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Friday, 14 November 2014

75. Stand Alone Local Democracy Websites

No council websites were harmed in the making of this post.

The idea here is to have separate websites for local democracy.  At the moment council democracy stuff is incorporated into websites that are mainly designed to support and promote services.  Creating separate sites would bring all the democracy stuff – committee information, councillor details, scrutiny and elections out of the shadows of all that service stuff and into the light!

Parliament has its own separate ‘democracy site’.  So does the National Assembly for Wales.  So why not local government?

Democracy stuff can usually be found in a corner of the council website under ‘Council’ or ‘Your Council’.  Website design rests heavily on ‘top tasks’ and responding to customer needs – it’s job vacancies, rubbish collection details and school term dates that get prominence because those are the things that people look for.

Democracy matters – it needs greater visibility.

Another problem is that the way we interact as customers of services is different to how we might interact as citizens with a local democratic process.  A local democracy site needs to tell me about the things I’m entitled to know – not just the things I know that I want or the things the council wants me to consume.

My argument is that local democracy presents a distinct design challenge – one that can only be properly addressed away from the frameworks of local government ‘service’ websites.  Having separate sites should open up a market for design and, who knows, even lead to open source solutions that everyone can use.

In areas where there are multi tier councils you should only need one site for the local districts and county councils.  Less need for mergers perhaps?

And these local democracy websites need not just be about local government – they could provide a space for citizen bloggers and hyperlocals - and a focus for annual democracy plans.  They could provide a single focus for a range of accountability mechanisms (health, Police and Crime commissioners etc etc).

As a 'user' of democracy I'd like to have everything in one place.  Wouldn't you.


Dan Slee said...

Too self-interested, too lazy and too protected by a wall of jargon and hidden from search engines on pdfs and word documents.

Democracy pages on local government websites take a beautiful thing that people have died for and turn it into a battle. A war of attrition with council officers who use the pages as a receptacle for impenetrable reports and unsearchable pdfs. They are the online version of the biscuit tin in the loft. You can find things if you really have to. But only if you really fight.

1997 called. It wants its CMS back.

Democracy pages? What does that even mean? They are the pages that tell you who you elected to make the decisions, what decisions they made, what information they have and what they are going to do next.

Spoken in council speak, written in opaque language, they are the pages they are obliged to deliver and never has a lack of enthusiasm for anything been plainer to see.

Look at democracy pages.

Look at low voter turnout.

Look back at democracy pages.

Of course, there is more to low voter turn out that a dated CMS unenthusiastically updated.

But they take a splendid idea that men have died for - democracy - and they turn it into a fight that you are never going to win.

I love local government. I really do.

But until people within it stop thinking of the reports and pdfs as bits of paper pinned to a digital noticeboard they never be anything more than democratic self harm.

Don't think of this rant as a criticism of this blog, the excellent Dave McKenna, Carl Whistlecraft or others involved with trying to improve things. It really isn't. Blame almost 20 years of putting up with second best.

And yet. Local government must think of what the council does as web content not paper content. That is searchable. That is commentable. That has metadata. That you can sign-up for email alerts for. On key decisions.On individual decisions. On things that happen in your ward.

They are bold,exciting steps that would connect those outside with those within. That would inform and encourage you to have a voice.

That would be a truly beautiful thing.

Roger said...

I agree with everything said, but where's the cash to pay for and then maintain, such sophistication? Yes, some councils have done a good job, but most have run into a financial brick wall when it comes to updating site information that isn't directly related to services and that doesnt pay its way, by reducing the administration burden of the council.
Like so many things in local government, every council has the same requirements and yet they all have to invent their own version of the same wheel.

Unknown said...

I just wrote a massive long response to this, and tried to post it, and it disappeared. Damn.

In short, I agree.

Unknown said...

Ah! Found it.

This is a really good idea. I'd love to see more councils thinking creatively about the way that they not only "push out" information, but also the way that they enable local people to use information to influence the democratic decision-making process. As others have said, back in the mid-90s council decision-making went online but has changed very little since. We need searchable background papers and reports, links to allow people to navigate their way through the way a council has made a decision, or a series of decisions, on a particular topics, and clear ways for them to use technology to feed into this process. So a local democracy website is about transparency, but it's also about giving local people the information they need to take an active part in local decision-making. This kind of thing would be very useful for councillors too.

I think that the money for this comes, by and large, from moving completely paperless. I'm not sure if a proper study has been carried out but councils who have moved to less paper-heavy operations seem to have saved somewhere between £10k and £30k a year, and there's an obvious rationale in using some of that saving to invest in making a step-change in the way that this information is made much more accessible online. I do suspect that the savings arising from going paperless can be exaggerated however, and I suspect that for many it won't be as simple as ringfencing such a saving and keeping it for investment in local democracy.

I think that what we may need is some national funding for a couple of areas to test out some different approaches, building local democracy websites which include governance information from a range of local bodies and agencies, providing people with a one-stop shop to signpost them through to where and how decisions are made in their locality, and providing them with a means to influence those decisions. The national Planning Portal is a good example of an (imperfect) way of doing this at national level - developing something locally that looks a bit like this wouldn't be beyond the wit of man. I don't know how much a pilot project like this would cost. My gut says that building the framework needn't be expensive, but what would be pricey would be trying to port over all the historic data, which you might have to do to make it useful and meaningful in the short to medium term.

At the Center for Public Scrutiny we get lots of calls from members of the public looking for basic signposting information on these kinds of issues - ideas, basically, as to how they can influence the decision-making process. Often, when they're on the phone, I end up doing searches of their local authority committee pages to try and find what they're looking for. Usually, I succeed - but only because I know exactly what search terms to use, and because I know how to navigate the front end of - ahem - the most popular of the proprietary local government committee services CMS systems. This system is a breeze to use in the back end, but in the front end you have to know and understand its idiosyncracies to make it do what you want. But of course, the clients of the company who make it are the back end users, not the front end users. I know that the company who make this product have all sorts of exciting ideas about how to make local democracy information more accessible, which they have deployed for a number of authorities, but ultimately if their clients aren't asking for it, they won't deliver it.

Stuart Spindlow said...

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