really? honestly?

Twitter and usefulness

I have a bit of a thing about the usefulness of services. There’s all these great ideas, clever mash-ups, conceptual discussions…but how many of them are actually useful? I’m not going to waffle on here about different models of utility, nor suggest that concepts aren’t incredibly useful in their own way. But what I’m getting at is the sheer, in-your-face, “wow, that makes a real and tangible difference to my decision, my quality of life, my journey” type of usefulness.

This new @tweetalondoncab cleverness from the tweeting cabbie @londontaximan is definitely useful. You ask, and if the resources are lined up in the right way, you get a really useful service right when and where you need it. So, in a slightly more bizarre way was the #tweetbike. If fully developed, a service that told you, accurately, exactly which schools were shut in an emergency would also tick the “massively useful” box. The jury’s out on Mapumental, from mySociety (it has to be as this particular wannabe juror still hasn’t got a private beta log-in to it yet, despite a few nudges…) Oh, and @uktrains is brilliant executed, and very useful.

But in terms of the stuff that flies around attracting most interest on Twitter…a real-time #uksnow map? A Twitter Grader? A #3words meme? They’re Quite Interesting, but they’re not exactly useful. And yet the QI stuff, the novelty, the humour-meme, the flash-mob, is the stuff that often spreads the fastest and widest. I’m making a big caveat here to exclude the likes of #iranelection – hugely powerful mass communication and information sharing for sure, but not purporting to be a ‘service’ as such.

What’s elusive so far is an environment that supports a move from flash mobs to smart mobs, and then to that particular flavour of smart mob: the “useful mob”. From collective intelligence to collaborative usefulness.

So you’d think that something genuinely useful like a crowd-sourced real-time traffic reporting standard would take off, wouldn’t you? Well, not yet…

Along the lines of the way #uksnow worked, I tried:

#uktraffic [road] [where: jcts or place] [direction] [description] RT&seewhathappens

In theory, that’s enough structure to allow reports in that format to be picked up and made Really Useful. It got a couple of retweets (with some prompting…) and I’ll be trying it again, perhaps in response to reports of traffic chaos, or bank holiday weekend etc. But – is there something more fundamental about Twitter that means the novelty of the story will always win out over its actual operational effectiveness?

It might just be that drivers can’t physically (or at least, safely) tweet about road conditions. But their passengers could. Or perhaps a bit of chicken-and-egg: without seeing the useful tools all we’d have is a mass of hard-to-digest information – though search would still be pretty powerful.

We’ll see. Early days still. Why don’t you try firing off that #uktraffic format as above, and see what happens? Or change it to something you like better.

But do try and support (or even launch) useful things, hey?


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And if you really wanted to transform local government?

More thoughts inspired by the #futurelocalgov session at Reboot Britain

I dropped in a throwaway (aren’t they all?) tweet during the session:

#rebootbritain the big breakthrough for local gov? STOP thinking in terms of a service portfolio. START thinking about role in community.

What on earth did I mean? Well, one of the creative thinking techniques I’m fond of says, roughly: if you really want to innovate, look at the most basic parameters of a situation, then subvert them.

In English, that means take a very basic answer to the question “What’s Local Government there for?” – for which let’s use: “to deliver a defined set of services according to priorities set (in part) by locally-elected representatives” – and break some of the principles straight away. [‘in part’ reflects the fact that discretion can be applied to the delivery of some services more than others]

What if the primary function isn’t to deliver services (or ‘a service portfolio’ as I grandly tweeted)? What if it’s something else? How might that unlock new ways to reinvent, or even ‘reboot’, local government?

Imagine instead that the services are the secondary consideration. And that the primary function becomes “to serve the needs of the local community”. Suddenly we’ve opened up a wealth of new possibilities. Yes, this can mean alternative delivery models, through partnerships and so on, which is hardly radical thinking. But we’re getting away from just focusing on services here, remember?

It can also mean adopting new methods of listening, engaging, shaping… whatever you want to call it. “Serving the needs” must begin with “understanding the needs”. The local authority now has to do far more than just run through the motions of making sure there’s a refuse service, a social care service, a highways service and so on… Instead, through listening and engagement, it can actually find out what’s really needed to serve a community. It might not involve the services as they’ve traditionally been delivered. It might not involve some of the services at all. It’s very likely to involve some that haven’t even been designed yet…

And assessing need involves more than sending council officers out with questionnaires, or turning to online polls. It can mean redefining the whole concept of ‘government’ at the local level. Instead of the mysterious council figures mentioned in FutureGov’s sobering video introduction, the service need is expressed directly from the youth worker, the street sweeper, the cab-driver, the teacher, and the child. From everyone, in fact: not just what’s always been seen as the ‘public sector’ domain. There would be a relevance and a reality to community services: they would actually pervade the communities they serve (and not just be a name on a door down one of the Town Hall corridors).

Idealistic, woolly tosh? Perhaps. There are, of course, constraints in this real world of ours. Serious financial ones head the list. And there’s an enormous amount of established practice and ‘habit’ to address. It’s not easy to throw everything in the air and start from the beginning. It takes a seriously sensitive hand to guide and shape services without reverting them to pale, top-down reflections of what was really needed.

But as a guiding vision for what local government should really be about if we’re serious about rebooting things, a statement “we’re not here just to run the services; we, with you, are here to serve this community as best we possibly can” might at least be a step in the right direction.

Aim to deliver a set of services, and you’ll do just that. Perhaps a little better each year, perhaps with a few innovations, but by and large you’ll always do what you’ve always done.

Aim to serve a community, and things really could change…

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Spoiling the party…

A great day at Reboot Britain today. For me, one of the highlights was FutureGov’s “Learning to Love Local Government”. I can confess to some previous form in this area – my first public sector job was as a local government officer in the mid-90s, and though I’ve been far more wrapped up in the central government world since then I have an interest – perhaps increasingly so in recent months – in the role and relevance of government at the local level.

A very good panel – knowledge, creativity and passion in equal measure. Credit to Dom for pulling it all together. A top-quality panel always helps me to focus my mind on the killer questions I’d really like to see addressed in a session. This post looks at the first of my burning questions:

What relevance does national party political affiliation have at the local level?

I’ll say up-front that I don’t actually know the answer with any certainty, but here’s where I’ve got to so far: do pitch in if you have more to add…

An easy answer could be: because it gives a training ground, feeder pool and substructure to the parties somewhere between grass-roots activism and Westminster (or devolved administrations). There might be a grain of truth in this, and certainly there is plenty of evidence that this happens, but I doubt it’s actually the real reason. If it were, this would certainly be of some service to established political organisations, but arguably less so to the people whom they represent.

It may just be about making local government manageable. Assume as an alternative that your council chamber is packed with perhaps 70 locally-active, vociferous individuals all representing their wards as hard as they can. You know the shy, retiring types who make very good independent candidates? Fancy trying to form committees or other organising structures out of that?

Or is it just that – irrational and irrelevant as we might find foreign policy positions when we’re more concerned about the state of the roads – we find it much easier to deal with the broad coding we get from party political labels. ‘Conservative’ translating as “taxes kept low and more provider choice, but you’ll find free stuff gets cut”; ‘Labour’ = “redistributive social policy and a stronger safety net for all”; Lib Dem = “caring, greener, maybe even more socially redistributive”? [Don’t take these thumbnails as any form of political analysis – that’s not the point of this post!] UKIP and BNP speak for themselves – but I suspect there’s nothing like the organised local machinery of the main parties – their goals don’t currently embrace actually running administrations AFAIK. (Not sure about the Greens. In some ways they already have just the sort of label that should be really effective locally…)

Or is perhaps just that without a local ballot-box to whack every year we lack a vital venting mechanism in counterpoint to the General Election polling cycle? Perhaps we keep national politics in our local backyards just to show we can exercise feedback?

Perhaps it’s even time to grow up more and review some of these arguments. Are good, capable, independently-elected People Who Care really incapable of forming useful governing structures without bold blue, red and yellow labels? Or is it true that – other than foreign policy – all political positions only really make sense where they’re actually experienced: at the local level; making it completely natural to see our local representatives in those clothes?

Should we be aiming for a new non-partisan local democracy supported by organising structures (cabinets, committees etc.) which are designed to be fit for that purpose? Find people with passion to really represent localities – with far less likelihood of being driven by the self-interest of eventual advancement to a seat in SW1?

Whichever might be true, it seems that we hardly ever hear the issue of national-politics-at-the-local-level raised, nor much from the local politicians themselves on what value it actually adds. So do please join in and tell us.

Coming next: what you could do if you really wanted to transform local government…

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