Digital Dreams and Networked Nightmares…and the death of hope.

I think part of me died today.

Let me explain, but at the same time, try to keep it general, because there’s a general point at issue here, not just one specific to where I live or to what I’ve been involved with myself.

For many years, in one role or another, I have been involved with local authority elected representatives. I have had no regrets about that at all. Many of them are great people, with vision and a real social conscience (as I think we used to call it). However, the breed contains its fair share of overly self-opinionated, moralising throwbacks, too. Most work hard for few rewards. Some do very little and expect the world to fawn at their feet.

For many years, the aura in local authorities attaching to the status of elected representatives was out of all proportion. For the genuine, no-nonsense, task-focused councillors, it was easy to make far too much fuss. These were straight with the officers with whom they worked, open to being briefed, and prepared to be persuaded by facts. At the other end of the scale, though, were those for whom the local authority was no more nor less some form of “gentleman’s club” (for they were mostly male), and officers no more than bidden servants.

I did an induction event once for newly elected councillors. My theme was “Your journey starts here…” This went down well with most, but my good reception was spoiled, by five or six out of the dozen, who wanted to leave me, and their colleagues, in no doubt that they thought, having been elected, they had “arrived”.

It is a truism of democracy that the people get what the people voted for. I still chuckle at that line that says “It doesn’t matter who you vote for in General Elections, because it’s always the government that gets in.”. It’s also true (although more than a little theoretical in some areas) that if you don’t like what you got, the only recourse is to vote them out next time. But in the meantime, those in place are accountable to the electorate as a whole, and need to be seen to be so.

My own work in the field of community engagement gave me opportunities to try to make this so. I was well aware that the job would throw up issues of public apathy or  things like  the sense of powerlessness that can go with living in a traditionally downtrodden area. What I was much less prepared for was the force with which some elected representatives loudly, and often, (though seldom in public) voiced the view that the electorate could “take it or leave it”. Having voted, they were seen as having no more rights to be involved, engaged, consulted or otherwise encouraged to participate in decision-shaping, much less to be involved in decision-making.

Small wonder that many of these “representative”people were virtually unknown, even in their own electoral areas, or that many local authorities found themselves needing launch profile-raising initiatives for them. Sadly, some of these ventures simply had the effect of pandering to the egos of those who saw themselves as some form of neo-squirearchy, and  for whom personal recognition was a fruit of having (let’s be kind) 15% of a local population vote for you.

One battleground in which I seemed to find myself frequently involved was the issue of whether consideration of Issue A, or Development B etc should take place in public, or behind closed doors. It always surprised me too, that where electoral majorities were most secure, one would find the strongest desires to keep the press and public well out of the frame, and certainly out of the room.

The qualified rights of the public to observe local authority business have been with us for many years. The right of the public actually to take part in discussion about an issue as part of decision making, or even to help shape an outcome through things like participatory budgeting, are far newer in most areas. As such, they are delicate and vulnerable concepts which I, my colleagues and our managers often trod eggshells to nurture and help to take root. Some of us have even been trying to encourage those we voted for, as well as those we didn’t, to take social media seriously. After all, what better than to be able to have on-line dialogue about local matters with the people who put themselves forward as your representatives? Heavens; didn’t that nice Mr Pickles even exhort local authorities to be more open like this, barely a year ago?

But always, there was a sense of reluctance. The “just let us get on with it our way” voices seemed to grow louder. Some of those dedicated to social media in public engagement began to look (or rather, were made to look) a nerdy minority. Public meetings began to falter. It was always “the wrong time”, “too soon”, “too late”, “too difficult”, “too token”, “too cold” for them, especially if a feisty and pertinent debate was pretty much assured.

And then it happened.

Today. The senior politician responsible for localism and community engagement in my local authority decreed that the new partnerships created across the patch, to discuss and decide on a wide range of vital local issues, would not be open to the public. That was bad, really bad. But then, when not a single elected representative in the whole local authority raised any objection to that travesty, part of me died.

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