel Oak to Barking Line and a reduction in service for passengers.
Also absent was any mention of delays to the opening of the Northern Line extension, as was the recent Public Health England report highlighting that some pollutants at Tube stations could be 30 times higher than beside busy roads.
Pidgeon also expressed concern that Crossrail, the delay of which poses enormous risk to TfL’s budgets, was so far down the agenda that Board members had to wait until 3 and a half hours into the meeting to be told that it would now definitely not open in 2019.
All this, she said, was very much at odds with the Mayor’s manifesto commitment to transparency.
In response Brown described his 53 page report – a page tally that includes a number of very attractive but probably unnecessary three-quarter and full-page photos – as “a summary”of issues which “can’t inevitably cover every single issue”.
He also insisted there was “a limit” to the number of issues that can be raised at the Board and that he had “always sought to be very open and transparent about good news issues as well as less positive issues”.
Pidgeon remains unconvinced, saying after the meeting: “The Mayor has a very specific manifesto commitment to openness and transparency in his administration. Sadly, this is not being followed through.
“It is incredible that such important transport issues were not reported by the Commissioner to the TfL Board.
“The delays to the opening of Crossrail and the Northern Line extension, not to mention the fiasco facing users of the Barking to Gospel Oak line will not be resolved by hiding away from these issues.”