I had a smashing time at LocalGovCamp on Saturday, so thanks to Dave Briggs and the organising team — and everyone that came and embraced the unconference aspect of it. As someone who does a lot of work around how people organise themselves around place and area I often come into contact with Councils and their ideas. Sometimes the thought is to work with them as much as possible, sometimes to just get on with whatever you think needs doing, and sometimes to do something that they (it seems) just aren’t happy with. Work like the Big City Talk project is a combination of all three.

It was welcome for me to talk to people from all parts of the Council machine, everyone there was enthused about the possibilities of social media — in fact a lot of the talk in the sessions I attended revolved around how to either drive take-up within the organisations or to speed up the process of using it, or to shift perceptions.

Towards the end of the day, the people for whom even an unconference is too structured gathered to have an “un-panel” a session lead by no-one, with no focus. That said, the talk soon turned to the lack from engagement for politicians (or “members” as I now usefully know council officers call them).  There were two local MPs (Tom Watson & Sion Simon) in attendance, and at least one Councillor from Coventry, but despite Birmingham City Council as an organisation being supportive of the event no local Councillors — and that was the starting point for an interesting discussion about how to encourage that. Or to use a slightly less polite term “force” it.

Andy Mabbett pointed out a tool from MySociety that allows gentle pressure on MPs to force them to use email. It’s interesting as it waits until there is a body of people requesting the engagement (50? I’m sure Andy will correct me if I’m wrong) before contacting the MP in question. Could there be a local councillor version of that? What would the threshold have to be? Would it work?

I thought about using Get Satisfaction, a service with which I tried a little experiment for Birmingham City Council as a whole. That didn’t really come off, as I didn’t publicise it at all and the concept was very new. But I’m now thinking that it didn’t come off beacuse of scale.

To expect “the council” to engage with something as potentially monolithic as “people powered customer support”is a little difficult. At a ward level though, there are people in who’s interest it is to engage: Councillors. Now, of course many already do engage in all sorts of different ways, some even electronically on occasion. But to have the comments, questions, complaints and praise out in the open is a huge step forward.

As I said before:

“Of course lots of problems that we have with products or services aren’t really problems (or are well know and documented) – in these instances other users are happy to help (very much like unofficial forums for software). ‘Users’ are also welcome to point out possible solutions to anything – and of course they do … imagine time saved by council[ors]… if knowledgeable citizens helped answer questions, imagine the resources available”

The added bonus here is that the information and questions have people that are elected to help deal with them, Councillors could treat it as part of a “online surgery” to answer residents questions. Or their political opponents could do, much in the same way as all people standing for local council will claim responsibility for anything good happening.

Or maybe, just maybe we’d find that the community could deal with many of the problems itself and we don’t need the councillors quite so much.

So I’ve set one up for Moseley & King’s Heath in Birmingham where I live (as a product of Birmingham City Council, which may or may not be the best way to do it) – and this time I’m going to publicise it & see what happens.

Will we find out that “local” is enough and “local government” isn’t the answer to everything?