Easy Barnet – a new relationship with citizens?

I have been meaning to write this post for a couple of weeks – ever since I saw an excellent presentation on the work at Barnet at a session at the SOLACE annual conference.  the workshop was shared between Max Wilde (who in the Barnet lead for the project) and Nicola Millard (who is the excellently titled BT futurologist).  One of the striking things about this combination was the balance between commercial / public sector.  What also leapt out at me was the fact that much of the work at Barnet is highlighting the tension between residents as customers and residents as citizens.

The Local Democracy blog has a good post on this which is worth a read and they also quote at length from the latest Barnet report which you can find here. The folks at Barnet are obviously trying something fairly radical – and as part of that they really do seem to be trying to “create a new relationship with citizens.”  But I guess my interest here is whether they are trying to create ‘super-consumers’ who are individually engaged in creating the best services for them as individuals or whether they are able to transcend the customer relationship and start a conversation about community and about shared resources – are they actually engaging in democracy?

The Public Sector clearly has to innovate – radically  – in order both the save money but more importantly to stay relevant to people’s lives.  Local Authorities should be at the forefront of this because local government is the only kind that actually feels relevant to most people’s lives.  However, to connect these innovations entirely with an efficiency agenda is a very bleak prospect.  Sometimes, things we want for our community will cost money.  Community is not just about services – it’s about the connections between people which go beyond services.  If we only seek to innovate and to engage people in talking about these services then we are ignoring the fabric of the community which connects it all together.

There is so much in the work at Barnet that warrants watching and considering.  But I do go back to my underlying belief that design assumptions really matter – and that if you design a space and a process around the idea of cost efficiencies then this will be what you get.  No-one can deny that there is a need to do this – the process of government needs to be cost-effective – but if this your only design assumption then I think that you end up with something colder and less inclusive than the communities which many people want to live in.

I think its very easy to be decieved by the social web – it feels like a place where the individual creates the space and where intellectual freedom is paramount.  However for many people that is something of an illusion – many people really only experience the social web within spaces like Facebook which are entirely engineered in order to support the ad revenues which support the site’s existence.  Now – you can say that this is a fair exchange – free sites with a few adverts – but I really want something better for my democratic spaces.

Not really sure where this post is going – perhaps I read too much Howard Rheingold at a formative point – but I will carry on musing on it……


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