Cuts mean councils must embrace the digital age

me-councillor-campI spent yesterday at the @councillorcamp event discussing how councillors can best use social and digital media, organised by FutureGov and hosted at Facebook’s Covent Garden offices. See their Facebook page for more details.

It was a very interesting event and I was part of a cross-party final panel (pictured far left) giving reflections on the day. Even as a long-standing fan of social networking media I emerged with many tips and ideas.

My party colleague, Mark Pack, gave a presentation in the morning and has published a blog listing ten questions to tell if your local councils ‘gets’ digital media.

In addition to practical tips about using social media and blogs I was particularly struck by the debate about how town halls and individual councillors can best create a “co-productive” digital space to communicate with local residents and voluntary groups.

The word co-productive is the key. All too often residents and groups look up to the council as a higher authority, and councils elevate themselves as being most important, when we should be aiming for a partnership of equals.

On many issues plenty of knowledge, expertise and action takes place outside the council sphere. In an era when town halls continue to be emasculated by annual cuts to their budgets, now more than ever we must take advantage of technology for participatory decision-making, devolving and sharing power.

And as shrinking budgets force councils to evolve from service providers, to strategic service commissioners, and now to service ‘facilitators’, the digital world can help make local communities more responsive to needs and to equip people and authorities alike with the knowledge and contacts to keep local democracy working in these straightened times.

Lambeth Council is about to launch a new website which is said to combine information and services with a digital space to connect people and groups. I look forward to seeing it and how it works.

Embracing the new media age is one of the key challenges to a local government where the majority of officers and councillors can barely get their heads around the digital world around them.

The challenge is not simply to design better websites to find information about council services or to make minor efficiency savings by paying rent and council tax online, but to re-evaluate the very nature of the relationship between officialdom and the community and use technology to create an interactive hub of equals.

A hub where authorities respond quicker and where young people and the whole online community can take part as opposed to a small slice of committed, often pensioned, residents.

And where the challenges of limited funds can give birth to more creative ways of working and hard choices can be shared and officers can hot-desk next to voluntary groups.

Although much of the #cllrcamp was more about councillors making the best use of technology we need a much bigger conversation about councils facilitating real digital communities instead of empty rhetoric about big societies.

By Lester Holloway @brolezholloway

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