In my last post I tried to emphasise the importance of democratic processes in the platforming of local government, and I did this for a couple of reasons which I just want to briefly visit before getting into what I would consider to be the main design implications.
Firstly, all the talk about (local) government as a platform seems to be about public administration and public services, rather than democracy. I don’t have a problem with that but it does tend to lead to technocratic discussions about how to optimise service delivery and that in turn leads to a focus on automating, linking and front-end technology. [Aside: If you are familiar with this debate you’ll probably have seen Mark Foden’s classic video on the Gubbins of Government – it’s a great example of how to get across something quite technical and abstract in a way that anyone can understand, in fact I think it’s a bit of a masterpiece of technical communication. However, I also think it kind of assumes that government is just about providing all the services, and that we should therefore put all our effort into finding ways to make these services more responsive, to which I say yes of course services are crucial but I think the what, why, who, where, when and how are all still very much up for grabs in the democratic conversation.]
Secondly, if you are in the business of providing public services then, how can I put this delicately, you are maybe going to view all the available user research through the service delivery lens: to be more blunt, you are going to be biased. I think that uncovering the real needs of society is quite a nuanced and sophisticated conversation, and I definitely don’t want it carried out by people with an axe to grind. Well, unless it’s my axe of course, we all have our blind spots :)
Third, I see public services being carried out by a multitude of organisations and individuals, not just government bodies. Of course, some services are, but there’s no law or orthodoxy that says that this is the best business model pattern: some services are delivered peer-peer in one area, private outsourced provider in another, commercial somewhere else, and through a staff mutual in another place. In other words, there’s nothing uniquely “local government” about delivering local public services. Of course, of the things I deal with as part of my day job, maybe 99% of that is about service delivery (perhaps there’s some reasoning there about why I want to temporarily box it off!) – I don’t exactly regard it as _noise_ but the lack of focus on core democracy is definitely something I want to tip the balance in favour of. There’s a valid point to be made about the knitting together of all the service providers into a coherent joined up user journey is exactly what the “council platform” should be doing: this is a valid point and represents where I was just a few years ago, but it isn’t the whole story, and perhaps someone else might be able to do it better than us?
Finally, it’s not news that a) turnout in local elections is low compared to general elections, and b) local government has suffered from a series of funding cuts in the last few years as the Treasury has tried to balance the books. I have a hypothesis that these two phenomena are causally linked.
So I’d like to decouple the democratic process from all that public administration/service delivery stuff and look at it in more detail to see if we can’t support it better in a platform paradigm. And now I’ve written too much for one blog post and I’m going to have to continue this train of thought later.