You might be forgiven for thinking that although local political decisions hit us where we live, impact our lives on a daily basis, we really don’t care. Recent elections in the County I work in had an average turnout of 33%. In 2009 it was around 45%.
There is just apathy and uninterest.
Or is there?
How we involve people in decisions about shaping public services is one of the main barriers. People do care – but we live in a world that actively discourages engagement – that puts barriers in the way, forgets that people have views, even before we solicit them. There are two issues I’d like to explore here. Firstly, we (I’m a public servant) use language that might be technically and legally right but often doesn’t explain what is proposed so its easy to have a view. We don’t always communicate, engage, and consult in a way that lets people know what those personal stories are – what it actually means for people’s daily lives. Secondly, even when we do we often hold the arguments and discussion close to our own chests – rather than let others have them openly while we listen and contribute in their space.
If we really wanted interest and engagement or to communicate with people – then we’d do it differently wouldn’t we? We would use different language. When a large company wants to interest people in their product – to go to a shop or on the internet – what do they do? They don’t this…..
Notice of Retail Opportunity
Our South East Regional distribution centre has received notice that product 3432F (Recreational Running Shoe) will be available for retail purchase at specified locations from June 3rd 2013, providing sufficient stock ordering. Product 3432F has a mesh and synthetic nylon material shell with a polyurethane outer sole with a waffle tread for traction on tarmac surfaces. This product is available in men’s and women’s specific styles. A spokesperson said:
‘These are very good running shoes.’
Now are you interested?
Most organisations who want to reach their audience think about how best to do it. They work on where to find them, what words their audience is using, how to hook them to find out more or encourage them to act.
I can’t think of anything government does, locally or nationally, that doesn’t affect someones life. For example, last year I was looking at some work to improve traffic flow. We consulted on the technical drawings – what could and couldn’t be done – as we always have. The big gap though was why we were doing it – what it might mean for people stuck in busses, or trying to get to the hospital, or trying to get to college? There are personal stories behind traffic flow but the way we consult doesn’t often get those real stories out or support people in telling them. NESTA recently published a paper on futurology, and perhaps unsurprisingly they found stories play a key part in understanding what the future might be like. It’s these same stories that will help people understand what problems are trying to be solved and how it might affect them.
When dealing with deeply uncertain and emotional futures, stories say more than surveys.
Making these stories more transparent and available will help more people get involved and understand what proposals might mean for them. Stories, often personal, are a way in to helping people make decisions. It’s where in really effective community involvement people share their experiences, their aspirations, and get involved. Personally I’m less interested in technical drawings and more interested in whether Jane, a small business owner, thinks it might help her team get to work more easily and cheaply. That might help me decide. I want to see these debates in the open. I’m happy to send in my views – but I’m really interested in what others are saying and I want to know now – not when someone decides to summarise it. I might even want to discuss it the views and develop my own. While I understand the consulter will want to collate consultees views and let me know how representative mine are – I’d also like to understand the debate.
The challenge will be ensuring we use the language of those communities, those audiences – otherwise we’ll just be left with a host of creative ideas and no innovation. It wont necessarily mean apathy and disinterest, it will mean an increasing disconnect between government, at all levels, and us – the public.
Some ideas and innovations
As people become more digitally aware and connected the opportunity to widen participation, to merge online and offline networks will increase. Opportunities to share stories and therefore encourage participation will undoubtedly be there. A range of work is now coming to the fore that begins to shape these opportunities. I’d love to hear your examples – here are some I’m looking at now.
Wrangl is an example of how open argument might look.
- networkedcllr: First comments and feedback (networkedcouncillor.wordpress.com)
- As the Elections Approach, streetlife.com Asks: Do Residents Know, or Care to Know, Their Local Councillors? (prweb.com)
- Weaving Together Online/Offline Collaboration In A Network Context (beth.typepad.com)
I recently read this Guardian article about a survey into Councils’ use of social media. As seems common these days it gets around to questioning the return on investment of social media activity. It approaches social media from the angle of customer contact. It identifies that the financial benefits are hard to justify.
It’s not necessarily wrong – but it really misses an important point.
What it fails to recognise is that social media is not just a channel, it’s also a means of identifying, building and involving communities. These communities are the lifeblood of local democracy, they always have been. Social media is another route to join them. It helps to get access to some of that messy and essential space where conversation happens, where understanding is sought, and given. It’s also the route where local government can work alongside communities. It could be information, skills, knowledge, it could be sharing views and opinions.
The work on the Networked Councillor and Made in Lambeth are good examples of where online and offline worlds are combined to create more value than they could alone. Social media complements and builds on the physical networks that have always existed making them increasingly transparent and accessible.
That’s a huge return on investment.
Dick Cheney has yet another memorable quotation – no, not that one – this one:
‘I learned early on that if you don’t want your memos to get you in trouble someday, just don’t write any.’
The Government is keen on transparency – especially if it’s about what money is spent on or how much public servants are paid. Increasingly data is being published on-line in usable formats, Council meetings are on YouTube, and politicians blog and tweet. Transparency has certainly had some impact but will it lead us to a greater understanding of why decisions are made or enable us to hold decision makers to account?
While I hope that transparency will increase accountability I have a nagging, and growing, doubt. Those invoices over £500 that are being published, let’s be honest, it’s difficult to know if the expenditure represents value for money without understanding more of its context…
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Everyone is talking about it. Businesses need it. The public sector needs it. Google has a lot of it. People are blogging about it (the irony isn’t lost on me here). It’s really big and disruptive, it’s iterative and small. Only some people can do it, while everyone can contribute to it. We all need more of it.
Over the past year I’ve studied innovation, read about how social enterprise/high-tech business/Apple/Samsung/GDS all bring innovation, been told to be more innovative, and written about innovation. It’s a huge subject, a lot of money is thrown at it, and it risks becoming perceived as the domain of the few.
Over the past weeks I’ve read a few things and had a few exchanges on Twitter that, for me, capture the essence of innovation. It’s not to say this is everything, but just that at its heart, innovation can be brought down to a few simple things and supported by a very simple process.
But what is innovation?
Its applied creativity. Its more than just an idea – an idea without implementation is just that – an idea. It usually comes from an idea that stems from a problem or a belief there is just a better way of doing something.
So where do these ideas come from – its hard to start innovating unless you have them?
In May the Guardian published an article by Rachel Burstein a research associate at the New America Foundation California Civic Innovation Project. She found that in local government strong personal networks help promote and develop ideas into innovations. This shouldn’t be a surprise to us. You only need to look at Silicon Valley. Yes there were skills, from Stanford Industrial Park, and yes there was money, from the defence industry. But critically there were social roots that fed the information technology revolution and allowed it to take hold. People knew each other, shared and pinched ideas.
So how do you apply those ideas and implement them?
@pdbrewer @reformattday @Heavy_Load @demsoc discussed how innovation is hard. Not the ideas part but the implementation bit. Recently Kirsty Elderton posted on the FutureGov blog her experience of working as a Prince2 practitioner and then also working with an Agile approach to developing a project. At its heart the development and implementation process can be simple. You have your idea, you kick it around with people, you prototype (and keep prototyping), then implement and continue to iterate. Makes sense doesn’t it?
But of it makes sense why can it be hard to do? As Kirsty says, there are ‘tensions’ especially in a world where often your commodity at work has been your professional background. The challenge is often that we have a lot invested in how we’ve always done things – some call it path dependency and I’ve posted about this before.
What’s changing, and arguably has been for some time, is that in a highly connected world needing new approaches to old problems, it’s not your professional background that matters – it’s knowledge and how this connects with others’ knowledge and creativity to promote and share ideas. That’s not scary – it’s common sense – and that’s innovation.
There are a lot of articles about savings in local government about how much has been delivered and just how much more can be done? Has local government really been innovative in redesigning services or is local government reflecting its journey along the experience curve and there just isn’t much more room to save more.
The other common topic today, economic development, might hold some clues. National and Local Government often measure the success of their economic development strategies on the numbers of startups that are created. If we build a new business park they will come. If we fund startups more employment will result. This will be good, this means more confidence in the economy. The presumption is that more startups means more entrepreneurs seeing opportunity, which means more jobs, which means the economy is growing. Or does it?
Research suggests that his approach mainly produces market churn and it is only a small number of businesses that create most of the jobs. New companies set up and create jobs and these displace jobs in other companies who are less competitive. Churn is a mechanism by which labour markets reallocate workers towards more efficient ends. In this way, the churning of the labour market contributes to growth in the potential output of the economy. Or at least it would if those businesses were in a growing market. It doesn’t mean there a more jobs, or even that disruptive innovation is happening and new models of business or services are being found. When the market is maturing, or even reducing, businesses learn to do things more efficiently. That generally begins with making successively larger improvements and then successively smaller ones.
The exception to market churn, those businesses that create more net jobs, are those that are innovative and disrupt exising markets. They do something radically new that is significantly more efficient and/or meets the market’s needs more effectively, or even creates a new market. Interestingly evidence suggests these businesses are also more resilient though a downturn.
But how does this apply to local government and the impact of austerity? Have we seen a similar journey in how local government has delivered savings. A lot initially and then they get harder to find. The experience curve begins to flatten. What we may be seeing isn’t the creation of anything really different, we are just seeing market churn that pushes public services along the experience curve. Its just getting cheaper to do what has always been done. Costs are going down, salaries below inflation, jobs are being deskilled though the introduction of technology and changing practice, systems and processes are getting leaner. Simply, people doing fairly similar things for less and probably for a different employer. Will this improve services? If improvement means cheaper then probably not. If it means reducing demands, finding better ways of doing things then maybe, but its not looking promising.
This isn’t to lay the blame on anyone. NESTA, in their study on innovation in Whitehall found, for many valid reasons, public services have typically not been subject to the same kind of creative destruction seen in some private markets. The risks are high, decommissioning services isn’t cheap, writing off sunk costs is hard politically, and considerable social harm would result from the breakdown of the public services. Service closures could push demand elsewhere, undermining the actual efficiency and legitimacy of any cuts.
A lot is stacked against radical innovation, and so transformation, in public services. Is it just too much?