Thursday, 29 January 2015

In which I commit local government heresy but try not to be a complete Cnut about it.

There is of course both an imperative and an inevitability that local government and local councillors will embrace digital technologies and social media and work with them much more. As to whether this represents a bright future for local councils and local democracy and also a bright future for the existing model of local councillors, there exists a strong argument to the contrary.

It is certainly not the case that all parties shouldn't be doing all these exciting new things. While further pondering the role of the 21st century councillor and what he/she/it might look like, something done in countless seminars, debates and publications over the last ten years, One begins to wonder whether we should be asking the more fundamental question, 'do councillors have a role in the digital world?', could they even go the way of the 'cash payment office', the 'weekly collection' and the town crier?

As councillors have, albeit perilously slowly, picked up the tools of the digital world and dragged themselves into the 21st century, councils as organisations have themselves done the same. As have the public, who are engaging across more and more channels often in unexpected ways with services, politics and politicians. And herein lies the problem for elected members: now that councils are so open, responsive, accessible and communicative, the public are increasingly empowered and enabled to do the things they used to expect of local elected members. In effect, to ask a more positive question, 'won't everyone be their own 21st century councillor?'

Looking across three key areas which have defined the Local Councillors role; Casework Advocacy, Decision-Making and Community Leadership there are arguments to be made for an enhanced role for the citizen and a diminished role for the elected representative in all of them as a result of the digital council and the social web.

Increased customer service standards, something local government has focussed sharply on for many years have reduced the traditional role of the local member in taking up casework around things like responsiveness, communication and service complaints. While it was easier, 10 years ago, to pick up the phone to your local councillor if your bin was missed, some new graffiti had appeared or a council communication contained some perplexing or inflexible position statement, now the public have all the channels they could want to contact the council themselves. The procedures to follow are detailed and clear. When the explosion of council call centres happened, local councillors were quick to see the change in number and type of case contacts they were receiving. Now the public can call/email/tweet the council, specific department or even the appropriate officer. They can do this from wherever they are, at anytime and usually receive a quicker response. Cutting out (or at least reducing the number of) 'councillor referrals' for issues with the council services from the complaints and queries system in this way, is positively encouraged by council organisations who are committed to claiming high quality customer care. In many cases it is a specific performance measure of the council complaints process. And as available as councillors seek to be, with their previous USP of 'locality', they simply cannot compete with the 24 hour accessibility of the web.

For those who would say that not having a local councillor as final arbiter or to take up their issues could deny the service user an important mechanism for raising or escalating their problems, consider the world beyond local government. Important services such as banking, healthcare, utilities, further/ higher education, increasing numbers of schools, private housing, increasing numbers of social housing providers and a growing catalogue of outsourced public services operating beyond local authority control already function (with various degrees of success) without elected representatives as local ombudsmen. Even where services are still commissioned by councils, responsiveness to complaints and queries and general functions of customer service are now written in to the contracts, customer satisfaction is a 'KPI'. And citizens have other options when not satisfied, all more easily accessible in the digital world: Several of these external service areas have well established advocacy support already, Tenants and Residents associations for example provide the expertise and support in housing matters that many councillors already refer constituents to for casework issues. Health similarly has governorship models and Schools and Education have long established models of local governance which provide for advocacy and impartial support in casework type issues. There also exist many more appeal and ombudsman services and structures than were previously available, further offering direct citizen access to their own service queries and disputes.

Though casework is the core function for most elected councillors, it is not the only role, what about the influence on policy direction and formal decision making? Albeit, already an area most frontline (backbench) councillors feel is increasingly remote from them after successive reforms, it is more than ever a process open to all. The drive to get the general public and specific service users more involved in decision making has only been made possible by the proliferation of digital channels. There is also an increasing imperative to consult on every conceivable aspect of public service from budgets to planning, priorities to contracts, commissioning to performance. Returning to the issue of outsourced and private provider services, influence on policies has already been much diminished over a number of years. Even commissioned services can reduce councillor input into policy to as little as a five-yearly contract review. Of much greater impact is the threat of the public to switch provider (voting with feet or wallet, market forces and competition etc. basic economic stuff) or where that is not possible, claiming punitive compensation (as with highways repair/pothole damage for example) or even savaging the all important 'organisational reputation' of a provider, often using online methods, until they adopt new ways of working. Unelected campaigners in motoring groups, consumer groups, parents groups, even the dreaded 'Tax Payers Alliance' now regularly chastise services directly via media old and new.

Only those citizens willing to take the time to write in formally or to lobby their local councillors or attend a Tuesday meeting in the rain at some local community hall (if they even got to hear about it happening) would previously have had a practical input into decision making, now it can be as easy as a click. Having access and input to meetings has never been more widespread; webcasting, online documentation, social media reportage have all found their way into the existing decision making arena. The recent review by the speaker of the House of Commons included proposals for the public to engage directly with debates in the commons chamber via social media, something a few councils have already attempted at local level. Questions/comments submitted by the public or online are certainly finding their way onto meeting agenda as a common standing item. E-voting, as noted in the above mentioned review is inevitable, having been adopted in many countries further trials around the world have included not just formal elections but issue referenda too. The concept of the crowd-sourced decision may not yet be a formal referendum technique but that day grows ever closer. Certainly the policy influence is already there, with the strength of the web as a campaigning tool, much claimed and reported, gathering signatories to a petition or organising a letter/email deluge to object to a plan or support a proposal is easier than ever before.

And it is this ease of mobilisation which strikes at perhaps the most fundamental role of the local councillor. The role which we are encouraged by political parties, think-tanks and even some academics to focus on for our future, Community Leadership.

One of the strengths of the local member is in being the focal point for local intelligence, they have always known their local area and the issues therein as well as, if not better than, anyone else. Thanks to the accessibility of information on the web, citizens can check a Facebook page or local media outlet or any number of independent local or hyperlocal community sites which may inform them about the locality, engage them with an issue, explain the problem or show them how common or widespread their position on a local matter is. And they can have their say right there, whenever and wherever the want, not just in a one to one chat with their councillor like they may have at a traditional surgery, but with the added weight of their fellow local citizens. This enables group forming and community building. Social forums can provide a sort of 'mandate' of the collective community that used to be the sole purview of the local elected councillor. The mandate of having been elected has remained the unique and strong position for councillors, empowering them to speak for a community and forcing others to listen. It was a position nobody else could claim and nobody else could exercise. The relative weakness of electoral turnouts has already made this claim vulnerable and the growth of the online forum challenges it completely, potentially making it open to all. A well organised web campaign, encapsulated in an online forum can have more supporters than most councillors had voters. Who then claims the right to be the 'voice of the people?' When the community can all speak for themselves and each other, when they have a single platform on which they can all stand, why do they need an elected spokesperson?

So, can everyone be a caseworker, decision maker or community leader when we eventually and inevitably achieve the full potential of the digital world? Isn't that the point? And what, when everyone, elected or not, can do as much or as little of all these things as they want, will be the USP of the existing model of the local councillor?

Now, before anyone rushes off with these questions ringing in their ears to demand a radical reduction in the number of councillors (What? Already?), we are nowhere near there yet. The limited percentage uptake of online engagement methods continues to limit any wholesale change. In fact, with the public disengagement from, disinterest in and dislike of all things political we are pulling in the opposite direction with the same force as technology is driving us forward. Many more things need to be in place to provide for these and other councillor functions, and the public will certainly miss us currently if we are not there. Even the e-voting revolution has stalled in many places, Norway for example dropped a three year pilot scheme because it singularly failed to deliver increased participation. It may not be much of a USP to say, 'Well, somebody has to do this stuff when nobody else wants to', it is nevertheless true.

I will, regardless of these concerns, continue to extol and encourage the seizing of all these amazing opportunities to bring local governance closer to everyone via the digital future. Not simply because to do otherwise would be to stand before an inevitable tide like a 21st century King Cnut, but because where it leads us, at least in theory, is a better place, with more open and responsive services, stronger and more engaged communities and a better and more populous democratic landscape.

And if it really does means the end of the local councillor as we know it, then I guess I am Councillor Turkey, standing as candidate for the Christmas Party.

Then again, when wondering what a 21st century councillor really looks like, I'll still start by looking in the mirror. It is just that everyone else may well be doing the same thing.

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