Why public meetings are the rocky-bed of the public talking to public services.

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A very honest piece from Delib called Why Delib Has Given Up on Police and Crime Commissioners has given me an opportunity to pull together a range of things about the bleedin’ obvious.

Delib is a business which helps public services with digital engagement – much like us but a bit different.  They’ve spent months trying to get Police Crime Commissioners talking to them about better ways to talk to the public about policeing and crime and safer communities.  They’ve now given  up.  Why?  Because they keep being told that the Police Commissioner holds public meetings, and that’s good enough:

You wouldn’t walk to a phone box to call a friend in Australia anymore. Equally you wouldn’t walk to a draughty town hall, at an inconvenient time, to ask a question of a PCC you’ve never heard of.

Public meetings have moved from the bedrock of local democracy to the rocky-bed. A place that only seems still comfortable for those used to a diet of lumpy and cold communications – or those who would rather not share their bed with anyone.

This has been recognised in Birmingham with an impassioned report from Cllr Lisa Trickett and her scrutiny colleagues on public engagement. (I gave evidence to the ctte).  In it they conclude that the traditional Cllrs meeting with residents in a hall doesn’t cut it:

7.3.10. Overall our conclusion is that Ward Committees are not currently fit for the purpose set out in the Leader’s Policy Statement (2012) as the major means for citizens to engage on issues affecting their area.
Its recommendation opens the door to radical democratic alternatives.

7.3.13. Some strong pioneering effort should be promoted across the city for radical experimentation with new and different formats.

We are about to start working in Kings Heath and Moseley to support that shift.  There the aim is to create a fledgling partnership. How this will happen in detail I’m not yet clear.  That’s a good thing.  It is very easy for those who organise one process to replace it with another which they in turn have organised.  Doing that misses the opportunity to involve new people in change, but there’s a tricky balancing act between the open and involved and the organised enough for people to appreciate how it might help them.

That’s the core of it:  it’s better to meet people where they are – very few people are in draughty halls and more and more people are on the internet.

—–  Some extra stuff…

but, there are also wider changes for the council centrally to

1. to improve the Council website
2. for an improvement plan for how the Council deals with citizens as customers
3. for a ‘cross-cutting improvement plan’ for consultation
4. to ‘bring forward a plan that addresses the key concerns raised and opportunities set out in the report and take on the fundamental step changes set out in Chapters 5-8.’

Number 1 is actually about the core problem that for years the democracy section of the council’s website has been unusable – you can’t link to an individual document.   I found the report on the Centre for Public Scrutiny and the Birmingham Against the Cuts website – I couldn’t find it on the council site through a google search. A google docs accounts with some folders in it would have been cheaper and better – and that, or dropbox, still might be the best solution.

As for two -when given evidence I bashed on a bit about this thinking of us as customers.  I’m very keen to encourage officers to be thought of and act as citizens – not as shop assistants.  This report talks of people as citizens (although recognises that  often all we do really want is a simple and effective service from the council).

Our job is to encourage a wider participation in local civic conversation on the web –  encourage people to use the web to say what they want to say and try and help public services learn how to listen to that – join in and make what comes out of the conversation useful for the community.  Of course Moseley and Kings Heath already has plenty of that.    Which is why some people still stick to their public meetings – because they can be fairly confident of what will happen.

 

One comment

  1. Since I left Birmingham for London, I’m been keeping engaged with goings-on in Birmingham City Council (BCC) via http://www.birmingham.public-i.tv/ and http://birminghamnewsroom.com/

    Neither of these websites seem to be based on the antiquated BCC website, which may explain why they work reasonable well.

    It would be great to see these services extended to meetings held outside council buildings, meetings where citizens interact directly with elected officials.

    If there is anything I can do to help, please let me know.

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