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ANALYSIS - GET ONLINE TO SAVE LOCAL DEMOCRACY

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>> Online technology offers chance to reach out to voters...
>> Online technology offers chance to reach out to voters

>> E-government will save time and money

>> Despite publicity campaigns, the UK has one of the lowest take-up rates of online council services in Europe

By Dan Drillsma-Milgrom, finance editor

On billboards across the nation, on the internet, in newspapers, in almost every direction the eye glances, there seems to be an advert encouraging people to access council services via the internet.

The Department for Communities & Local Government's£5m campaign to tell people there is no reason to put up with potholes in the road, dumped furniture in the field or graffiti on the walls is in full swing.

The government hopes any citizen with a query for their council will be able to find what they need by visiting www.direct.gov.uk where they can search for the service they need and the relevant council. There are benefits for councils too. Figures from Tameside MBC show that each person who pays their council tax online costs the council 25p. This compares with£1.50 over the phone and£15 if they come into council offices.

The customer is (theoretically) directed to the relevant information quickly and easily, the council saves money and is able to gain some recognition for the services it provides.

So what? This is all handy, but hardly life-altering stuff. The UK has one of the lowest take-up rates for the use of online council services in Europe so the campaign is certainly justified, but considering the exalted tones in which people talk about e-government, are council tax payers not entitled to expect a bit more? Given the colossal potential of the internet, could it not be working harder to promote democracy?

The direct.gov site has in fact been up and running for two years (a period in which the people behind the site on MPs theyworkforyou.com set up a spoof site called directionlessgov.com) but the government hesitated

before launching the current campaign, keen to ensure every council had a fully-functioning website that would link up with direct.gov.

Now the danger is that an initiative that could have a much more profound effect on bringing councils and voters closer together will suffer a similar delay.

The Improvement & Development Agency defines 'e-democracy' as the use of technology to improve the interaction between government and its stakeholders, with the goal of raising or promoting participation in democratic processes.

Last year, the then Office of the Deputy Prime Minister decreed that every councillor in the UK should have access to the tools necessary to host their own website. A further reaching ambition would have been to set every councillor in the country a deadline by which to have set up a site.

Peter Ryder, the new president of Socitm, the Society of IT Management, stresses the benefits of giving every councillor an online presence detailing their voting records, registered interests, speeches and political stance.

'To be honest, I think it's a cracking idea,'he says. 'It would only add to the level of democracy, perhaps you could go further and host online surgeries for those unable to make it in person?'

IDeA released a report in February making the business case for e-democracy. As well as helping councils meet government targets associated with comprehensive performance assessments and neighbourhood engagement, there are also cash benefits. One case study in Bristol showed the benefit of using e-panels to conduct consultations. Running 12 consultations in the space of 10 months cost£40,000 whereas doing so by conventional means would have cost£96,000.

Most councils, however, are some way from being able to reap such benefits and are struggling to offer the basics in terms of giving these stakeholders an idea of who their councillors are and what they stand for.

One site, councillor.gov.uk, allows people to enter their postcode and find out the name of their councillors but not much more. There are a number of more progressive schemes including councillor.info, a project being run by Poptel Technology on behalf of the Local Government Association that gives councillors the tools needed to set-up and maintain their own website.

A study by the Local e-Democracy National Project found that if just one councillor from each council ran a blog, then up to 2.5m people would read a councillor blog each month. Additionally, the fact that 16-24 year-olds are simultaneously the demographic group extracting the most use out of the internet yet least likely to vote highlights the untapped potential of the internet to effect a change in local democracy.

Paul Evans, head of the councillor.info scheme, says that it is this discrepancy that is driving the scheme forwards.

'If you look at your average councillor, it is a 58-year-old white male,' he says. 'We can chase the councillors currently using our software and encourage them to constantly update their sites but we see the next stage as getting young politics or communications students to act as mentors to councillors.'

Quite how councillors react to being mentored by someone half their age would make fascinating viewing and the paucity of information available on individual councillors compared with their parliamentary counterparts gives it a degree of urgency.

Thanks to sites such as Hansard, theyworkforyou.com and individual MPs' sites, a wide range of information on MPs' public lives is available for scrutiny. Their voting records, register of interests, key speeches and contact details are all accessible. Click on a link to a councillor on a council website and more often than not you will be directed to a page full of blank text fields and a promise that your request will be acted on.

Some form of leadership is needed if councils are to reach the level of online participation shown by MPs. Councillor.info's Paul Evans suggests one of the reason for the low-level of take-up is to do with IT managers in individual councils all trying to implement their own systems. But even if everyone were to accept Poptel's technology as standard, it is unlikely the councillor.info scheme alone would be able to deal with the actual work of keeping that many sites constantly updated.

Mary Reid, mayor of Kingston upon Thames RBC and member of the International Centre of Excellence for Local eDemocracy (ICELE), believes the type of system used is unimportant.

The ICELE has produced a toolkit that allows any council to offer web-space, blogging, file-sharing or issues forums to any community group that needs it.

'We want systems up and running, we don't mind which product is used,' she says. 'There are several on the market but it is important to realise that it is about more than just web-pages.'

Perhaps a greater hindrance than disputes over platforms are the restrictions imposed by the Standards Board which prevent council resources from being used to promote individual councillors - effectively banning political material from council sites (see box).

There is wriggle room but each council has its own lawyers who interpret the code with varying degrees of caution and are clearly awaiting guidance from government.

E-democracy is a mercurial concept and ill-disposed to target setting. But it has the potential to embrace those left behind by the democratic process. Easy access to blogs has meant almost anyone can put their opinions online. There is no excuse for our elected representatives not to have done the same.

Caution surrounding councillors' blogs is absurd, says Mary Reid

Citizens now expect to be able to 'google' their elected representatives. Website management systems such as councillor.info, blogging platforms like ReadMyDay, even community online toolkits like Voice offer councillors easy routes to an online presence.

Whichever method they choose, at some point councillors all come up against the Code of Conduct for Members. According to the code, a member must not use council resources for political purposes. Our democratic system is fundamentally adversarial. Government is all the better where the details are scrutinised and the principles are debated by a strong opposition.

So it seems odd that the Code of Conduct appears to treat political debate as though it were an aberration rather than the lifeblood of the system. However, the words that follow are often forgotten: 'unless that use could reasonably be regarded as likely to facilitate, or be conducive to, the discharge of the functions of the authority or of the office to which the member has been elected or appointed'.

Councillors all use council resources whenever they speak at council meetings. I have yet to hear of a councillor who has been reported to the Standards Board for having made a political statement in a council meeting - that would be absurd.

In some councils, political discussions can be viewed on webcasts placed on council websites. Again, the use of this medium has never been challenged.

Many councils are extremely cautious about allowing councillors to use council-supported web facilities for political purposes, even though we could argue that they are likely to facilitate the discharge of the functions of the authority.

Guidance on the legal issues surrounding councillor's websites can be downloaded from the Local e-Democracy National Project at www.edemocracy.gov.uk/knowledgepool (it is listed under 'councillors' websites legal guidance').

In my view, councils are still erring too much on the side of caution. We need a clear recognition of the political role of councillors and a willing, not reluctant, acceptance of the political content of their websites.

Ironically, this is now my mayoral year, so I have adopted a non-political stance in my blog, but I do see this as the exception. All councillors should be free to do what they were elected to do - represent their residents and promote the policies that they presented in their manifestos.

Mary Reid (Lib Dem) Mayor, Kingston upon Thames LBC

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