Opinion: Digital local government

The devolution of powers and responsibilities from central to local government – a major commitment of the Coalition – has long been an aspiration of Liberal Democrats.  Centrally-driven, over-prescriptive bureaucracy is bad for democracy. But there is a danger that devolution could result in disenfranchising people if their democratic entitlements are not defined, recognised and upheld.

Before we go any further we need to distinguish between two ways in which residents relate to their local council:

  • Residents are consumers (or users) of local council services.
  • Residents are citizens. They have the right to vote in elections, of course. Beyond that, as Liberal Democrats, we believe that citizens should be empowered to contribute to the debates around local issues that affect them.

Multi-channel Britain

In Digital Britain, the majority of people expect to be able to carry out most of their business online, and those expectations naturally extend to their dealings with local councils.

Some claim that online facilities disadvantage those who do not have, or do not wish to have, access to the Internet. But let us turn this argument on its head. Before online 24/7 interactions became commonplace, many people were denied access to public and commercial services, because they could not conveniently travel to the right place during opening hours.

Typically, online shopping has been of huge benefit to people who work long hours, to the housebound, to disabled people, to rural communities and to those with busy lives.  At the same time, no-one has been denied the opportunity to shop in the High Street, or to order by post or by phone from mail order catalogues.  If a multi-channel approach works for retail then it should also work for councils.

One of the many advantages of providing information and transactions online is that the cost per transaction is greatly reduced. By encouraging as many people as possible to use online services, councils are not only matching the expectations of their residents but are also reducing costs. Offline services should always be protected, however, to ensure that everyone can access services by the method that best fits their needs.

The digital world moves on. The ubiquity of mobile phones, with the growing dominance of smart phones, has largely been ignored by councils. Few council websites offer a mobile version, and only a handful provide phone apps.  This is a channel that should not be ignored.

Residents as consumers

The users, or potential users, of council services need rich information to enable them to make decisions about their own use of those services.  When this is provided online, the pressure on other sources of information is greatly reduced.

In addition to providing information, all councils now allow residents to pay their council tax, parking fines and other bills online, although fewer offer the facility to check council tax balances online as well.  Beyond such basic transactions the picture is somewhat patchy. In a handful of enterprising councils residents can view planning applications, book adult education classes, apply for free school meals, or book tickets for local arts events. Some offer postcode searches for rubbish collections, nearby planning applications and problem reporting.

Residents as citizens

Although the same arguments about online access should apply to the democratic practices of local government, in reality support for residents as citizens is much more uneven.

Citizens need full information about the decision-making processes and about their elected representatives, and this should be provided online as well as offline.  They also need to interact with the processes and with the councillors, through consultations, petitions, involvement in discussions around issues, and by directly contacting councillors. Of those, the only activities which are covered by regulation are planning consultations, although there is still no requirement to offer them online.

e-Government National Projects

From 2003 to 2006 the last Government encouraged English councils to develop online services through the e-Government National Projects.  The 22 projects developed solutions and shared good practice in such areas as online payment, planning applications, procurement, CRM systems and mobile working.  The management of the projects was devolved down to local government, with different lead authorities working on each project. The National Projects led the way both in terms of providing solutions but also in changing the culture in councils.

However, in spite of this peer-led approach, the Labour Government could not resist being prescriptive. They set the ambitious target of having all council services online by the end of 2005, for which they claimed 100% success. The results were clearly fudged, but nevertheless real change did happen.

As the Chair the National Project on Local e-Democracy, I was both excited at the prospect of developing online community democracy and deeply sceptical of the centralising tendencies of the Government. Within our project we set up some 20 mini-projects, each again devolved down to different local authorities. We explored the feasibility of webcasting council meetings, tracking decision making, e-petitioning, and blogging by councillors as well as providing community groups with campaigning tools, and democratic support officers with workflow systems. However, we were adamant that it should be up to each council to decide which tools and methods it wished to use.

At the beginning of the Project I had assumed, rather naively, that all Councils would want to encourage democratic participation by citizens. I soon learned that this was far from the truth. For example, in 2004 a quarter of councils did not afford residents any opportunities to speak at council meetings, and only half of all councils accepted petitions of any sort.

So we found ourselves, somewhat subversively, promoting the underlying values of ‘citizen engagement’. Using online tools as a lever, we forced council officers and councillors to question the extent to which citizens should be involved in decision-making between elections.

Localism Bill

The Localism Act 2011 (still a Bill at the time of writing) is set to repeal two duties on local authorities that were introduced in the Local Democracy, Economic Development and Construction Act of 2009. They are the duty to promote democracy and the provisions for petitions.

The argument is that it should be left to local authorities to decide how they promote democracy, indeed that was the stance that we took in the Local e-Democracy National Project. However, as we discovered, it is difficult to encourage a council to treat residents as citizens, as opposed to consumers of services, if it is not part of their culture and they have no incentive to do so.

This is illustrated by the fate of online petitions. Funded by the National Project, Kingston upon Thames and Bristol were the first local councils in the UK, and probably in the world, to introduce them. Eventually they surfaced in the 2009 Act, which required all councils to introduce online petitions and to create local schemes detailing how all petitions were to be handled. In other words, online petitions would drive universal access to petitioning systems in general.

The 2009 and 2011 Acts have a common fault. Both embody a procedural approach to democracy, and  treat petitions as a potential obligation on local authorities rather than as a right of citizens.  2009 says “you must do it like this”, 2011 says “it’s up to you how you do it”, but neither specifically grants citizens the right to submit a petition to council. Once the provisions have been repealed, councils will have no incentive to support any sort of petitioning process.

Local authority duties or citizen rights?

One of the tasks of central Government is to define and protect the rights of people in relation to public and commercial organisations. They have rights as customers, as patients and as service users. Government does not necessarily have to prescribe the behaviour of providers of services; instead providers can be given the duty of upholding those rights. If the person feels their rights have been violated they can mount a challenge through a complaints or appeal process, or through the civil courts.

But what about their rights as citizens?  These are rarely articulated.

The core right should be for citizens to be able to have an influence on decisions taken by local government that affect them.  This right could be developed through a series of democratic entitlements that take full account of digital access.  Amongst other things, citizens should be entitled:

  • To clear information about local government and the services it provides, (including information about councillors and their activities as elected representatives) in a format that suits the citizen. This would include online access, as well as suitable access for those with a disability, or poor literacy, or those for whom English is not their first language.
  • To carry out transactions with local councils in a format that suits the citizen, whether online, by phone, or in person.
  • To be consulted by the local Council, online and offline, on decisions that affect them directly
  • To make online or offline representation to the local Council, through petitions, direct contact with a councillor, speaking at council meetings and other means, on issues and policies that concern them, and to be given a clear indication of the process by which their views will be considered

Liberal Democrats believe in community politics; we believe that the best decisions are made when citizens are empowered and work with their elected representatives to find solutions to problems. We now need to translate these beliefs into rights and entitlements that make sense in our digital world.

Mary Reid was a councillor in Kingston upon Thames for 13 years and is currently local party chair.

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6 Comments

  • ‘•To clear information about local government and the services it provides, (including information about councillors and their activities as elected representatives) in a format that suits the citizen. This would include online access, as well as suitable access for those with a disability, or poor literacy, or those for whom English is not their first language.
    •To carry out transactions with local councils in a format that suits the citizen, whether online, by phone, or in person.
    •To be consulted by the local Council, online and offline, on decisions that affect them directly
    •To make online or offline representation to the local Council, through petitions, direct contact with a councillor, speaking at council meetings and other means, on issues and policies that concern them, and to be given a clear indication of the process by which their views will be considered’

    Sorry, but isn’t this really just motherhood and apple pie?

    What bothers me here is that there is a bit of join the dots thinking here. This seems to think that citizen involvement = influence – more involvement = more influence, digital = more opportunity for involvement = more opportunity for influence – therefore digital will empower us all.

    The problem is that politics exists outside the digital world. Try getting a council to take on the school run mums who think they have a God given right to double park and clog up most of the town’s streets. (Lib Dem Watford, by the way). We can ask all we like, for good of for bad not much gets done because the school run mums have more clout than the local residents. You can’t reduce the world to an internet connection.

  • Thanks for the thoughtful article Mary.
    It speaks to the priority of local democracy. Your title is instructive – Local Government – I think that’s what councils now think of themselves. More distant and more authoritarian, and rapidly becoming tainted by the attitudes toward central government.

    e-politics is a start on changing this, more crucial is a discussion of appropriate size and powers for local authorities.

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