About Me

Full-time husband and dad, Head of Governance and Democratic Services at Kirklees Council. Passionate about democracy, local government, Sheffield United, my mountain bike and punk rock. Views here are my own

Friday, 11 April 2014

Local Democracy - Rewiring or Redesigning?

This post is an accumulation of thoughts following a series of events over the last few weeks.  As often happens in life things seem to come together all at once to disrupt the status quo and in particular challenge your own thinking.  This has certainly been the case for me in the context of local government, and in particular local democracy - now and in the future.

It all began when I attended the National Local Government Network (NLGN) Conference in February with my LocalGov Digital hat on.  Whilst the venue was the Magic Circle (an incredible place by the way) if the contributions of the main political parties are anything to go by I feel there will be little by way of magic for local government in the years ahead.  All major parties were present but I was left feeling somewhat underwhelmed by them all. For me the general sub text was that the challenging times will continue and that whilst there is often talk of devolution of power, a different relationship etc it seems to boil down to the simple truth that local government is not a vote winner for the major parties.  The panel in the afternoon all agreed on that.

Despite this I left the conference on a high.  This was because, for the first time in a while, I got a sense of determination and energy from the sector.  The audience spoke of redesign, transformation, systems thinking, collaboration, innovation.  Out of context these can be empty words but I got a distinct sense that local government is "up for" the challenges it faces and is prepared to meet them in a different way.  Ideally this will be with the support of government, but if not it will still happen.  This was most evident to me in the closing piece by Simon Parker from the NLGN whose organisation clearly has a significant role to play in supporting the sector in ensuring that they are not empty words.  Really good stuff.

All of this bodes well for what we are trying to do with and across the local government family with LocalGov Digital.  If evidence is needed of events coming together then look no further than the NLGN Publication - Smart People Smart Places - which was issued a few weeks later.  If more evidence were needed, it makes the growing case for digital as an enabler and acknowledges the role LocalGov Digital has in making this happen.

Fast forward four weeks.  The setting is Edinburgh where the Commission on Strengthening Local Democracy is hosting a Roundtable discussion.  The theme is Digital Democracy.  I have been invited to attend, once again, with my LocalGov Digital hat on.  Representing the collective efforts of some great people is in itself an honour.  With this in mind, a big shout out to Dave McKenna - @Localopolis - with whom I co-lead the Rewiring Local Democracy work stream.

Before I go any further I have to congratulate the Commission on their work.  What they are doing is intrinsically a great thing.  They are coming from the starting point that democracy is valuable, something that we should cherish, nurture and develop.  It is our unique selling point, a feature which sets us apart.  I applaud the Commission for having the bravery to both recognise this and do something about it.  Can we have one please?

The discussion that took place was insightful, challenging, sometimes robust, enlightening and thought provoking.  You can view it in glorious techni-colour here so I wont go into the detail.  The areas that really nudged my own thinking were the challenges generally faced by representative local democracy in the context of a less paternalistic model of local government and the "system" of local democracy in a 21st century / digital age.  Is rewiring local democracy the golden bullet, the panacea that will re-engage local citizens with the voting system, stimulate active citizens, transform accountable decision making?  OR, as Dominic Campbell of FutureGov says,  is it about redesigning the system of democracy, starting again with digital as one (of many) enablers.  It has to be more than bolting digital onto existing systems.  When Dominic described the democratic part of local government as the most important but the most impenetrable it did shake my thinking on a number of levels.  Is this the case?  If so,why?  I don't have all the answers, but as a believer, supporter and active officer who operates in that part of local government it is something I care about.

The final chapter in this lengthy post came yesterday.  The Steering Group met at the Government Digital Service offices.  The experience alone was a massive eye opener.  The culture, focus, leadership and working practices of the team are something to behold.  There appears to be a genuine environment where systems and design thinking takes place in an agile way - "it's about show not tell", "change by doing, not by writing" (brilliant).  I am sure that my Steering Group colleagues will share their insights separately.  For me the clear message I took away was the need for Chief Executives and senior politicians across local government to understand and lead transformation.  The GDS template is a powerful one from which they (and we) could learn.  GDS clearly have high level leadership buy in, and the autonomy that allows them to deliver in a really effective way.

So what does all this lot mean?

1.  I think there is a real appetite for transformation across the sector.  Necessity is the mother of invention etc but it feels like more than that.  Perhaps its the hopeless romantic in me.
2.  Local democracy is massively important, but it feels like it's at a bit of a crossroads.  Do we continue to ignore our unique selling point and the changes around us or move to a position where we treat it with the attention it deserves?  Is this best done within councils or something that demands a sector-led debate?  I can't help but think that Dominic has a point.  IT IS ABOUT REDESIGN
3.  Digital has a place in local democracy and I remain convinced (linked to the outcome of 2 above) that the work we are doing as part of LocalGov Digital can continue to make a positive difference.  We will carry on influencing, finding best practice, sharing ideas and collaborate with the likes of GDS to keep this bandwagon rolling forward.  IT IS ABOUT REWIRING
4.  Harnessing the appetite in point (1) requires leadership and the bravery to do things differently.  Political and officer leadership are essential in determining what happens next and how.  I'd recommend a day trip to GDS for starters.

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