Whither open government in 2011?

Ingrid has published a set of five rather grim predictions for next year. Go and take a look, and make one of your new year resolutions to stop them from happening.

Here are some thoughts from me on what might happen next year. These certainly aren’t predictions, and are more hopes really.

1. Collaboration grows up

Big changes within organisations, lots of layoffs, knowledge retention becoming a big issue, a growth in partnership working and shared services, greater involvement of the civil sector in service delivery and a focus on making the most of existing talent should all point government organisations towards making better use of social technology as part of operations, through social intranets, collaborative extranets and the like.

It’s certainly something we at Learning Pool are hoping to support people with in the new year. We’re working with the Improvement Service in Scotland, supporting a project to promote agile and flexible working in councils north of the border and will be contributing to a knowledge management seminar in Scotland in February, amongst other events.

I’m also in the process of writing a guide to the use of social technology within the organisation, which I am hoping to have finished in early January!

2. Online communities are taken seriously

I’m increasingly convinced by the arguments put forward by Catherine Howe on her blog about the idea of online civic spaces. There needs to be some structure around online conversations in democracy and public service delivery – albeit not too much.

Where a number of government organisations in an area want to engage with people on a reasonably regular basis, I’d like to see them either getting involved with an existing online communities, or developing one platform for all such interactions to take place. Keep it informal, barriers to entry low, but enable a community to be built up, relationships to be formed and a body of evidence to be developed.

Rather like Let’s Talk Central, the project we worked on this year with Central Bedfordshire Council. I’d love to work on one of these on a local or regional basis, with councils, health, police, fire and rescue and other organisations on board and contributing.

3. Technology and innovation works its way up the food chain

I’m getting more requests to talk about social media and related technology to groups of senior managers and chief executives. It seems like if Ingrid’s fear that this stuff is going to get siloed into communications departments is to be prevented, it is by ensuring interest at the top of the organisation.

Language is a vital thing here. People at the top are going to be less interested in means and far more engaged by the talk of ends. Focus on benefits rather than operational details. It’s easy (but wrong) to label this activity as a frippery that’s inappropriate for these austere times – convince those at the top that it is necessary and hopefully stuff will get done.

4. A much needed focus on public sector employees

There’s much that one can disagree with Andrew DiMaio about, but one thing he has consistently got right is the need for those with an interest in reforming government to focus on the role and needs of the people who work for government, or at least those that will be left after the cuts.

A much maligned group, especially in certain sections of the media, public servants do an incredible job in increasingly difficult circumstances. They aren’t perfect, and it’s fair to say that some are much more able than others, but nonetheless they all require support and credit.

5. A revolution in local democracy

A real one from the left field from me here. This isn’t going to happen next year, or any year soon, but it’s something I have been increasingly thinking about during the last few years. The way our local leaders are selected and operate is broken and I don’t think real change can be effected until a new way of running democracy at this level is found.

It strikes me that the way things are currently done is profoundly exclusionary both in terms of the requirements of the role of councillor and the way that they do business.

Firstly, the workload of a councillor is far too great, and means that the only people with the time to do it justice are those who are retired or who for some other reason do not have to work. In other words, people are getting elected because they have the time to do the job, not because they would be good at doing it.

Another aspect of this is that councillors are expected to have an interest and knowledge across a huge range of different policy areas, which is, I think, somewhat unrealistic.

So, right now we have too few people doing too much. We need more people doing less each. So, more councillors please, who each cover fewer issues, concentrating on the stuff they are good at.

Whilst we’re at it, let’s change the way the whole thing works, with fewer meetings, more online decision making and conferencing. Fine, there are gazillions of points of process and procedure that would need working out, but it strikes me at the moment that local democracy and governance isn’t terribly strong, nor interesting, and it could do with a thorough overhaul.

OK, so this really isn’t going to happen in 2011. But I can dream…

3 thoughts on “Whither open government in 2011?”

  1. As usual, food for thought. Indigestion today, with Ingrid’s predictionws for breakfast too!

    Your point 5 is where it all needs to be at, IMO. Many elected Members only exist and have their being at formal meetings. Not saying that anything they do at meetings is necessarily wrong, but when you see how many meetings, how large the agendas, and how notional the intellectual engagement that goes on in the name of “debate” etc, I am firmly convinced that the revolution needs to happen eventually. Trouble is, we know that turkeys will never vote for Christmas. And certainly not as soon as 2011.

    Interesting however, that those who once feared (first) opening meetings to the public, and (more recently) webcasting, thought we would see a breed of politicians who would use meetings as a public soapbox for self promotion. Well, if the webcast I saw a couple of weeks ago, showing elected representatives dozing off, while some others wrote Christmas cards, is any guide, those fears were never realised. Time to up the ante? My favourite would be to get politicians out of the service scrutiny role and to put them on the other side of the table, answering accountably to scruting from the public and service users.

    1. Yeah, it strikes me that webcasting and online petitions really are just ways of doing the wrong thing righter. I mean, society has transformed itself several times over the last few decades, yet our local democratic systems remain rooted in the 19th century.

      I spend half my time feeling sorry for councillors for what they have to put up with, and half frustrated that they are unable (or unwilling) to effect the change that could really shake things up for the better. As you say, turkeys and christmas.

  2. Good on you Dave. As they say “be realistic, demand the impossible”. One of the issues to overcoming many of the hurdles are that “those who lack imagination cannot imagine what is lacking” so

    1. Collaboration grows up: People will realise how important informal knowledge is when the people that leave take the conceptual “hard drive” with them and more importantly the relationships they may have made across services with other individuals. Which saved them so much time when they went for a coffee and found out there were working on similar projects and ought to be collaborating. Or when they learnt from a colleague in another organisation who’d applied for a successful bid what tips they could learn to write their own bid. Many people take that collaboration for granted, until the person leaves and suddenly their remaining colleagues don’t know how to cover the job.

    You still need those human relationships, but social media means it’s not just a 1:1 sharing of knowledge, it’s not even a “menage a trois”, it’s everyone that follows you who’s part of the conversation.

    2. Online communities are taken seriously

    Question I would ask is, will online communities take engagement by public servants ? People behind online communities want transparency and honesty about what you can and can’t do. They know you can’t represent the whole organisation and most are fine with that. Ultimately they want you to treat them like human beings and you want you to act like one yourself, not act like a bot.

    3. Technology and innovation works its way up the food chain

    Yes, perhaps by disruption or reaction more than design?

    4. A much needed focus on public sector employees

    Couldn’t agree more, although I am biased

    5. A revolution in local democracy

    This goes beyond local government, until we sort out power inequalities in society, we won’t get a formalised revolution in local democracy. But I think there will be more bottom up democracy & it will be in real time – and more likely than ever be on issues local government has no power over. Councils will therefore need to listen even more than before to feel the community pulse.

    In communities where there is stronger social capital, people will start demanding or creating their own sources of production and power. Councils will need to think much harder about helping communities leverage alternative investment and mentor others to develop those sources together. Where there is weaker social capital, they will need to become stronger advocates to central government and economic actors to bring that investment in.

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