Councillors should embrace technology for the sake of open democracy, or risk going unheard

Parliament has long had its own TV channel, with audio and video from the House of Lords and Commons a given, and apart from the odd incident, uncontroversial.

However, a generation gap is emerging within local government between those more mature active citizens on comfy seats in the council chamber and the empowered upstarts in the public gallery tweeting and live blogging proceedings to online audiences.


Last month the communities’ secretary Eric Pickles told councils to open up their doors to filming. He advised that freedom of speech and independent journalism were under attack in local government after residents were in danger of arrest when reporting on meetings.

In 2011 Jacqui Thompson was arrested for using her mobile phone to film a county council meeting in Wales. Police detained her after forcibly removing her from the public gallery.  Thompson’s film of the incident leading to her arrest is now on YouTube. The sound is poor quality. But it’s worth viewing for the exchange between the Chairman and Thompson just before the suspension of the meeting.

It is correct to say that more councillors are reaching out to social media in order to communicate with their constituents, including live reporting of council meetings. However, despite having socially savvy councillors, there is still an established voice in the corridors of power who fear that bloggers, campaigners and the media will misrepresent their views if the words are captured electronically – the fact that audio and video recordings capture what actually happened should in theory allay these fears.

Ultimately, banning citizens from viewing their representatives in action is damaging democracy and pushing local government further behind closed doors. The digital age gives us the chance to make local government relevant to local peoples’ lives again.

Yes, meetings can be a bit boring, but the debates and decisions made are important, and its time ordinary people got a chance to see that. 

A hole at the helm?

Councils are deleting the job of chief executive and sharing the responsibilities between officers and elected members. Saving money is a priority but should it be achieved through such a radical re-organisation?  

Thanks to Nick Vose for this who recently joined us as an Associate in the Engagement Team:

The latest council to decide to buy into the spin over fat cats at the top is Harrow, a local authority with a minority Conservative administration. After a trauma filled start to the festive period during which Council Leader Susan Hall set out a consultation that proposed the eradication of the top job, in order to save £1 million, chief executive Michael Lockwood announced his resignation.

His eventual departure in February would have cost the council £168,000 in severance pay, but the overall loss of a chief executive will prove far more expensive than the salary of the chief executive position which they eradicated overnight.

For those authorities that have already taken the bold move to remove a chief executive, the work left behind has been shared out between numerous senior officers and politicians. Already overstretched directors of services find yet more work on their plates, increasing the likelihood of failure. Meanwhile the function of strategic leadership is being placed in the hands of elected officials, whose views move (in theory) in-line with the political temperature of the electorate. Unlike officers whose role is to remain practical and impartial.

In the case of Harrow the duties of chief executive have passed down to Paul Najsarek, but he already has a job as Corporate Director of Community Health and Well-being. A vital role at a time of housing crises and a rising ageing population. He already had enough to keep him busy, but now he is expected to perform two-thirds of another job as well – we all hope he gets a pay rise!

The job of strategic leadership goes to the council leader, no doubt she was already doing some of the job, but leading a team delivering important public services is a skill developed over decades of managerial experience.

Importantly a political leader is not automatically a good chief executive and they won’t always be leader of the authority. Local government is already struggling to speak with one voice and make its case, further fragmentation of leadership at the top will only make this situation worse.

Ian Briggs, senior fellow in the institute of local government studies at Birmingham University, argues that chief executives play a crucial role in local authorities, as both figurehead and a balance to political considerations.

So… let’s not leave the ship without captain!