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?

8 thoughts on “Local Government — does the ‘Government’ bit matter?

  1. Half-thought. The motivation for using stuff like Get Satisfaction is that even if the company isn’t listening others might be and can answer your problems or help flesh out the idea / complaint. It’s a gathering tool as much as a feedback tool.

    GS is sort of just a forum really with customer service widgets. Is it any different to Martin Mullaney’s Moseley mailing list?

    http://groups.yahoo.com/group/moseley/

  2. No, I don’t think it is different, except that it focuses debate around issues a little more — and is easier to get information in and out.

    Plus it’s not owned by anyone, but people with “power to change” can identify themselves as such a little easier. I think it pushes stuff to the top in a way a mailing list doesn’t, but theoretically it’s no different to a meeting in a room to which elected officials are openly invited to but may or may not turn up.

  3. It’s a shame that no BCC ‘members’ were at LocalGovCamp, and I say that as a councillor myself. It’s a fairly crap excuse, but it was a Saturday and I wasn’t in Birmingham. Next time there’s a similar event on (and pref in the evening), then I’ll do my best to be there. There are some councillors, amazingly, who don’t even use email. There’s also a growing minority who are relatively tech savvy and with the right kind of approach I think they’d be interested.

  4. Birmingham (Disclosure: that’s where I work, as website manager) is governed, in part, as 10 Constituencies. Maybe that’s a suitable level of granularity?

    The MySociety tool, HearFromYourMP, works in steps of 25, not 50, but that’s my bad – 50 is what I said, from memory, on Saturday.

  5. defintiely go with getsatisfaction – worth considering the recipients view (the council) it at least gives them a machine with rules etc that they can relate to. that gives a public body important confidence

    the ability of others to help also assists something called NI14 a requirement on the council to reduce ‘avoidable contact’, that is make sense the first time so that people don’t have to contact you.

    for a good example of professional crowdsourcing of tricky problems see the glorious discussion forum here on benefits cases
    http://www.rightsnet.org.uk/dc/dcboard.php

    it is just a forum but you can call it crowdsourcing i guess

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