Getting the politics right for reform

Matthew Taylor, former No 10 policy wonk, has an interesting article on his blog about public service reform. He rightly says that finances over the next few years are both a huge challenge to public services, but also an opportunity to make real change happen. That won’t come about, he says, without a change in the national political culture, starting from the top:

There are far too many ministers, all of whom think it is their job to generate initiatives; ideas are allowed to be developed and launched without any reference to those at the front line; change management and the time it takes is not treated seriously; there is complete lack of realism about how far the centre’s intended messages actually reach; civil servants fail to see or warn (or be allowed to warn) their masters that every new target or piece of guidance had an adverse impact on all these existing targets and instructions (not to mention local morale).

No disrespect to Matthew, but this is a very technocratic argument. The idea that there should be fewer ministers is perhaps not a bad one – though it needs to happen alongside a more powerful and independent Commons and a reformed Lords. No matter how many Ministers there are, however, they will still be put on a spot on the Today programme and asked to make a commitment that “[bad thing] will never be allowed to happen again.”

There are certainly real opportunities for reform in the fiscal squeeze that’s ahead. The barrier to transformation, though, is not hyperactive Ministers who don’t let technocrats manage, it’s an immature political dialogue in which the media and the public create and feed off outrage and disgust, while politicians sit on top of the bureaucracy and try to placate the beast.

This is a local government problem as much as a national government one. Anyone who has seen parents protesting about school places or attended a controversial meeting of the planning committee will understand that.

If the spending cuts to come are not to create more disaffection and anger, they can’t be done behind closed doors. They need to be discussed openly, in public, and real choices have to be set out clearly, not decided and then ‘consulted upon’.

People should have the chance to see the books, and have intermediaries more trusted than journalists to explain to them what the choices are. They then need to be able to express an opinion more nuanced than ‘I want everything for free’.

Creating the circumstances in which this can happen is part of a widening and deepening of active citizenship that is essential if the political world is to catch up with what today’s citizens expect.

I’m not so naive as to think that this level of openness will appear in the twelve months before a general election, although it would be nice to think that it could. Afterwards, though, if Labour or the Conservatives are really serious about localism and democratic reform, a big conversation, not a Big Conversation, needs to be created.

No longer a pipe dream

Here’s Will Davies on how what used to pass for blue skies thinking is now just down and dirty:

“When David Cameron declared the need for a new constitutional settlement recently, quite a bit of this was based on the capabilities of new technologies such as youtube and text messaging. Leaving aside the overall quality of his vision, I was struck by how credible and necessary this exploitation of digital technology suddenly appeared. Prior to this constitutional crisis, the e-democracy movement had preached e-this, e-that, cyber-parliament, the Big Conversation, a civic commons – none of which ever acquired any political plausibility. It operated in a rhetorical realm in which ‘participation’ and ‘interactivity’ could be celebrated to the heavens, without ever imperilling a decrepit parliamentary system.”

Here’s an illustration. less than a fortnight ago, my kids came home with a letter in their bags saying that the school was considering ending the school day 15 minutes earlier than the current time, and that this change would take place in September. A short consultation period would follow the letter and the governing body would be making a decision … about now.

I ran into half-a-dozen parents that evening at a school play. They were fuming. The consultation period was over the half-term, and it all looked like a done-deal.

Now, as it transpired, I”m prepared to believe that the school was acting in perfectly good faith. The plan had come up quite late in the school year, there was a lot of enthusiasm for it among the staff for good professional reasons. There were a number of reasons why they really needed to get it in place by September. The consultation time-frame was unavoidable.

The parents I met were going to organise over the half term. A few of them are fairly tech-savvy (there’s already a TXT tree), but I’m the one with the reputation on that score and after a few phone-calls, a site was established using a Ning group.

Someone from the PTA has a list of mobile numbers for parents and a text message went around within a day or so. Soon after, the number of registrants to the site had climbed past 50 to it’s current number (74 as I write – not bad for a primary school).

The ensuing discussion was heated. More than 20 people contributed lengthy responses to the consultation – lots of evidence, research, even a spreadsheet of comparisons with other schools and an attempt to cross-reference school hours against performance was loaded up to the site.

A few parents questioned the motives of the teaching staff. Others even questioned their competence. By the time the open meeting started to discuss the event, the senior teachers were struggling to hide their outrage. Some of it was justifiable – feelings were hurt, reputations had been called into question.

They were also slightly baffled. Other schools had done the same thing with their timetables over recent years without a peep from the parents. Now, thanks to the ease of networking, and the convening power that we all can wield using free applications, they were having to offer detailed powerpoint presentations to a well-prepared (and often hostile) bunch of parents.

I’d guess that more than 50 attended the meeting, and I’m waiting to hear what the governing body has decided in the end.

The school now has a growing online community of parents who can ask any questions they like. I’m not convinced that it will make the school any better managed. It may make it worse. It may reward the time-rich Victors. The teachers may feel battered by this experience and think twice before making potentially controversial decisions. They often work 10-12 hour days and weekends to-boot, and they have a right to have grievances against them handled in an orderly, confidential way (web-forums are bad at this).

But of one thing I’m sure: Someone would have set up that site if I hadn’t done. I hope that I did it according to Mick’s advice (it’s now got a set of ‘play the ball not the man’ rules and a moderation policy).

This is the kind of participation that a lot of e-democracy projects would have spend £tens of thousands on a few short years ago. Now, they’re so simple, it’s easier to do them than not do them. Local public servants are starting to get a sense of what MPs and the BBC have felt in recent months.

Empower failure

According to the Municipal Journal, the UK Government has abandoned plans to introduce a Community Empowerment Bill, which would have implemented some parts of the Communities in Control White Paper.

According to the Commons authorities, the Bill would have enabled remote voting in Council meetings, reduced the barriers to introducing an elected mayor, change the definition of politically restricted posts, reform the office of alderman, and modernise the law relating to parish councils.

It is not known whether these provisions will be taken forward in any other way.

Eating the Elephant

An Elephant yesterday. Best eaten a bit at a time. (Image: Wikimedia Commons - click for credit)

An Elephant yesterday. Best eaten a bit at a time. (Image: Wikimedia Commons - click for credit)

Shorter version: Often, the minor technical obstacles mask a wider small-p political obstructionism to the promotion of a more interactive form of government.

Having written this post about the small obstacles to open e-gov a few weeks ago, Tim Davies got such a comprehensive response in his comments thread that he’s rolled them out into a wiki.

The idea that there are ’50 small hurdles’ is a very powerful one – it enables those who want to move small mountains to understand that it can be done in the same way that an Elephant can be eaten: A bit at a time.

I think that Tim has missed an important one out, but I’m reluctant to break the symmetry and tidiness of the ’50’ number. It’s an important one though, and probably a bit less straightforward than the obstacles that Tim has identified, so the omission is understandable:

Promoting interactivity between local government and citizens is a thorny one. It presents a huge amount of potential for disruption. Nominally, under our political settlement, elected councillors are the ones that formally do policy. Continue reading

Steady state on citizenship stats

The England Citizenship Survey for April – December 2008 was published the other day by CLG (pdf, Excel data). Overall, despite the onset of the financial crisis, attitudes to and participation in politics don’t seem to have changed much.

A few headlines:

  • Only one fifth of people (22%) feel that they can influence decisions taken by national government, though two-fifths (39%) think they can influence decisions taken in their local area. 2001 (an election year) had higher numbers, but since then these figures have been stable, only moving a point or two each survey.
  • Also stable were statistics on participation. 10% of people had engaged in ‘civic activism’ (being a magistrate, school governor, councillor or in other way being directly involved in decision making). 20% had taken part in a consultation or completed a questionnaire about public services. 38% had taken part in a demonstration or protest, signed a petition or contacted an elected representative.
  • Taking part in demos, signing petitions or contacting elected representatives was least prevalent among the 16-24 age group. Only 23% of them had done that during the preceding twelve months, compared to 38% for the population as a whole.

There were some interesting results in the breakdown by ethnicity:

  • White people were by far the most pessimistic about their ability to influence events, but were also much more likely to sign petitions, contact elected representatives or respond to consultations.
  • At national level, 39% of non-white respondents thought they could influence things, compared to only 20% of whites. At local level the figures were 51% for non-whites and 39% for whites.
  • At the same time 40% of whites had contacted an elected representative, protested or signed a petition, compared with less than 30% for every other ethnic group.
  • White people were less likely to feel a strong attachment to Great Britain than Pakistanis, Bangladeshis and Indians. Overall, 86% of non-whites (91% of Pakistanis) said they felt strongly that they belonged to Great Britain, while only 84% of whites did.

Pro-social councils

Here’s the RSA’s Matthew Taylor making the case for a pro-social framework for local government

This bit may seem like a triumph of hope over expectations, but it’s interesting to ask ourselves why that would be:

“Engage local councillors in a redefinition of politics and social change, moving from a government-centric to a citizen-centric model. Support and incentivise councillors to be capacity builders (if this sounds crazy, there are places it is happening).”

Prior to this, he argues that….

To create the future most of us aspire to we need citizens who are… more actively engaged in collective decision making at every level.

Matthew is to be congratulated for this term ‘pro-social’ I’ve started to hear it being dropped into conversations all over the place, but I’m fairly certain that Matthew first mentioned it on his blog about a year ago. (I await correction on this if I’m wrong). So, I’d like to get an idea going in my own puny way. I’m sure that it won’t go a fraction as far as his but here goes:

Don’t aspire to involve people in collective decision making. You will be lying if you tell them that you are going to do it, and no-one will like the outcome. Instead, involve people in describing the problem and drafting proposed solutions.

I’ve outlined the thinking behind this on my own blog over here. What do you think?

Digital Britain – unconferences

For anyone interested in social inclusion and online participation, this is an exciting initiative. Go and have a look!

Let me take this opportunity to tell my friends in Northern Ireland that I didn’t design the site though….