Empowering Local Communities
By Patrick Abrahams
As the Government launches its Big Conversation consultation exercise and MPs promote key policies of choice, diversity and localism, it is more important than ever for those in power to engage with local communities. But many communities currently feel disaffected by central government and its local representatives. According to the Office for National Statistics’ General Household Survey, only 18 per cent of people feel ‘civically engaged’ – that is, well informed and assured that they and other members of the community can influence decisions that affect their neighbourhood. There is clearly more work to be done before communities feel their voices are truly being heard.
Local authorities – by which we mean parish, town, borough, district, unitary and county councils – are responsible for the delivery of local services. Under ‘Best Value’, these services must be cost-effective and high quality and based on the needs of local people. Local authorities are required to consult local people and local stakeholders to find ways of improving their services. And as the implementers of central government policy, they need to consider not only how they can keep local people informed, but also how they can actually involve local people in civic affairs. This is where town and parish councils, as the first tier of government that is closest to the community, can play a vital role.
There are approximately 12,000 parish and town councils in the UK, representing 25% to 30% per cent of the population. These councils are an important conduit for local opinion and feedback at grassroots level. Provision of service at local level works best when it is directly responsive to local needs, so mobilising councils at the parish and town level could be a valuable and effective way for central and regional government to learn more about local concerns and provide local solutions.
The drive to get online
So how can local authorities best engage in dialogue with local people? One solution is to interact with communities over the Internet. Indeed, as the Government draws closer to its 2005 Implementing Electronic Government (IEG) deadline, the Internet is becoming an increasingly important tool in the drive to reconnect with local people. Over half of UK adults already have regular Internet access and increasing numbers will use it in preference to other channels of communication as uptake grows. As a fast means of dialogue and information provision, the Internet provides the best access to voters.
However, there is a certain amount of confusion within various levels of local government about the obligation to get online. Borough, district, county and unitary authorities are obliged to set up websites. For parish and town councils, the issue is not so clear-cut.
According to the Freedom of Information Act 2000, they fall under the definition of local authorities and as such, should comply with the 2005 IEG deadline. However, both the National Association of Local Councils and the Local Government Association are unclear as to whether the IEG programme applies to parish and town councils, although both advise them to work actively on achieving the deadline.
Whether there is a regulatory obligation remains a moot point, but there is no question that most citizens believe that parish and town councils ought to be online as they represent the last vital piece of the e-democracy jigsaw. But this presents yet another challenge – as parishes are independent, with modest budgets, whose responsibility is it to support parish and town councils to get online?
Roles and responsibilities
Although most local authority websites are improving, they still require the citizen to understand the detailed differences between which part of the council is responsible for which issues of local concern. For example, who is responsible for maintenance of roadside verges or who is responsible for roadside litter, or dumped cars?
Local authorities have direct responsibility for consulting with communities about the services they provide to citizens. But the Home Office has also concentrated attention on the role of police authorities in engaging with communities and using public feedback to hold police forces to account for the delivery of services. While there’s no doubt the initiative itself is positive, it generates further confusion for citizens seeking the right place to find information.
The reality is that the majority of citizens are not aware of the role of police authorities, nor which level of local government is responsible for delivering which services. There is clearly an elementary education process necessary about the division of responsibilities between various levels of local authorities and police authorities, before the general public will even know where to begin looking for local information.
Citizens firstly needs to know who is directly responsible for delivering particular services – only then can they visit the appropriate authority’s website, or call them to find out who to deal with.
In theory, local authority websites are an easy, time efficient and labour saving method of interacting with communities online. In practice however, there are barriers to uptake both for local authorities and for the electorate.
For example, there are certain cultural barriers to be overcome at all levels of local authority before they can provide a robust and integrated online offering for voters. Local authorities can be very bureaucratic and resistant to change, particularly at parish or town level. Many wish to be left alone; they don’t want to put their local affairs on the Internet, where citizens may hold them to account for their work.
In addition, there is sometimes a low rate of IT literacy, very limited IT budget or too few (or no) staff to maintain an effective website on an ongoing basis. The combination of these factors means that timescales for IT projects can often be drawn-out or ineffective, or fail to involve the citizens they intend to serve.
A great deal of the work of the council is carried out by elected councillors on an unpaid voluntary basis, so the ability to attract sufficiently skilled volunteers to assist can be a barrier to establishing websites.
The status quo
All principal local authorities have already established websites. Many of these websites are already the hub of successful local initiatives. For example, the Air Quality section of the Kensington Borough website educates citizens on how air quality changes with changes to congestion. The TXT-IT service at Test Valley Borough allows residents to register their interests by Internet, mobile or post and they can then receive free local news updates via text message.
Some parish and town councils are also establishing their own individual websites. Although there are some successful examples, there are also many challenges to be overcome before every town and parish council can maintain its own website. The costs of these websites can vary from nothing to ?0 per year. But at an average of ? per year, the cost of providing all UK parish and town councils with a website could stretch into ? per year.
These websites are also often dependent on an individual’s good will to maintain them and this has many inherent weaknesses, from both a legal and sustainability viewpoint.
Individual sites are also not linked to each other or to other associated local government sites, so they cannot benefit from the effective sharing of best practice. If every English parish had its own website, citizens would then have 12, 000 different ways to access information on parish and town council websites, just as they do today to access the 388 principal authority websites.
As long as we live, work and socialise locally, there will be a need for local services, locally governed and locally accessible.
In an ideal world, we need a combination of the continued improvement to web services from principal local authorities and parish and town councils and additional universal access points. By the latter, we mean portals that the citizen can refer to without needing prior knowledge of which level of local authority (or police authority) is responsible for the service or remedy they are seeking, or where that authority is located.
Patrick Abrahams is with The Local Channel