For a town council without a “proper” website – nested instead within the excellent and informative faversham.org – it may sound like a foolish suggestion for Faversham Town Council to become a world-leader in the field of online citizen engagement. Yet the Council’s relative weakness in this area may be an unexpected asset because, with no existing infrastructure, there is no technology inertia. All that’s needed is the desire to act.
Elsewhere in the world – as I’m currently discovering in New Zealand – great strides are being taken to transform democracy from being (or at least being perceived to be) a remote, top down process to one that truly embraces the views of the electorate.
1. e-petition facilities – such as that used in the UK by Bristol City Council
2. online discussion forums, including “People’s Panels” as used by Auckland Council
3. digital application forms – to ease the filling in and processing of standard forms
4. augmented reality applications to present development proposals on a tablet while standing on the actual site
5. participatory budgeting – to allocate spend according to a broad conversation.
The aim in doing so is never to replace face-to-face communication but to enhance the quality of the overall conversation. Not all of these tools will be appropriate for Faversham, or at least in the form they have been adopted elsewhere. The costs of implementing and maintaining such services need to be allowed for, and assessed alongside the benefits that have been seen by other councils in terms of citizen engagement, satisfaction and overall efficiency improvements.
If it embraced such an approach, Faversham Town Council could go from a stuck-in-the-mud to a galloping thoroughbred in one significant move; from having no website to being an exemplary council; to do so by grabbing best practice from places worldwide rather than trying to invent it itself.
The experience of other councils worldwide shows that there is a way. The question for Faversham seems to be: is there a will?
The most salutary argument may be provided by the fact that, in the Council’s absence, a discussion is already happening online. Indeed, many different conversations are taking place, for example on StreetLife, FaceBook and Twitter, the latter providing the popular weekly #FavershamHour. The risks of not participating are first, that the Council is missing out on valuable insights and second, that its absence will lead to an increasing sense of discontent with the Council among the electorate.