Last Friday saw LocalGovCamp moving to Lincoln for the first of the follow up days. Learning Pool were happy to help out with some sponsorship of the event, which was marvelously organised and convened by Andrew Beeken of Lincoln City Council.
The day was an enjoyable one, with plenty of interesting sessions, including one facilitated by Fraser Henderson on ePetitions – an issue I have a professional interest in – and commentable consultations by Joss Winn.
The day was more obviously web focused than the Birmingham event, with many of the attendees coming from web teams. Nothing wrong with that – although the focus at times was more on making local government websites better, rather than making government better. Perhaps the fact that I have never worked on a web team means I’m a little distant from some of these conversations.
That the web will play an increasingly important role in the way councils and people interact with one another is a no-brainer. But more interesting to me than how that will work technologically is how it will fit within the culture and processes of local government – or how local government must change to fit with the new ways of working.
Another example was the session on hyperlocal blogging and local councils’ relationship with bloggers, which spent quite a bit of time discussing issues of judgements of quality and the need for editing and the relevance of the journalist in a networked society. Again, the real issue for me is the fact that outside the main urban areas, local newspapers are dying out and will continue to do so – and how will this affect the attitude local authorities have towards reputational risk, so much of which is focused not on the needs of the organisation or the people it serves but on what might appear in the local rag the next morning?
ePetitions are a good example. How hard is it to build an ePetitions system? Not very. What’s harder, and more interesting, is how you fit those ePetitions into the democratic and governance arrangements of the local authority.
This kind of ties in with the discussion on OpenSocitm about the future of the council, where I wrote the following:
I attended one of the Council of the Future sessions at the conference and found it a little unambitious. Indeed most of the things discussed were those that councils should be doing now – that many aren’t needs to be fixed, but it was hardly visionary stuff. I’m really thinking here of things like selling buildings, paperless office, EDRMS, business continuity, remote working, etc etc.
In fact, local government will be facing a crisis far worse than the current funding situation, which will be focused on staff and people. Look at the demographics of councillors – where are the next generation of people to take on the role once the current incumbents just get too old? Who will there be left vote for?
The problem is the same with officers, if not quite as bleak. There will be a massive churn in the next two years as expensive managers are pensioned off and younger, cheaper people will replace them – assuming those younger and cheaper people exist!
Perhaps this is a chance to rethink the roles played by councils and councillors – perhaps the reason why nobody is interested is because the roles are just wrong for this day and age – ties into Will Perrin’s point that government faced 21st century problems, has 21st century technology available to tackle them, but is lumbered with 19th century governance processes – and so no progress is ever made.
The things that should be discussed when the future of the council is considered should include:
- Who delivers services – should the council be the retailer or the wholesaler of services?
- How can councils work more closely with the private and third sectors, and community groups, in terms of carrying out its functions?
- How can the council manage its information assets in a more open way, to encourage reuse by the community and the adding of innovative value that local gov isn’t able to provide itself?
- How can councils become more entrepreneurial themselves to help bridge the funding gap?
- How can customer service, communications and service design be blended into an iterative process to help make sure services deliver what users want?
- What will the role of councillors be when nobody has the time to attend meetings in dusty town halls? Do we need to rethink the way our local democracy works?
Perhaps one framework to answer these and other questions might be to consider – if you were to start a council from scratch, right now, how would it work? What would it look like? What would you build first – an office or a website?
Am looking forward to these sorts of conversations at future events – and online, of course!