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Tom Barrance

Is there an appetite for more change in local government? In particular change that could challenge local council’s traditional relationships with the public, and how Councils conduct their business?

Drawing inspiration from the revolutionary changes enabled by the development of the collaborative web (web2.0) in the worlds of retail and peer to peer networking, a number of technologists and democrats have sought to harness the power of technology to make government better and democracy stronger by leveraging the power of citizens. Can Gov2.0 live up to the hype and deliver real transformation to local government in the UK; and will government open the door to these changes?

The Gov2.0 vision of an improved council is drawn from the underlying belief that more citizen choice and participation is a good thing, and that for this to happen citizens need access to information (open and transparent government). This vision runs contrary to James Madison’s view, which has dominated the structure of modern liberal democracy, that the election of representatives serves to refine and enhance the public debate. Rather it is argued that the representative system serves to undermine public understanding of the issues in favour of the party platform and sound bite politics. A lack of public information serves to obscure “true” organisational activity and behaviour, allowing waste to go unchallenged.

The harnessing of technology and of collaborative networks  makes access to large amounts of information, and open public debate possible; but also opens the door to another significant area of change, the use of publicly available information to develop and deliver services independently. Examples of this can be seen in the City of New York 311 apps competition, with applications based on public data delivering public services ranging from advice to urban poultry farmers to city emergency planning. These are not City services, rather community services facilitated by publication of public data. The development of community based services hosted and facilitated by local government shifts the Council to a position of being a platform provider, not just a service provider.

Making use of collaborative technology is not an untested idea in the arena of public policy. The use of social media in the reform of the Icelandic constitution in 2012 shows how people can engage and be part of a topic that would otherwise be restricted to the chosen few. More views and opinions produce better policies. Contrary to this, it may be argued that the public neither know enough, nor care enough about the day-to-day functioning of local government services, that they will not understand the technical details sufficiently to make decisions. Ignoring for now the patronising nature of these arguments that suggest that engagement in the process requires training and should therefore be restricted to a technocracy, the nature of mass involvement is that the question at hand is viewed from a diversity of perspectives, rather than just the limited perspective of the expert and elected representative.

The notion of a transformational change represents an appeal to a grand narrative of perfection. Transformation is an idea that is underscored by a belief that change will result in something which is “better” than before. This belief in a singular “better” future has driven the recent history of changes in the structure and organisation of local government. Rarely, however, do changes proposed seek to harness the citizen, rather than altering the organisational structure. That is perhaps the major difference between Gov2.0 and its predecessors such as New Public Management. Rather than being an appeal to the notion of singular perfection, Gov2.0 is an appeal via the citizen, to the bespoke – community government made by the public for the locality.

Gov2.0 is a set of ideas, which if implemented have the  power and the potential to transform the relationship between local government and those it serves, it can open up the development of policy and services to a wider audience, and allow the sunlight of transparency to shine in areas that have been hidden in the shadows. If the political will exists then Gov2.0 can make local government everybody’s business, not just the preserve of a chosen few.

tom b

Tom Barrance is a part time Doctoral Researcher looking at Gov 2.0 in UK Local Government, and full time Business Analyst/Project Manager at the London Borough of Hackney. He has worked in the public sector for the past 13 years, at a number of different local councils in a range of roles in Economic Development, business change and delivering ICT solutions.

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