Wednesday, July 20, 2005

New Statesman New Media Awards

If you are interested in local e-democracy, then read on. If not, I’m sure you have something else to be getting on with?

Still here? OK. I saw this on Will Davies blog.

Will may be unhappy, but personally, I'm absolutely delighted that this decision was made. I've been saying for what the panel have said for years. For the record, they said....

"Some of the elected representatives have made massive efforts in creating an interesting online presence. But it was recognised that they have done so with little official help, and mostly by being in a fortunate enough position to draw upon the technical and communication skills required. The result is a postcode lottery for citizens who wish to discover and communicate with their elected representatives online.

There have been some efforts to redress this balance: ReadMyDay and Councillor.info are just two examples. But there is still more that needs to be done. The judges believe that elected representatives need more support, training and advice to help them use this media more effectively. In doing so there is a real opportunity for the UK to lead the way in communication between the representative and the represented."

Mary Reid has commented on this on her blog. For some reason, her 'permalink' isn't working (I think it’s the way they applied her domain-name), but have a look at the 6th July 2005 entry on http://www.maryreid.org.uk/

She says (in summary) that having sites provided to politicians by governmental bodies is problematic because of the way that political rules restrict what politicians can say in such circumstances.

I would argue that this is a red herring. More to the point, I would suggest that this view undermines the very reasonable demands that many Councillors are making for more autonomy and less bureaucratic interference.

Firstly, there ARE rules on how politicians use publicly-funded resources. You can't behave in an overtly political manner. But you CAN say pretty-well anything you want to - as long as you don't couch it in overtly political terms.

So, for example, if I were a Lib-Dem Councillor who was opposed to a parking scheme that was planned by my (Tory controlled) Council, I would be breaking the rules if I were to say: "My Lib-Dem colleagues and I are opposed to this Tory scheme to create a controlled parking zone on Any Street." I wouldn't be breaking the rules if I said: "The Council is planning to create a Controlled Parking Zone on Any Street. In a recent consultation on this, I opposed this scheme on the following grounds...."

Having said that, I still think that the rules are - in principle - wrong. We are still a representative democracy in this country. Elected representatives are already rivaled by unaccountable pressure groups and dishonest journalists. It's a shame that there is also a network of petty regulations that are designed to remove most of the residual power that Councillors do have. I'm broadly in favour of a scrapping (or watering down) of the rules on political expression (though I've pointed out elsewhere that there are hidden benefits to the way these rules work).

Hidden benefits or no hidden benefits though, principle is principle. The rules should go. And, IMHO, the Standards Board should be scrapped while we're at it. (This issue has been covered in The Guardian a few months ago, and I blogged it here and here).

But I think that Mary is missing the most important point of all. I've already argued in previous posts that the goal of encouraging Councillors to become more interactive is a very important one.

There are only a fraction of the 22,000 Councillors in England and Wales who are active users of website technology.

There are lots of ways that this technology can be used to help them to interact with the public (blogs, discussion forums, individual web-pages), but very few have the confidence to do so. Personally, I think that blogs are not as useful as they appear to be at first. They are 'linear' and only show recent postings on the index page. A website that allows Councillors to create a guide to their work is a lot more useful.

That is why I think that the ‘personal website’ is the least problematic way in to cyberspace for reluctant Councillors. And if blogging IS the way forward, as Mary suggests, then why aren’t they all doing it already? Anyone can use Blogger completely free of charge and without any need for technical skills.

Many of the Councillors I've spoken to have found that the experience of managing a basic website was very instructive. They would have only done this if they were provided with facilities, help and support from their Council.It is vital that every Councillor in the country is given the tools to start managing their own sites as soon as possible.

They should also be given lots of help, advice, reassurance and good examples to work from. Their sites should be vigorously publicised by their Local Authority. They should be given feedback on how many visitors they've had and how many visitors other Councillors are getting. They should be encouraged to adopt best practice in this area.If Councillors are encouraged to make themselves the public face of their Local Authority, this will improve the quality and reputation of local democracy. It will help to humanise the face of local government.

I've heard the argument (notably from some local government Chief Execs) that some Councillors are not necessarily capable spokespersons for local government (I've toned down their actual words massively here!). It is this attitude that is the biggest brake on democratic renewal.

It needs to be challenged – and I’m glad that the New Statesman’s panel has said so.

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