Meeting notes 12th February 2015

Local democracy for everyone: Open local government

by Tim Hughes

On Saturday 7th February, the UK Open Government Network hosted a session on open local government at “Local democracy for everyone: We’re not in Westminster anymore”.

The UK Open Government Network is a group of organisations and individuals committed to making government work better for people through increased transparency, participation and accountability. The network collaborates with and challenges governments in the UK to develop and implement ambitious open government reforms through the UK’s membership of the Open Government Partnership.

The discussion ranged across a number of different issues and ideas related to transparency, participation and accountability in local government.

Residents need to be able to find out some basic things from their councils.

The discussion started with the basics; people want to know how to get issues their issue dealt with by local government. They need easily accessible information about who to contact and how to get things changed, and support in navigating the local government system.

However, it was also suggested that councils need to tell people about things that they don’t know they want to know about. Council websites have got better at presenting information in response to frequently asked questions, but could do a better job on signposting residents on to other issues or opportunities to get involved.

The role of councillors is changing.

An interesting question was raised about whether the improvement of local government’s customer care and engagement was bypassing the role of local councillors. It was suggested that people are no longer speaking to local councillors as there are alternative routes for getting their issues dealt with.

This led onto a discussion about the changing role of councillors and alternative ways in which they might engage with the public. It’s a good thing that it’s no longer necessary for a resident to work through their councillor to get their issue or complaint dealt with, but that doesn’t mean that councillors no longer have a role. It was suggested that instead of focusing on individual issues, they should look at the systemic issues that create such issues. One idea from the session was that the data generated from complaints to a council should be used to identify issues around which councillors and residents can co-create solutions.

Councillors need to change.

While the role of councillors may have changed, councillors have not necessarily changed with it. It was highlighted that there’s a big difference in the quality of councillors, and that the party system does not work at a local level with encouraging high quality representation. It was suggested that training and capacity building is needed for councillors to support them to change with their role.

Connected to this was the need for culture change throughout councils to increase the willingness to be open. It was suggested that we need to develop the view that councils are there to serve the public.

Councillors need more power.

Another connected idea that came up was that councillors need to be empowered more. The example of Australian local government was raised, where community meetings are held between councillors and local residents to discuss the upcoming issues on the council agenda. Councillors and community activists therefore make decisions together, which council officers implement, meaning the public and council are much closer. It was questioned whether such a model would work in the UK context, but suggested that there’s a need to experiment with different approaches.

Open local government needs to be about more than open data.

Open data ≠ open government is just as true in local government as national government. It was highlighted that data isn’t an end in itself, and that we should start from with the question: what do people need data for? Time, money and skills are also needed to use open data. It was suggested that more should be done to match those with data analytics skills to community activists.

That said, it was commented that nobody currently knows what data councils hold, and suggested that local government should conduct a data audit to understand this.

Scrutiny can be a mechanism for increasing transparency and accountability.

Scrutiny came out as an area with significant untapped potential for involving citizens, and increasing local government transparency and accountability. The idea of separating support for the executive and scrutiny functions in local government was put forward, and has since been added to the Open Government Manifesto.

Open local government needs to have local impact.

The question of where the drive for opening up local government should come from was posed. The example of the push to modernise local e-government was put forward as an example of a national initiative that had little impact because councils could not see the value. Likewise, local councils are currently publishing particular datasets because they are required to by national government, not because they see the value of doing so. It was highlighted therefore that the impact of openness needs to be demonstrated to councils, through case studies and linking them to good practice.

The peer-to-peer and race-to-the-top approach of the Open Government Partnership perhaps presents a model for increasing open local government in the UK.

Out of the session came three ideas for opening up local government:

  1. Separate officers supporting executive and officers supporting scrutiny, to enable greater accountability.
  2. Provide training and support for councillors and officers to support them in changing their role for the 21st century.
  3. Hold a national conversation on what we expect of local government and services in the future.