Blog: How is digital democracy shaping the role of local government scrutiny? by Dr Catherine Howe, Vice-Chair of CfGS

Posted on 10/12/2019 by Jenny Manchester.

Where does scrutiny sit in today’s democratic world?  How is digital democracy shaping the role of local government scrutiny?

The conversation about digital in local government has moved leaps and bounds compared to the comparable conversation about democracy and its time to put some serious thought to how we catch up.

In leading councils digital has shifted from a fringe activity in either IT or Comms into a mainstream and major driver of change with visibility if not a seat at the top table.  This echoes what we see outside of government where the discussion around digital transformation is now one of organisational design and culture change with technology being critical.  The conversation about digital has become one of changing the whole system and not simply overlaying technology on old processes.

While Brexit and the climate emergency and of course scandals like Cambridge Analytica have shined a light on our democracy and shown up its grubby corners we are are still failing to get traction on a discussion on how we might properly modernise our system of democracy.  It’s brilliant to see things like the work that Involve and the Democratic Society are doing on Citizen’s Assemblies showing how powerful more deliberative forms of democracy can be but we are still placing these inside an outdated democratic system.

Similarly, the discussion about digital democracy still tends either to talk about tools or mechanisms like voting or on analysis of the impact of social and distributed media on our democratic discourse.  We rarely talk about how we shift some of the power and privilege to create a democratic system that reflects the world we live in and will better able us to face into the challenges we face.  We need to make better decisions and we need to do it faster.

Thinking as democracy as a system helps us shift from interventions around individual tools, methods and processes and instead look at how we make the whole greater than the sum of the parts – how do the changes we make connect together and how do we make it stronger?

We need a system of democracy to make good decisions in a world of complex networked interdependencies.  This is going to be a blended system that works across online and offline methods but has the characteristics for agility, data richness, transparency, design and agency that is now a matter of course in digital organisation.

What does this mean for Scrutiny?  Scrutiny has always had the role of speaking truth to power but in a time of great change the role of scrutiny in all of this could be one of transition;holding up a mirror to what we are doing now and spotlighting where we are doing it better.

Scrutiny is also needed to help shape the systems of governance and accountability that are the result of successful digital transformation and to make sure that the mantra of user-centered design is actually one of citizen-centred design.

Finally and I would argue most importantly that we need to view this challenge as one for our scrutiny community – a community that is connected and can, as a result, join up and make sense of what is happening and what is working.  It’s unlikely that a whole new system will emerge in just one place – it is more likely that small parts of it will emerge in different places and it will be the role of people like us to look at how these can connect together to become that renewed system of democracy that we need.