Government needs advice? Just open up and ask.

The blog of the IDeA Strategy and Development Unit may sound dry, but it provides an open window into the workings (and not workings) of local government. It is about Policy and Performance.
The other day there was a great post on the 10 local government social media myths including “it’s all about the tools”, “it’s only the young who use social media”, “It’s too hard” and “It’s easy” … all neatly disposed of.
Ingrid Koehler has an insightful piece on Does digital inclusion mean social inclusion? and I have now just seen Read on if you dare! from Ingrid’s colleague Adrian.

Are you brave enough to read on? You are about to read reports of a meeting at CLG (Department of Communities and Local Government), so if I accidentally transcend the bounds of confidentiality, you may have to crunch on a cyanide tablet. Or I might have to self-destruct. However, since it was about providing information to the public, any over-concern with secrecy would be less likely to attract the attention of the secret than the irony police.

Adrian goes on to provide links to items about Timely Information to Citizens, Using new technologies to support community empowerment, Digital mentors, Digital Advisers, and Digital Inclusion.
I’m glad he has, because it sounds rather like a meeting I was in the other day, through a surprise invitation to join the Citizen Engagement Tools Sub-Programme Board.
A dozen or so of us from various sectors were brought together and served with a few score pages of reports by civil servants.
Among the papers were proposals to spend about £2 million on various projects submitted by local governent and other organisations, all aiming to inform, engage or empower citizens.
We weren’t there to make decisions, but act as a sort-of sounding board, so there was a lot of discussion about whether this or that project was innovative, had been done somewhere else, and might be done another way.
The problem was that the civic servants – and the Board – didn’t really have time to investigate in any detail, and it was clear that staff changes and shortages meant some areas wouldn’t get the attention they deserved.
I felt emboldened to make a fairly simple couple of suggestions, based on the great willingness of people in the digital empowerment field to share their experience:

  1. Instead of limiting input to a Board of a dozen, why not organise a half-day event rather like the recent UKGovCamp09, and invite anyone with expertise in the area to turn up.
  2. Secondly, why not anonymise the bids and post them online for comment, rather like the Power of Information report promoted by social media Minister Tom Watson. That attracted over 300 contributions.

This approach would have two benefits. First, hard-pressed civil servants would find they had a lot of volunteer helpers. Second, I suspect it would be possible to save a lot of the £2 million as people pointed to existing projects that could be replicated, and came up with smarter ways of doing things. The Show us a better way competition showed how a small prize brought lots of good ideas.
My suggestions were politely received, but I guess I’ll just have to wait and see if they are taken up. Well, no, I can follow the IDeA lead and blog about it, and toss a tweet in the direction of the very accessible Tom W.
I have a sneaking suspicion that the civil servants might be up for a different way of doing thing, given some encouragement. If not, it may be the last Board I get invited to.

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