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

New rules on local government publicity?

If ever a review were overdue, it’s the one that Hazel Blears has just announced (though it was heavily trailed in the Communities in Control’ White Paper) into the rules that determine what publicity councils can and can’t do.

I’ve visited approximately 100 local authorities in the UK, trying to persuade councils to help councillors take their first steps in using interactive tools. Usually, the project I’ve been promoting is one where Councillors are provided with a very simple, easy-to-manage personal website that they can use to post their own news stories, a personal profile, and any information that they see fit online.

In the vast majority of cases, local government officers have ruled this out (no matter how keen the councillors often are) on the grounds that their interpretation of the rules on political communication would mean that doing this would place the council at some unspecified legal risk.

It is often tempting to speculate that this is less about legal probity than about control of information (after all, opposition councillors are under no obligation to echo the positive messages of the ruling group), though often the perceived burden of monitoring councillors’ online activity is held up as a reason not to support councillors in such an activity.

Perhaps more than any other vocational group in the UK, councillors need to be encouraged to interact more effectively than they do. They have few communications or research resources at their disposal. They are usually part-time and they often have little or no experience using even the most basic modern communications tools.

I hope that Hazel Blears looks at more than just the rules though. Local government needs more than just a tinkering with the restrictions, because in local government, such restrictions are often eagerly anticipated and grasped with both hands. The assumption that really needs questioning is the one where the idea that a provision of online help necessarily amounts to the same thing as providing councillors with a political advantage.