Local democracy and digital: a new romance

Photo @martin_dtn

Last week I went to Localgovcamp in Bristol.

First of all thanks to everyone who organised and volunteered: You guys are all amazing and you did a fantastic job. It was particularly great to see Lucy Knight as the compère — a true legend of localgovdigital.

As with every unconference, there are a shedload of different ideas to work through, there was, however, one overarching thing fo me:

Local democracy is getting more attention from digital folk than it did before

In previous localgovcamps, myself and other members of the Notwestminster gang, have gone along to fly the flag for local democracy. We’ve had some great conversations and learnt many things, but it tended to be us pitching the ‘democracy session’ and writing the after-event ‘democracy blog post’.

This year it happened all by itself.

Here are my highlights.

Open up data for democracy

In the session on Open Data on day one, hosted by Martin, Lucy and Simon from the Data Place, we heard Martin’s plea for local government to insist on an open data API when procuring data software. This turns out to be a particularly brilliant idea when purchasing committee software as it means that developers outside the council can use the data to create better reports for councillors and better information for citizens.

Involve your councillors in digital

The second session was an informal Q&A with Councillor Peter Fleming. It was brilliant to see a council leader right in the middle of the localgovcamp debates accross the two days. He made the great point that Councillors are not the barrier to digital innovation (despite what some peopl suggest) and suggested that we need to be sceptical of managers who say ‘the councillors won’t wear this’. Actually, if things are pitched right, with a narrtive that works at a human scale, the councillor probably will wear it — don’t forget that they are in the results business at the end of the day.

As Phil Rumens says; we also need more councillors at localgovcamp.

Local government is more than services

In the FutureGov session on data maturity someone pointed out that local government is about democracy not just services and I nearly cheered out loud. Turns out that that someone was the excellent Matt Cain, who is the head of Hacking at Hackney (well, that’s my version of the job title anyhow) and it was great to meet him afterwards. The many likes to my tweet about that tells me that the sentiment is widely shared.

Councillors can be your user researchers

The FutureGov session also reminded me that councillors could be more involved in the digital design process as user researchers. A short conversation with Peter Fleming afterwards comfirmed this as he shared a great example of how councillors had managed to rework a community transport service that could no longer be supported by the council; primarily it was in-depth conversations with the people that used the service that had made the difference.

Now I don’t know if this would have been called user research, but it shows how councillors are actually very good at talking to the community, they have good networks and plenty of useful knowledge. The other important benefit is that councillors will be much more knowledgeable when it comes to signing off the proposals that come out of any process.

Redesign the relationship with scrutiny

One of the sessions I got to on the Saturday was with the wonderful Jonathan Flowers who wanted to talk about how scrutiny worked with digital. It led to a really interesting discussion about how local government scrutiny and digital/agile processes might be talking past eaxch other. For me the solution is for design techniques to be applied to the scrutiny/digital relationship to see if we can’t meet the user needs on both sides better. In any case it seems a case of ‘we can’t go on meeting like this’.

Oh, and Jonathan got us to spend a really useful last 10 minutes thinking about what questions scrutiny councillors should ask about digital. You can find them in his session notes here.

Help your local cabinet member!

The other Saturday session definitely worth a mention was with Neil Prior. Recently elected and made a cabinet member, Neil wanted to ask advice on how he might affect change. It was great to see the conversation that followed and maybe it’s a conversation that all cabinet members with responibility for digital should be having with the digital folk in their own councils?

Anyhow, my summary of the advice for Neil was; talk to staff, work with the keen beans, set out clear aims, give permission, change policies. Good luck Neil — I’m sure you will do a great job.

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So, it seems that the the connection between local democracy and digital is getting closer. I think they might have something special going on.