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Exactly how digital do we need our leaders to be?

By July 2, 2012 No Comments

This is a cross post with Catherine’s own blog. To read the original go here.

I have had a fascinating week – firstly at the LGA Annual Conference and then at an APCC event to brief Police and Crime Commissioner Candidates (other briefings included Sir Hugh Orde and the heads of both SOCA and the new NCA so it was an excellent day to be part of).  In both these environments I found myself asking whether or not my belief in the need for a high level of knowledge about the digital agenda is reasonable – my conclusion is that its essential if we want to evolve the relationship between citizen and state.

PCCs have the potential to provide a seismic shift in power at the local level however moving from one event to the other you could feel the pull back towards local government as we know it now – not surprising given that the new police and crime panels and many of the candidates that I have met come from this background. However, even where all participants in the process are minded to keep the model as close to the current system as possible there will be an erosion of  the status quo as a new balance is found not just between the PCC and the force they are responsible for, but also between the various agencies and partnerships who are part of the wider ‘and Crime’ element of this agenda. My view is that however one feels about the concept of Police and Crime Commissioners it’s undeniably the biggest democratic experiment we have seen for hundreds of years – so let’s not waste it.

My session at the briefing on Friday focused on the democratic potential of this experiment and the need to design a democratic environment which is fit for purpose for the 21st Century. I believe that this does not mean recreating the current police authority in a new form, but it does mean embracing digital and networked technologies – if for no other reason than to stay in sync with the excellent work that police forces across the country are doing in this area. I’ve written more about what I mean by this here and my presentation from friday is here on prezi.

Apart from the PCC content which I followed at the LGA Annual Conference, I had a few other observations that I’d be interested to know if other people who were in Birmingham would share:

  • We needed more space / time for debate and discussion – perhaps its time to change the balance in the agenda towards a more interactive format for some sessions.
  • Clearly the next comprehensive spending review is moving towards us and it’s going to be tough – however there seems still to be a lot of questions as to where the focus of this will fall and there is every chance that the impact on local government will be more insidious than a direct cut (though there will be those as well) with other aspects of the welfare budget being looked at.
  • Though people mention it, there is not a clear plan for work with local government on the economic growth agenda – this seems short sighted in the extreme
  • With respect to both of these agendas there is a growing commitment to the need for more radical redesign within local government – the Creative Councils innovation session was packed for example – but I am not sure that people are yet clear on what this really means or are ready to take the risks that are inherent in this approach.
  • There is still an alarming lack of strategic IT knowledge at a senior level in local government

My final observation may be very much skewed by the fact that I was at both of these events in order to talk about ‘digital’ in one way or another and also by the fact that this is an area I know a lot about. However, in trying to calibrate my expectations of council leaders, chief executives and now PCC candidates around the digital agenda, I am looking for an awareness of the key issues, such as open data for example, but more importantly an awareness that digital is a driver of social and behavioural change and not just a passive tool for the mechanisation of process. It’s for this reasons that the role of IT, and digital as a channel, should be a major element of any strategy to address the big themes that were being talked about at conference – it goes beyond efficiencies and should be a transformational tool. Everyone I spoke to would agree with this statement – but I am not sure that there is enough sector-wide access to the skills which are needed in order to translate this need into the strategic planning process.  In my session with the PCC candidates I said I didn’t think you should stand as a candidate if you couldn’t figure out how to use Twitter – there was a quiet intake of breath in the room – but I would stand by this statement.

We need to ask more of our communities – there is a growing consensus about the need to change the relationship between citizen and state both in a positive way through the localism agenda and in a more negative sense through the withdrawal of unaffordable services. In asking more I believe we will need to make more central use of technology as more that just another channel – it needs to signal this change in the relationship and respond to the power that technology has offered participants in other realms.  We need government to allow itself to experience the transformative effects that the media has undergone as a result of the ability for anyone active online to directly publish their own content.

We ran one of the few technology-focused sessions at the conference and attracted a group that described itself as a significant minority of councillors who want to know more about social media, not just in terms of how to use it but in terms of the more philosophical aspects of identity and community that are central to the social impact of new technologies. This is an agenda that I would like to see the LGA, the political parties, as well as SOLACE, take up more seriously in the future, as we need our senior teams to take a central role in exploring and shaping what happens when we become ‘digital by default’ as a result of both financial pressures and social change.

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