Warren Hatter, Head of Research, NLGN
Since 1997, we have got used to the idea that “It’s all about delivery”. Informing the development of e-government, this focus has been at the expense of other aspects of the agenda
From now on, the perspective needs to be broader; and the wide range of ‘priority outcomes’ seems to reflect this. The New Local Government Network’s Research Unit has highlighted some of the shortcomings in the progress made to date by local authorities. The fact that individual councillor websites (which we are evaluating for the ODPM) are a relatively recent phenomenon demonstrates that e-governance and e-democracy have been much lower priorities than electronic service delivery. And a recent publication, Rewiring Local Decision Making for Political Judgement pointed out how few councils here are using GIS mapping systems and the like to inform decision-making, compared with their counterparts in the US. The technology is available and not overly complex; but e-governance just hasn’t been a priority in the UK.
From now on, the success of e-government is clearly about more than electronic service delivery: it is about developing e-governance and e-democracy in parallel. Where we need to become visionary is in joining it all together, so that local politicians are making decisions supported by electronic information as a matter of course. At the same time, councillor websites need to become a vital portal for citizens, rather than a bolt-on for more technically minded members.
Why do these aspects need developing? It’s not merely a way of ensuring the public sector keeps up with private sector innovation. It’s much deeper than that. In my view, it relates to our collective view of decision-makers, local representatives included. As Dick Morris, former strategist for Bill Clinton, has put it: “[in the past] it was common to hear people say that their leaders had access to more information, that it was wrong to judge them without knowing all the facts. Today, we would laugh at anyone who said that”.
Not long ago, a typical citizen might have felt happy with the notion that leaders made decisions based on access to facts that he or she could not obtain (See Diagram A).
Today, citizens feel – and often are – able to access such facts, and by extension offer opinions that they themselves consider better informed. Indeed, when local politicians make a decision that doesn’t tally with the citizen’s view, it can feel to the latter as if their leaders have the power to make decisions without the privilege of access to the “real” facts (see Diagram B). This change is due to changing attitudes, for example, about respect for officials. But it is also linked with the democratising effects of information technology and social software.
There is no point regretting, as some do, this shift in attitudes. E-governance and e-democracy provide an opportunity to make citizens feel closer to, or part of decision-making; and to make them feel that leaders and managers have access to the same facts that they do. “We”, in local government, don’t know best any more. Let’s get used to it, and develop the approaches necessary to make our governance work.