Under the hashtag #Ilovemyjob one of the great local government tweeps I follow wrote last week

Just spent an hour talking with 12 Albanian Mayors about the local committee structure in Sutton.

This is the sort of random information Twitter throws at you every day. Thanks for it to @GlenOcsko.

Although I have no proof I’m 99% sure of what was going on here.

For many years the UK government and/or European Commission have sponsored people from former communist countries that might be EU member candidates to come on study visits to the likes of Britain and other long-standing EU members to see how democracy can work.

In my day, it was the swathe of Eastern European countries which are now EU members.

A typical trip might be organised by a UK university politics department and feature briefing sessions with academics and visits to two or three local authorities to meet local politicians and council staff, much as I suspect the twelve Albanian mayors were doing in Sutton.

You might not think it an exciting way to spend a week. But for many of the delegates on these trips struggling to come to terms with the upheaval and turmoil in their own countries, this was the first time they had ventured west of the old iron curtain. They were often shabbily dressed by our standards and uneasy at the resources we seemed to have as well as the general UK standard of living around them.

Most did not speak English and there sometimes seemed to be a clear hierarchy within their group although their interpreter was the key delegate if you were to get anything of value across to them.

At the time I was working for a large, mainly rural, council. I particularly remember a group of Bulgarians and the effort I’d gone (pre-Google Translate and Babelfish) to source a grammatically-correct slide to front my presentation that said ‘Welcome to XYZ Council!’ in Bulgarian.

My presentation, filtered through their interpreter’s efforts, seemed to go down as well as an account of multi-member wards and the differences between central and area committees could.

Inviting questions, I sat down to polite smiles and a silence that was eventually broken by a question from the delegate I had identified as the main man in the group, an academic at some institute for government. The interpreter translated

He says who has the executive authority in your villages?

Even now the words ‘knock me down’ and ‘feather’ come to mind.

I won’t bother to explain why. Those in the know will understand precisely the difficulties of where you start to answer such a question in the British context. If you’re not in the know ask yourself the same question – ‘Who has the executive authority in your village or suburb?’ Just doesn’t make sense in the UK does it?

Well, the Bulgarians are safely inside the EU now and no doubt the Albanians are hoping to be in the future (dim and distant I would have thought). I wonder if they asked any interesting questions in Sutton?

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