This morning saw the publication of Socitm’s Better Connected 2011 report (which the Guardian reported on here). It concluded that ‘most councils still do not recognise digital delivery as faster and more convenient for the public as well as cheaper for the taxpayer’.
As councils across the country are setting their most difficult budgets in recent history, it is worth taking the issue of digital delivery back to the beginning and asking again, what problem is the incorporation of web2.0 technologies trying to solve and why is the practice worth pursuing?
First, long term social challenges such as climate change, social cohesion, mass migration or ageing populations are characterised by their complexity, scale and unpredictability. These are not problems that government can solve for us. They will require individuals and communities to work together to find sustainable solutions. (More on this can be found in the Independent Ageing report we launched today.)
Second, we are in an era of severely constrained public finances. This is not only reducing the scope of services that the state delivers, but requiring us as citizens to play a more collaborative role in the provision of these services.
Finally, past revelations over MPs expenses and current headlines on council chief executives pay have created public outrage and seem to have crystallised an increasing dissatisfaction with our system of representative democracy and the concentration of power in the hands of a governing class.
These challenges generate a series of fundamental questions: about the nature of citizenship, about the role of the state, about rights and responsibilities and about how we live together. Responding to them will require us to find new ways of working and living together, new forms of connection and new models of civic organisation.
The answers to these can, in part, come through more efficient and effective digital delivery of council services. The Better Connected report found that information, use of links and transactions with council websites increased.
As Socitm President Jon Creese says ‘The web is no longer about technology. It is about delivering lower cost services designed around the user’. But, according to the report, it is unfortulocalnately this ‘consumer first’ approach which is sometimes still lacking – all is not full steam ahead to transparent and open government.
The report found a 24% decreases in council websites being reliable and up to date, a 12% deterioration of newsworthiness and significant decline (25%) in levels of participation in council policies and decision making. The very things that Mark Pack identified on this blog as being crucial if council websites are going to start delivering the information that better helps people play a collaborative role with councils.
These figures suggest then that we are still some way from realising the full potential of these new opportunities that technology is offering. The core challenge now is to find ways for different spheres of democratic engagement to work together to produce a vibrant civic sphere. Here are some individual examples that I find interesting and feel are worth sharing.
In Kirklees CC, 800 people watched a webcast of last week’s council meeting
LB Sutton are experimenting with deliberative services such as the Sutton Council Consultation Finder and Speak Out Sutton.
Nearly 900 people have signed up to receive regular updates about gritting, disruption to services from weather, via a Facebook page set up by Blackburn and Darwent Borough Council.
Interestingly, in areas that aren’t so digitally-thinking as these, individual councillors are stepping, leading by example and driving the council forward.
Cllr James Barber – was recognised as ‘Online Councillor the Year’ after establishing a presence on a citizen-run website – basically conducting online surgeries with constituents.
Cllr Daisy Benson – maintains an active blog that updates residents on anything from funds to fix pot holes to round-ups of questions and answer session on adult social care.
Cllr James Cousins – mapped locations of all grit-bins in the borough when the snow started falling last December.
All of the examples aim to raise awareness of council actions and deliver information faster, cheaper and more conveniently to the user than previous ways of doing things.
As the report states, there is no one size fits all solution – what worked in these examples won’t necessarily work anywhere else. Indeed some local authorities should be cautious when moving towards greater digital deliver of services – as this story from Hackney illustrates. Better Connected also suggests that some councils should be thinking beyond digital and planning for more mobile based information delivery (as I’ve blogged before, mobile data traffic has increased 2000% since 2008). As Creese says, ‘each council website should be designed around the local community’ – complimenting and reflecting the areas digital ecosystem.
More information on transparency, open government and digital delivery can be found on the new Making A Difference With Data website – http://www.madwdata.org.uk/. The site includes a Local Authority section, which I edit along with Ingrid Koehler