News and Comment

25th anniversary guest blog series: A digital future for local government must be shaped by the communities we serve

Tuesday 17 March 2015

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I recently got into a mini spat on Twitter with a Member of Parliament who sits on the Speaker’s Digital Democracy Commission (DDC) before giving evidence at the House of Commons on the changing nature of representation in a digital age.

The MP in question had proudly tweeted:

‘Debate on @digidemocracyuk tomorrow! First time public allowed to text/tweet live from debate’

I couldn’t resist reminding said MP that since the involvement of the Department for Communities and Local Government Minister, tweeting from local government meetings is actively encouraged alongside Blogging and Vlogging and all associated acts of audio and video recording. This approach to digital contrasted sharply with my experience in the Committee room of the House of Commons, where the use of social media was otherwise prohibited.

Then a few weeks ago I found myself as part of a very earnest group of individuals looking at the possibility of a Local Government Digital Service. The debate centred on the lack of skills in local government and the need for a uniform approach to digital across the sector. I along with others in the room cried foul – the debate like so many before it was at risk of being dominated by those whose raison d’etre were the platforms and code that sit behind the systems we use.

Where was the voice of the user, the citizen, the resident at this meeting? Why were we looking at the nuts and bolts and not the shape of the services we provide? What are the needs and wants of the people we serve? Cue the predictable verbal navel gazing and the admission by some around the table that had been present at a similar meeting almost a decade before that perhaps this time the wrong people had been invited.

The link between these two stories is that central Government, in the first instance represented by the Westminster village heavy Digital Democracy Commission, and in the second by Government Digital Services and their acolytes, have tried to shape both the meaning and form of ‘Digital Democracy’ and the view of how local government should use digital.

As a localist I’m hopeful that digital will become an area where we see the accelerated departure of local from central government, but I’m not holding my breath. We remain one of the most centralised democracies on earth – Westminster politicians appear paralysed when reaching any decision that distinguishes between regions, while the devolution debate is framed either around English votes for English laws or massive combined authorities.

I believe there is a window of opportunity for councils to lay down their own digital future. If successful I hope this hastens a loosening of central control, but this can and should only happen if that digital future is shaped and formed by the communities we serve.

Peter Fleming is the Leader of Sevenoaks Council, Chairman of the Local Government Association’s Improvement Board and is the LGA’s National Lead Member on Welfare Reform. He also serves on the executive of the District Council’s Network.

Cllr Fleming was an expert contributor to the Speaker’s Commission on Digital Democracy and spoke at OPM’s Kai Rudat memorial seminar on The Role of Digital in Local Participation.

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About the series

OPM is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, and as a public interest organisation, we’ve always contributed to the debate about the future of public services.

With this and the next general election in mind, we’ve asked a number of senior thinkers to give their views on the challenges and opportunities facing public services and society in the near future.

This is one of a series of guest blogs, which we’ll be adding to in the coming weeks and months. To read previous posts in the series, go to our news and comment page.