Exactly how digital do we need our leaders to be?

I have had a fascinating week – firstly at the LGA Annual Conference and then at an APCC event to brief Police and Crime Commissioner Candidates (other briefings included Sir Hugh Orde and the heads of both SOCA and the new NCA so it was an excellent day to be part of).  In both these environments I found myself asking whether or not my belief in the need for a high level of knowledge about the digital agenda is reasonable – my conclusion is that its essential if we want to evolve the relationship between citizen and state.

PCCs have the potential to provide a seismic shift in power at the local level however moving from one event to the other you could feel the pull back towards Local Government as we know it now – not surprising given that the new Police and Crime Panels and many of the candidates that I have met come from this background. However even where all participants in the process are minded to keep the model as close to the current status quo as possible there will be an erosion of current systems as a new balance is found not just between the PCC and the Force they are responsible for but also between the various agencies and partnerships who are part of the wider ‘and Crime’ element of this agenda. My view is that however one feels about the concept of Police and Crime Commissioners its undeniably the biggest democratic experiment we have seen for hundreds of years – so lets not waste it.

My session at the briefing on Friday focused on the democratic potential of this experiment and the need to design a democratic environment which is fit for purpose for the 21st Century. I believe that this does not mean recreating the current Police Authority in a new form and but it does mean embracing digital and networked technologies – if for no other reason than to stay in sync with the excellent work that Forces across the country are doing in this area. I’ve written more about what I mean by this here and my presentation from friday is here on prezi.

Apart from the PCC content which I followed at the LGA Annual Conference I had a few other observations which I’d be interested to know if other people who were in Birmingham would share:

  • We needed more space / time for debate and discussion – perhaps its time to change the balance in the agenda towards a more interactive format for some sessions.
  • Clearly the next CSR is moving towards us and its going to be tough – however there seems still to be a lot of questions as to where the focus of this will fall and there is every chance that the impact on local government will be more insidious than a direct cut (though there will be those as well) with other aspects of the welfare budget being looked at.
  • Though people mention it there is not clear plan for work with Local Government on the economic growth agenda – this seems short sighted in the extreme
  • With respect to both of these agendas there is a growing commitment to the need for more radical redesign within Local Government – the Creative Councils Innovation session was packed for example – but I am not sure that people are yet clear on what this really means or are ready to take the risks that are inherent in this approach.
  • There is still an alarming lack of strategic IT knowledge at a senior level in Local Government

My final observation may be very much skewed by the fact that I was at both of these events in order to talk about ‘digital’ in one way or another and also by the fact that this an area I know a lot about. However, in trying to calibrate my expectations of Leaders, Chief Executives and now PCC candidates around the digital agenda I am looking for an awareness of the key issues, such as open data for example, but more importantly an awareness that digital is a driver of social and behavioural change and not just a passive tool for mechanisation of process. Its for this reasons that the role of IT, and digital as a channel, should be a major element of any strategy to address the big themes which were being talked about at conference – is goes beyond efficiencies and should be a transformational tool. Everyone I spoke to would agree with this statement – but I am not sure that there is enough sector wide access to the skills which are needed in order to translate this need into the strategic planning process.  In my session with the PCC candidates I said I didn’t think you should stand as a candidate if you couldn’t figure out how to use twitter – there was a quiet intake of breath in the room – but I would stand by this statement.

We need to ask more of our communities – there is a growing consensus about the need to change the relationship between citizen and state both in a positive way through the localism agenda and a more negative sense through the withdrawal of unaffordable services.  In asking more I believe we will need to make more central use of technology as more that just another channel – it needs to signal this change in the relationship and respond to the power that technology has offered participants in other realms.  We need government to allow itself to experience the transformative effects that the media has undergone as a result of the ability for anyone active online to directly publish their own content.

We ran one of the few technology focused sessions at the conference and we attracted a group that described itself as a significant minority of Members who want to know more about social media not just in terms of how to use it but in terms of the more philosophical aspects of identity and community which are central to the social impact of new technologies. This is an agenda that I would like to the see the LGA, the political parties as well as SOLACE take up more seriously in the future as we need our senior teams to take a central role in exploring and shaping what happens when we become ‘digital by default’ as a result of both financial pressures and social change.

  1. Nshimbi

    July 2, 2012 at 10:35 am

    Catherine, I have to agree with you. The world is flowing rapidly around the existing political edifices rather like large rocks on a sandy beach. Slowly they are undermined by the current. I don’t think it’s only down to a lack of awareness in leadership. Conversations with peers and recent articles indicate that the IT departments (not just in government), which once led the technological vanguard, are now lagging behind as the work online does not fit within the traditional IT architecture they are geared up to provide. The problem is that leaders of organisations will naturally turn for advice to their IT experts who in turn suggest a variation on the same solution that has been on offer for the last 20 years.

  2. Gordon Rae (@socialtechno)

    July 2, 2012 at 7:44 pm

    This is the second time in about a week that I’ve strumbled upon what we might call a “Democracy Is Broken” meme on social media. While some people definitely do think that way, it’s doesn’t strike me as a common belief among people who work in government, and I’m not sure it’s a motive to change anybody’s behaviour. George Galloway in Sheffield, 2012, is like Martin Bell in Tatton, 1997, is like Roy Jenkins, Hillhead 1982. But all too often, elections make very little difference.

    What makes a difference is holding government accountable, and here I do see a lot of interest is in the idea that social technologies can be used to talk more and listen better, and engage more of the electorate more, so that the public sector (not just the elected politicians) can show that it’s reflecting the people’s wishes. In that context, the role of digital is about communications first, accountability second. That’s more to do with whether the media is broken, and whether old school media (especially in local politics) still provides the best channel for government accountability.

    • curiouscatherine

      July 3, 2012 at 6:15 am

      Yes – I think this is an excellent distinction and I agree that this may be as much be about broken – or evolving media – as anything else. But its difficult for people to hold government to account if they don’t listen in the places where people are trying to do this. One of my concerns is an increased level of activity in the social media based public sphere but little corresponding response in traditional channels – I don’t think this listening is a matter of better communication as excellent communication teams often mask the fact that they the rest of the organisation is not engaged – I think it needs to be a matter of engagement and process change.

      I am not sure democracy is broken – but I do think it needs to evolve to reflect the way people want to use it.

      Thanks for the thoughts

  3. Chief Inspector Josh Maxwell - NSW Police Force

    July 2, 2012 at 10:14 pm


    An excellent article about the digital age. NSW Police Force in Australia has developed a new program “Project eyewatch” which uses the social networking (facebook) in pages and closed / secret groups to engage and listen to our community. Our project currently facilitates 80 facebook local area command (burrough equivalent in the UK) and 13 specialist pages, in which local police administer with the eyewatch team. Furthermore we know have 155 closed and secret eyewatch or online Neighbourhood watch groups, facilitated by civilain precinct coordinators, whom lead discussions with local police about local problems. Together local solutions are developed.

    As at Sunday the 1st of July we have 128,000 people following our pages, a potential audience in excess of 28 million (greater than the population in Australia) and over 68 million hits. This is in 10 months since we started the project in August 2011.

    For more information, please email me.


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