Can local government govern in the digital age?

Paul Hepburn

The digital age continues to bring policy challenges for local government. From harnessing ‘big data’ for the public good to developing  ‘smart’ cities the policy expectation is that local authorities will deliver appropriate governance without which, it is argued, urban life in the 21st century is likely to be rendered more complicated, fragmented , unequal and potentially dystopian through ad hoc technological fixes.

All very well and Hobbesian but ‘good’ or ‘smart’ governance in this context is one where the citizen is centrally involved in the decision making process. It is questionable then if the local government institution is fit for this assigned purpose given that many commentators view it as having failed to meaningfully engage citizens during the well-funded e-government programme run by the previous New Labour government.

Since that time the social web and apps development, to name but two, have opened new opportunities for local policymaker wishing to involve citizens in the policy making process.  My article, based on empirical research into the online activity associated with the Manchester Congestion Charge Referendum, illustrates the political difficulties local government faces in turning these opportunities into effective online engagement and in doing so suggests some remedial policy responses.

The local online influence of the sad, the bad and the very rich

The promise of e-democracy is that it will renew the democratic process and enable ‘ordinary’ citizens’ voices to be heard above those that have traditionally dominated politics. This proved not to be the case during the Congestion Charge Referendum and analysis of the related hyperlink network and interviews with actors prominent in this network revealed how powerful economic businesses offline were dominating the political narrative online. Evidence collected here showed how these businesses used their offline political connections to diminish the online voices of those that opposed them.

Along with the influence of the very rich online engagement on this issue was often characterised by angry, offensive and anonymous postings which served to deter people from participating or sharing information. It also reinforced the belief of some policy-makers in the superiority of traditional forms of communication.

Local government and the online network

The role of local government during the referendum was to ensure that all relevant information was made available to the voting public and to attempt to engage them on the issue. Of course they used online media in this process but their engagement was hampered by a toxic mix of institutionalised  ‘silos’ of information, a prevailing culture of anxiety about the new media and an inability to assign any real political value to online engagement. As a consequence their tepid interventions online were often counter-productive and helped to fuel a lack of trust amongst the public in the information they were trying to impart.

Remedial policies

Some of these obstacles to more effective online intervention by local government are more straightforward to resolve than others. The modernisation of local government needs to be driven forward and the institutional structures, culture and prevailing perceptions of citizenship need to be aligned with the requirements of the digital age. How far and how fast local government will change is contingent upon a number of factors, countering the online influence of the sad the bad and the very rich is probably dependent upon how far local government climbs Arnstein’s ladder of participation.

A full account of this research can be found in my recent article ‘Local Democracy in a Digital Age: Lessons for Local Government from the Manchester Congestion Charge Referendum’, Local Government Studies.


Dr Paul Hepburn is a Postdoctoral researcher at the Hestletine Institute for Public Policy and Practice, University of Liverpool His work explores the potential of the new digital media to enhance local democracy and local governance. He uses methods and tools for analysing and explaining the structure of online political networks. Paul previously worked in local government where he implemented an e-government programme.

2 thoughts on “Can local government govern in the digital age?

  1. An interesting post thanks and does make me consider the influences some can have via social media, akin to the ‘usual suspects’ letter writers to local newspapers.

  2. As with anything, it has its advantages and disadvantages. Sadly, it means those who want to shout loudest can be heard. But the government can look at their own policy and be positive with its use.
    A minor example but tweeting live updates during emergencies helps to build trust and maybe restore authority somewhat.
    But it has to be implemented and established straight away. Digital doesn’t leave much room for remedial work/damage control.


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