Anna Turley is the Editor of ProgLoc and a Labour Party activist. Anna was unable to speak at our Local, Social, Digital Labour Party fringe meeting yesterday due to a conflicting engagement, but she wanted us to share with you the speech that she would have made.
Today’s Local, Social, Digital fringe will make an incredibly important contribution to what is a crucial debate. The world around us is changing, and the message to local authorities when it comes to social and digital media is ‘get on board’ – this revolution is happening and you need to be part of it.
So why does social and digital media matter to local government? Well society is communicating in new ways, and the conversation is already happening. Many will have commented on this, but you only have to look at the riots this summer to see the way this new conversation takes place, and the speed at which it does so. If the state is not to become obsolete, it must be part of this conversation.
Moreover movements such as WikiLeaks are encouraging new expectations of accountability of those in power. The public are better informed, and less deferential to authority – they want to ask the difficult questions and demand answers. Social and digital media enables this new form of conversation, new ways of sharing information directly and without perversion, and enables the public to receive information in an immediate and direct way, as they now expect.
And the local public policy and democratic context is changing. The Government’s approach to public services as set out in the Open Public Services White Paper is emphasising the devolution of power down to individuals, increasing transparency and accountability. Local government needs to make sure it is open, accessible, and empowering in the way it works, or it will be bypassed, and the new groups such as neighbourhood councils will be vying with them for legitimacy. Councils must work with them, not see this as a threat to their power, and must use social and digital media to take a more bottom-up approach to working with communities.
Around the country, local government is moving away from the command and control, top down delivery approach, and beginning to work more in co-operation and collaboration with residents. For example, co-operative councils are looking at how they can work better with our communities, harnessing civic resource, and creating a new relationship between the state and the citizen a result. Social and digital media can enable and support these conversations.
And the reality is, we have to do things differently – we are in a different financial world right now – we can’t keep doing things the way we have done them, or simply making quick cuts to the easy service options. We have to fundamentally reshape the way we deliver services, and the real savings, as we learnt from the Total Place pilots, are in the joining up around individuals and families. The waste in local public services is when you don’t respond or flex, when you duplicate services because of poor co-ordination and when you don’t listen to the public. Social and digital media can play a key role in facilitating this relationship.
So how is local social and digital media enabling local government to rise to these manifold challenges? The most immediate benefit is through the direct and immediate communication. For example, we saw widespread use of the ‘gritter twitter’ in the heavy snow last year when councils like Essex and Kirklees kept people informed of the closure of roads, or the routes of school buses.
And it can help build civic capacity. By connecting people together it can help them share who they are, encourage conversation and build trust, as well as harness the potential to build the ‘good society’ we want to see. For example, again when the snow caused problems for transportation, Brighton and Hove used social media to call for 4x4s to get vulnerable people to hospitals.
And it allows a local authority to listen and respond in a rapid, and targeted way. How much better is it to have an army of people reporting on local environmental issues than to rely on your council workforce on patrol? The Love Lewisham programme allows people to instantly report environment problems online and gives immediate response and feedback – something which we know has a strong impact on greater resident satisfaction with the council.
And we are beginning to realise, from a democratic perspective, the power of social media in campaigning. It’s proving a great way to engage people, get numbers out for campaigns, link people together, and share information. Which is vital at local authority level where election turnout averages 30%.
It can also play a key role in galvanising the left in local government – the one place where we are in power and where the Labour fightback will begin. Setting up ProgLoc in an online space, rather than a traditional think-tank model, was an attempt to draw together the best thinking on the left in a way that didn’t require local authorities paying vast membership sums to be part of a formal organisation. It is supposed to be an open-source approach that gives Labour in local government a space to think and share and learn from other local government colleagues.
This quiet, but forceful, revolution is taking place across society and across public services. As the closest part of the state to local communities, local government, and particularly Labour local government, must be at the forefront of this movement.