Can Gov 2.0 transform Local Government?

Tom Barrance

Is there an appetite for more change in local government? In particular change that could challenge local council’s traditional relationships with the public, and how Councils conduct their business?

Drawing inspiration from the revolutionary changes enabled by the development of the collaborative web (web2.0) in the worlds of retail and peer to peer networking, a number of technologists and democrats have sought to harness the power of technology to make government better and democracy stronger by leveraging the power of citizens. Can Gov2.0 live up to the hype and deliver real transformation to local government in the UK; and will government open the door to these changes?

The Gov2.0 vision of an improved council is drawn from the underlying belief that more citizen choice and participation is a good thing, and that for this to happen citizens need access to information (open and transparent government). This vision runs contrary to James Madison’s view, which has dominated the structure of modern liberal democracy, that the election of representatives serves to refine and enhance the public debate. Rather it is argued that the representative system serves to undermine public understanding of the issues in favour of the party platform and sound bite politics. A lack of public information serves to obscure “true” organisational activity and behaviour, allowing waste to go unchallenged.

The harnessing of technology and of collaborative networks  makes access to large amounts of information, and open public debate possible; but also opens the door to another significant area of change, the use of publicly available information to develop and deliver services independently. Examples of this can be seen in the City of New York 311 apps competition, with applications based on public data delivering public services ranging from advice to urban poultry farmers to city emergency planning. These are not City services, rather community services facilitated by publication of public data. The development of community based services hosted and facilitated by local government shifts the Council to a position of being a platform provider, not just a service provider.

Making use of collaborative technology is not an untested idea in the arena of public policy. The use of social media in the reform of the Icelandic constitution in 2012 shows how people can engage and be part of a topic that would otherwise be restricted to the chosen few. More views and opinions produce better policies. Contrary to this, it may be argued that the public neither know enough, nor care enough about the day-to-day functioning of local government services, that they will not understand the technical details sufficiently to make decisions. Ignoring for now the patronising nature of these arguments that suggest that engagement in the process requires training and should therefore be restricted to a technocracy, the nature of mass involvement is that the question at hand is viewed from a diversity of perspectives, rather than just the limited perspective of the expert and elected representative.

The notion of a transformational change represents an appeal to a grand narrative of perfection. Transformation is an idea that is underscored by a belief that change will result in something which is “better” than before. This belief in a singular “better” future has driven the recent history of changes in the structure and organisation of local government. Rarely, however, do changes proposed seek to harness the citizen, rather than altering the organisational structure. That is perhaps the major difference between Gov2.0 and its predecessors such as New Public Management. Rather than being an appeal to the notion of singular perfection, Gov2.0 is an appeal via the citizen, to the bespoke – community government made by the public for the locality.

Gov2.0 is a set of ideas, which if implemented have the  power and the potential to transform the relationship between local government and those it serves, it can open up the development of policy and services to a wider audience, and allow the sunlight of transparency to shine in areas that have been hidden in the shadows. If the political will exists then Gov2.0 can make local government everybody’s business, not just the preserve of a chosen few.

tom b

Tom Barrance is a part time Doctoral Researcher looking at Gov 2.0 in UK Local Government, and full time Business Analyst/Project Manager at the London Borough of Hackney. He has worked in the public sector for the past 13 years, at a number of different local councils in a range of roles in Economic Development, business change and delivering ICT solutions.

The balance between electability and visibility

Ian Briggs

Much has been made of the challenge of actually getting people to vote. The November 2012 Police and Crime Commissioners elections had a pretty dire turnout and there may be some particular issues with regard to that election; but the May 1013 local elections are somewhat different. The three major parties are turning their attention to the next general election and on the back of the Eastleigh By-election the UKIP vote is attracting some attention.

But beneath all of this we need to look more closely at some of the basics of campaigning. Political parties are not swimming with cash at the moment – resources are limited and if the truth be told nearly all parties are short of volunteers to support local campaigns.

Some recent research suggests that over 85% of the UK population have some form of internet connectivity – this of course does mean to say that all are effective users of web based communications. Can the political parties rely more on web based media, social media and electronic campaigning?

In conversations in social settings and when travelling to and from work, it is not that people are wholly disinterested, but rather it is that they say they have few opportunities to actually see the whites of the eyes of the candidates. In more concentrated urban areas it might be possible to do more door to door work but the cost and the time involved to go door knocking in dispersed population areas is a big issue for many candidates – especially as this week’s election is for mainly upper tier councils that cover significant geographical localities. This assumes that all candidates are sound of wind and limb.

A recent conversation with one candidate – a 76 year old widow – revealed that she has little financial support from her party and finds getting about a challenge. Should this in any way detract from her worthiness to stand, her ability to engage in local political and community activity? The answer has to be no, if we believe in local democracy, yet her visibility to those who she is wishing to represent is in marked contrast to the early 40s male candidate who has employer support to stand and whose political career may even enhance his professional career. He also has extensive skills to use web based and social media and can easily find the time to go from door to door in dispersed rural communities to actually talk to local people. He accepts that for many – but not all – it is the policies that he is promoting that are attractive to the electorate and not his shiny German car and sharp cut suit.

If the many who do not have strong political allegiance walk into the polls willing to vote (assuming they have the time and motivation to do so), are they more likely to offer their vote to the individual who has actually taken the time to talk to them on their doorstep? If your telephone has rung and you have been asked if you are going to vote and if so for whom, might it be the one who stood on your doorstep and engaged you in conversation? Do we think enough in the lead up to elections about who are selected to be local candidates and whether there are any inherent inequalities in the way that candidates are selected?

It might just be that sometimes the best candidates, irrespective of their party, might be the better ones to have irrespective of their politics.


Ian Briggs is a Senior Fellow at the Institute of Local Government Studies. He has research interests in the development and assessment of leadership, performance coaching, organisational development and change, and the establishment of shared service provision.

Shocking but not surprising: the problem is not with women but with the political parties

Catherine Durose

EHRC research exploring the under-representation of women and other groups protected under the Equality Act (2010) has been used to support a call for the Coalition to act to address the issue of women’s representation in Parliament. Women from the Political Studies Association’s Women and Politics group challenge the government to accept the logic of sex quotas and introduce legislation for elected institutions in Great Britain.

In the call for legislative quotas, researchers from the PSA women and politics group argue that if local parties are worried about having local candidates they can recruit and support local women to stand for selection. Supporting more candidates locally can have the benefits of reducing the costs (and barriers) of candidature and election and can potentially ‘open up’ politics to a wider range of people, as well as reinforcing the constituency link in national politics. As the Councillor’s Commission suggested, one way to do this is to encourage more civic and issue-based activists into politics. Such activists bring not only important skills but also an authenticity currently seen to be lacking in politics.

The Call

Claire Annesley, Rosie Campbell, Sarah Childs, Catherine Durose, Elizabeth Evans, Francesca Gains, Meryl Kenny, Fiona Mackay, Rainbow Murray, Liz Richardson and other members of the UK Political Studies Association (PSA) Women and Politics group.

This last week has seen the issue of women’s representation in Parliament hit the headlines, once again: Samantha Cameron apparently lamented the lack of women in politics to her husband; mid-week, job-shares for MPs were put forward as a new way to increase the number of women in the UK Parliament and there have been calls for quotas for the National Assembly for Wales. Over the weekend the Liberal Democrats launched two inquiries into the alleged sexual harassment of prospective women candidates and this Monday the 2013 Sex and Power Report was published, documenting the ‘shocking’ absence of women from all areas of public life. The findings of Sex and Power may be ‘shocking’ but they did not come as a shock to feminists. Enough is enough, it’s time that the Coalition Government stepped up and implemented the recommendations of the 2008-10 Speaker’s Conference on Parliamentary Representation. It should follow the evidence commissioned by Parliament, accept the logic of sex quotas, and introduce legislation, for Westminster and other elected institutions in Great Britain.

Party leaders have said it before, and no doubt they’ll say it again: In the words of David Cameron:

“Companies, political parties and other organisations need to actively go out and encourage women to join in, to sign up, to take the course, to become part of the endeavour”.

The problem is that exhorting women to participate in politics will never address the ‘scandalous’, as Cameron also put it, under-representation of women at Westminster. Men are nearly 80 % of the House of Commons. Women are not even half-way to equal presence. Labour does the best with a third of the Parliamentary Labour Party female. The Tories at 16 percent, come second, and they did more than double their number at the last election. The Lib Dems trail in last, at just 12 percent, with fewer women candidates and fewer women MPs in 2010 than in 2005.

The situation is depressingly familiar at other levels of government in the UK. Despite Nordic levels of women’s representation when the Scottish Parliament and the National Assembly for Wales were first created, the overall trends are of stalling or falling with campaigners calling for legislative quotas in devolved and local government and for the Speaker’s Conference to be replicated.

Fewer women than men currently want to be politicians – we need to address the reasons why and make sure that there is greater diversity overall in Parliament – but the most pressing problem is not with women but with the political parties and their willingness to select and support the qualified women who would like to stand in seats where they have a good chance of winning. Cameron himself acknowledged this last week:

“Just opening up and saying ‘you’re welcome to try if you want to’ doesn’t get over the fact that there have been all sorts of barriers in the way”

These multiple barriers were examined extensively in evidence given to the specially convened Speakers Conference which looked at how to improve the diversity of representation at Westminster. Only some of its recommendations have since been introduced. One key recommendation was that candidate selection data be routinely published so the public can see who was being selected by the parties. Unfortunately the Coalition has opted for a voluntary approach to the publication of this data. In its absence, political parties will likely get away with shifting the blame onto women when what is at issue is their failure to recruit women.

The Equality and Human Rights Commission’s evidence to the Speaker’s Conference was just one of many to identify the barrier of party demand: a perceived gap between the rhetoric for equality of representation by national party elites and the reality of decision making at the critical point of candidate selection on the ground. EHRC research shows local parties frequently opt to pick candidates who fit an archetypal stereo-type of a white, male professional. The Conservatives, Labour and Lib Dems choose to address this particular barrier in different ways – with only the Labour party addressing it by using a party quota, All Women Shortlists. Yet, the Speaker’s Conference recommendations were clear that in the absence of significant improvements in 2010, Parliament should consider legislative quotas. There was no such significant increase. And looking forward, there is, if anything, talk of declining numbers of Conservative and Liberal Democrat women in 2015.

The global evidence on quotas is clear: well designed and properly implemented quotas are the most effective way to address the under-representation of women. Shouldn’t the Government follow the evidence? Other measures can and do make some difference. It is why we support the call for MP job-shares; the training for women candidates that all parties provide; and diversity training for party selectorates, amongst other measures. And it’s why we welcomed the Conservative Party’s A list at the 2010 general election, even if it could not guarantee the selection of greater numbers of women. But the gains across the board have just been too slight and are taking too long.

The Coalition could – if it really wanted to – act on this issue now. Introducing legislative quotas – making all political parties implement quotas – would give the two party leaders ‘political cover’. Both leaders’ positions on quotas are on the record: they gave commitments to the Speaker’s Conference in person. Clegg said he wasn’t ‘theologically opposed’ and Cameron said he would use some AWS before the last election, although in the end he didn’t. And we are pretty confident that Labour would support legislative quotas: how could it not given its own record on this issue?

We acknowledge that hostility to quotas is out there, but criticisms can be challenged. Quotas are not the electoral risk that some activists suggest. Studies show that being an AWS candidates does not cause electoral defeat. If the principle of merit troubles, one can counter that current selection processes are themselves not meritocratic. Cameron said so himself. Nor do quotas produce unqualified or poor quality women MPs – few know which of Labour’s 1997 intake were selected on AWS, and they were equally as successful in terms of promotion. And we simply don’t buy the argument that there are not enough qualified women out there – each party has its ‘folder’; and if it is perceived to be a bit thin, some good old fashioned searching will find more. Evidence from the US shows us that party demand begets a greater supply. The Government can also make other changes to increase the supply of potential candidates – let’s give the House more professional hours and ensure that families can afford to live and work in both London and the constituency, for example. Finally, and for some the bottom line, is criticism of what local parties regard as top-down measures. But if the truck is with ‘outsider’ women ‘being imposed’ then local parties can recruit local women to stand for selection.

Candidates are being selected as we write – the time to act is now. So, Messers Clegg and Cameron, be constitutionally radical (there’s not been too much success so far here) and leave a legacy of gender equality from the Coalition Government. Let’s have a House of Commons that closer approximates the sex balance of the UK in 2015. You could, at a minimum, set up a Second Speaker’s Conference with the remit to implement the recommendations of its predecessor and to work with other parliaments and assemblies across the four nations. Or be even more bold: to expedite women’s representation the Government need only introduce a Bill establishing legislative sex quotas. The alternative is for us to wake up the day after the 2015 election and find the party leaders once again bemoaning the continuing under-representation of women at Westminster.

This post was originally featured on the PSA Women and Politics blog.

A shortened version of this post was also published by the Huffington Post.

The EHRC research cited here was led by Catherine Durose (University of Birmingham) with Liz Richardson, Francesca Gains, Ryan Combs and Christina Eason (University of Manchester) and Karl Broome (University of Sussex).

The work has also been cited in the recent report of the Communities and Local Government Select Committee, ‘Councillors on the frontline‘.

For further discussion of these findings see Durose, C., Richardson L, Combs, R., Easton, C., and Gains, F. (2012) ‘Acceptable Difference’: Diversity, Representation and Pathways to UK Politics. Parliamentary Affairs.


Catherine Durose is Director of Research at INLOGOV. Catherine is interested in the restructuring of relationships between citizens, communities and the state. Catherine is currently advising the Office of Civil Society’s evaluation of the Community Organisers initiatives and leading a policy review for the AHRC’s Connected Communities programme on re-thinking local public services.