Reflecting on #localgovcamp and the Local Democracy Maker Day
Last Friday I was a local democracy maker.
The Local Democracy Maker Day is a fringe event held the day before the ever popular, and never-not-unhashtagged #localgovcamp (which is a sort of self-assembly conference and meetup for local government types). The purpose of the maker day is to chew over some big challenges in local democracy and to work towards some relatively straightforward solutions.
The emphasis was on technology as a means to enhance local democracy but there was more to the day than just this. I participated in a group looking at the third challenge, on “digestible democracy” – basically, how can we present council reports and information in a way that better reflects local people’s needs, in a way that draws them in to local democratic debate?
Solutions, we thought, would rest on the commitment of councils to provide more glosses and precis of reports and information, giving people more of a “way in” to what can often be dense official data. We talked about trying to present all council information in plain English or Simple English format, but legal issues around decision-making and recording information in local government, would we thought make this unfeasible for the moment.
We talked in detail about technical solutions, but thought that there were probably a few practical things that could be done now:
- Writing precis and glosses for policies and decisions forces decision-makers into introspection and reflection. Having to be clear and unambiguous about intent, aims and outcomes could lead to assumptions being challenged and re-evaluated. As an example, when thinking about how committee reports could be redesigned to be more understandable, we thought that commentary on “what will change as a result of this work” would work to explain the issue to observers, but also to provoke councillors to demonstrate how the work added value;
- For councils, drawing more of a connection between services as they are experienced on the ground, and how decisions about those services are made, would help councillors carry out there ward work, and their scrutiny work, more effectively. Councillors’ control panels, for example, could give them access to ward work, complaints data, and other ephemera in the same place as an official council report – adding to the richness of debate at committee;
- For the public, this is an issue of empowerment. Rather than managing mailing lists and issuing come-one-come-all consultation invitations, councils would put the control of how the public access information, and at what level of detail, firmly in the hands of local people.
It goes without saying that the readier use of hyperlinks to link together publicly-available information – allowing people to follow through the genesis, development and agreement of a decision through a council’s decision-making structures – would go a long way to making this vision possible.
So where next? Some things that we could do right now are:
- Reflecting on the format and structure of committee reports. Better executive summaries, a clear statement of what a report relates to, links to relevant information also held by the council and clear, simple summaries would all help;
- Putting more in the way of background papers and evidence in the public domain alongside, and easily accessible from, committee papers. There will not be a groundswell of members of the public looking for this information, but it is likely to prove useful for overview and scrutiny, and would lay strong foundations for the kind of public-facing tool we talked about.
Localgovcamp itself, on Saturday, was an opportunity to grapple with more on local democracy, governance, service design and devolution – but rather than try to blog about that too, I will direct you to the blogroll, which you can find here.