Local Democracy Notepad

Democratic perfectionism as a political method

Eating the Elephant

with 3 comments

An Elephant yesterday. Best eaten a bit at a time. (Image: Wikimedia Commons - click for credit)

An Elephant yesterday. Best eaten a bit at a time. (Image: Wikimedia Commons - click for credit)

Shorter version: Often, the minor technical obstacles mask a wider small-p political obstructionism to the promotion of a more interactive form of government.

Having written this post about the small obstacles to open e-gov a few weeks ago, Tim Davies got such a comprehensive response in his comments thread that he’s rolled them out into a wiki.

The idea that there are ’50 small hurdles’ is a very powerful one – it enables those who want to move small mountains to understand that it can be done in the same way that an Elephant can be eaten: A bit at a time.

I think that Tim has missed an important one out, but I’m reluctant to break the symmetry and tidiness of the ’50′ number. It’s an important one though, and probably a bit less straightforward than the obstacles that Tim has identified, so the omission is understandable:

Promoting interactivity between local government and citizens is a thorny one. It presents a huge amount of potential for disruption. Nominally, under our political settlement, elected councillors are the ones that formally do policy.

Some local authorities take the view that their officers should be doing some research, second-guessing what their political leadership are thinking, and presenting well-thought-out options that the executive can enact. This is an obstacle because elected councillors don’t have the capacity to conduct a role that is legitimately theirs. Permanent officials do have that capacity, but strictly speaking, it’s not their job.

Then there is the additional obstacle – the highly centralised relationship between central and local government. In reality Councillors have few powers, and many of them are illusory. Often, they have the power to enact one of a couple of highly confined options that have been presented to them by central government.

And where they do have powers, these are often restricted by a highly bureaucratic approach to the the various pieces of guidance or codes that have been handed down from central government. A classic of the kind is a conversation that I picked up over the weekend in which council officers were seriously asking if it would be a breach of the publicity code if councils were to publicise councillors’ Twitter / Facebook accounts on council literature.

Anyone who is working to promote an interactive local conversation ignores this obstacle at their peril. In seven years working on a project that was designed to encourage councillors to start taking up simple interactive tools, I visited well over 150 local authorities. With few exceptions, the hour-long meetings generally followed this pattern:

  • Presentation of the idea (10 mins)
  • General agreement that it would be worth doing in principle (5 mins)
  • Discussion of a question raised about how such a project could be compatible with the publicity code (40 mins)
  • Conclusion that no decision to proceed could be taken at the moment, and that it needed to be looked into further (“we’ll get back to you”). (5 mins)

The frustrating thing about this is that – in those seven years, working with over 50 local authorities (half of whom had the project set up for them by regional government), the publicity code has never presented a half-serious problem. One grandstanding BNP councillor tested the code to the limit, and I suspect he did it so that he could brag that he’s been ‘gagged’ by the PC brigade (and it backfired on him completely).

But apart from that, it’s a non-issue. 

In 2005, I raised this problem with the ODPM and they commissioned research and published comprehensive guidance on the matter. The research resulted in a long document that, in a very crabwise way, stated the obvious. That encouraging councillors to use this technology was A Good Thingthis guidance can be viewed on all of it’s longevity and glory. They then followed this up with detailed legal advice.

It took me years of lobbying to get local government officials to acknowledge that this was a problem and get HMG to ccommission the research. It would be the understatement of the year to say that many senior local government officials are not that keen to encourage councillors to engage with the public on policy issues.

And then, once I’d succeed there and designed a system that could be implemented without breaching any of the various codes, the ICELE research concluded that it could be done – in exactly the way that we designed it (our problem solving involved a few short hours of intellectual manual labour and one meeting with a local government lawyer).

And then, at the end of this, most councils are still not doing anything to encourage the use of interactive tools among their councillorsI can promise you that if I visited most councils in the UK now, the meeting would still follow the pattern outlined above. And now officers are wondering whether they can point to councillors’ twitter pages on council literature.

This post has gone on for long enough, so I’ll save the second half of it until later. As a preview, though….

  • Councillors do not work full time for councils
  • Full time staff get training on basic ICT skills
  • If councils want councillors to be active users of ICT tools they need to make them more usable.

Tim’s list of technical lock-downs tells only half of the story here. For people who don’t use email in their day-job (and many are retired from jobs that never involved using a PC), asking them to master Outlook, download attachments, change them, forward them, etc, is an obstacle too far.

Councillors are the most important people in the Town Hall from a democratic point of view. They warrant a special usability consideration. All they usually get is the injunction to take-it-or-leave it.

3 Responses to 'Eating the Elephant'

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  1. Some key observations – and I’m happy for the neat 50 to be shown to be many more…

    I’ve put a quick additional page on the Wiki around legal obstacles to capture some of the bits around the publicity code and will take a look at the guidance you’ve referenced to see if we can work this up more.

    I certainly don’t want the list I’ve put together to imply though that everyone should be a social-media-master – indeed as not everyone will be a master of public speaking or knocking on doors to talk to people – and there may be a very strong case for officers to ‘digitally enable’ councillors without necessarily forcing councillors to spent more time at a computer. However, right now the hurdles to officer use of technologies means very few are able to even consider playing that digitally enabling role.

    timgdavies

    11 May 09 at 10:41 am

  2. I’ve added some links to some DCLG documents that would appear to give every encouragement possible to council’s encouraging their elected representatives to engage in social networking sites and blogs. The documents are “Communities in control: real people, real power” A DCLG white paper from July 09; “Representing the future – The report of the Councillors Commission” published in December 2007 which formed much of the basis for the white paper; and DCLG’s consultation on changes to the publicity code (the consultation closed in March this year)

    Red Blogger

    13 May 09 at 5:00 pm

  3. [...] in true Wiki style it can be built up and developed. Paul Evans has already pointed out one ommission which now has it’s own page: the lack of clarity about what the law says about engagement. [...]

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