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Local government version 2.0: from managerialism to platform

Local government version 2.0: from managerialism to platform

WHY IS THE  iPHONE a model for local government and what does C3I and Citizen 2.0 have to do with it? That’s what we’re going to explore in this story as we investigate what are preliminary ideas for a new role for local government in Australia.

Local government… it’s a curious thing, a mixture of progressive ideas and approaches, conservatism and timidity in the face of change and the discovery that in some cases it is populated and managed by curmudgeons. At best it is an enabler of community enterprise. At worse it places bureaucratic and financial barriers in the way of communities wanting to improve their neighbourhoods.

This I’ve learned in my dealings with it, either as a consultant or in its employment. I have to say that both of these roles have been enjoyable and I’ve met council staff who are open to new ideas and approaches at the same time I’ve met —just a few—who are quite happy to place barriers in the way of community initiative and who would easily fulfil the stereotypical role of ‘council bureaucrat’ of popular imagination. When I worked at the City of Sydney as community garden coordinator (the role was so much more than that, though, and should be renamed) I came into contact with a number of staff who asked ‘why not?’ rather then ‘why?’ when it came to some new idea.

I should again point out that my thinking on how local government could be structured and on its role are in a very formative stage. I’ve got the what and why, but not the how and I want to start by taking the role I am familiar with—community garden coordinator—as an example.

Let’s look at that as the first of a number of proposals for how local government could become more  responsive to changing public demands, more innovative in its thinking and acting…

Proposal 1: Administer portfolios (such as community gardening) as trans-silo

I’m simply using community gardening as an example that could be applied to other areas of local government because it is most familiar to me. You can substitute with other roles and areas within councils. So let me start by asking this: where, in the administrative apparatus of local government, should community gardening sit?

When I worked with the City, community gardens were the province of the parks department presumably because they are built on public open space, as public land is known in local government. Previously they sat with the waste education staff as they were sites where green waste was reprocessed into compost and because of their roles in waste reduction, recycling and reuse. After that and before migrating to parks they spent a period in the sustainability branch when the waste education role was transferred there. Just recently, I’ve been assessing community grants for a large local government on Sydney’s north side and they regard community gardens as belonging in social development. None of these locations are problematic. They are all appropriate homes for staff who support community gardening.

To ask where community gardens/city farms should sit in council, however, is to ask the wrong question. Why? Like other areas within councils, community garden development crosses departmental silos. The risk is that approaching them from the point of view of a single department is to miss their other important benefits. So, which silos are these that community gardening transits? They are community development, parks (or the department that administers public open space), sustainability. My feeling from my work at the City is that the public regards them as being primarily within a council’s sustainability initiatives.

Across the silos

How true is the cliche that within councils (and within government at all levels) ‘the left hand doesn’t know what the right is doing’? Well, it’s partially true depending on the individuals involved and how they think about and approach their work. I have seen cross-departmental consultation where the work of one department has some bearing on the work of another. I have also experienced the opposite, all within the one organisation. This makes generalisation difficult.

Take the council where there were three roles all providing sustainability education. All did a good job but they didn’t talk to each other let alone coordinate their workshop programs so that one built on another and to reduce repetition. Then there is he case where there were three sections all dealing with community gardens, though with their own specialisation. One made the decision to include community gardens in park makeovers though they did no consultation to determine whether there was local demand for community gardens. Another facilitated the design and construction of community gardens for low-income demographics. The other worked with citizen groups to create new community gardens and assist those already existing—this was a demand-led approach.

Behind this was the classic departmental or silo structure of local government. I got those silos above talking to one another for the most part and to start working together before I left but there is more to do before this becomes the default setting of operation. In its own preliminary, small way it sought to draw lines of communication and cooperation across the silos with the view to developing a better, co-ordinated and more effective approach. There was no managerial go-ahead to do this it just grew as a work necessity and I saw no benefit in making it something more formal. Rather, I regarded it as a justifiable initiative within the role.

What it did validate for me was that rather than being structured in silos, some local government roles would better be structured more independently and operate with other roles in the form of ad hoc or longer term teams. Now, let me say that cross-silo teams already existed for some needs such as assessing community grants and these worked and provide a basis for a broadening of the team approach to structuring some local government work.

Decision making by team

Cross-silo cooperation can lad to better results and a further benefit would come with taking the team approach to decision making on projects.

The structure was that different levels of management would obtain information from staff then meet at higher management levels to make decisions on projects. Staff would not attend those meetings even though they might have knowledge and experience in the topic under discussion and could assist management decision making as a specialist adviser. Without that specialist insight to advise, management decisions were sometimes less than they would otherwise be.

For example, it would seem to make sense that a management decision making meeting on, say, a city farm or a whole-of-neighbourhood-design would produce better results by including staff with experience and knowledge of such projects and who might know some of those in the community involved in them.

This indicates a vulnerability in decision making based on management level rather than by teams of both management and others with specialist knowledge and experience.

Beyond managerialism

This brings us to another consideration that may have bearing on why the public sometimes experiences frustration with local (and other levels of) government.

It’s called managerialism and it is the prevailing model of local government in this country. It is also an ageing, mid-Twentieth Century model that noted publisher and digital systems thinker, Tim O’Reilly, describes as ‘vending machine government’. In this model people put in their taxes, rates and charges and take out services just as you put coins into a vending machine and take out a chocolate bar.

Managerial government does things that it thinks benefits citizens but usually does not engage with them in any substantial way that gives them significant influence. At best, government consults, however this is usually the offering of choices between models, such as different designs for a public park that council has developed rather than engaging in a participatory process and starting by asking what it actually it is that people want in a park or other facility—by involving them in the process from its initial stages when the redesign is framed. Another example of managerialism is writing a policy draft then asking for comments on something already written. In regard to public land, to engage people at the start of the process is to engage is placemaking, a process led by citizens and not by designers or administrative decision makers.

A further example of managerialism is where local government makes a decision to support a idea formulated and promoted by a community association and ends up taking control of it, effectively disenfranchising the community association even when it is supportive of council support.

Government still need to provide services, of course, but those services might be developed in a more open way, a way that goes beyond the usual approach of someone writing a draft document such as a policy then putting it out for public comment for a fixed period. This is consultation, not participation, and it remains open to council staff ignoring ideas they don’t like when they write their recommendation on which councillors vote. This I know happens because I have seen it happen.

 Proposition 2: Use the iPhone as model for government

Let’s think of the iPhone. Apple created a technology, a structure, which is a platform on which developers have produced in excess of half a million apps. It’s platform as opportunity, a way of making the product so much more simply by establishing the staring conditions—the technology and operating system in this case—and opening it up to developer initiative.

As a platform the iPhone is the enabling structure on which people can develop things of value—the apps—software that is developed independently of Apple but which meets Apple’s criteria. This creates value for both developers and product users… and for Apple.

So, is the iPhone a good model for local government, or at least for particular parts of it that deal with community initiative (such as community garden development)? What I am suggesting can be summed up as ‘local government as platform’—the platform on which citizens develop good ideas.

When I was at City of Sydney this is how I treated the role of community garden coordinator. The City has a good, open community garden policy that enables citizens to take the initiative in starting community gardens and related community enterprise, and it has the Greening Sydney Plan. It also prefers community garden groups to be self-managing. The analogy with the iPhone is that that I regarded the policy as the platform for social entrepreneurs in the community to develop their community gardens and related initiatives upon. Another example: the City’s new Footpath Garden Policy is a step towards government as platform as it sets the starting conditions that enable people to make their own version of a footpath garden, but one that complies with council’s design criteria.

The City’s approach to community gardens, when I was there, was a demand-led, rather than supply-led process and it relied on community initiative. The supply-led approach came from the department that included community gardens in their plans for park makeovers. In one case there was sufficient preexisting interest in community gardening to get it started. In another, much staff time was devoted to carrying out an expression of interest and a public meeting and planning process as it was not at all clear that there was interest in a community garden. The supply-led approach was riskier for council.

In local government as platform, council gives freedom for communities to express their ideas in design and construction and its role becomes that of ensuring community-initiated development complies with a number of reasonable requirements that have the wellbeing of the city as a whole as their focus:

  • it is a safe environment for users and visitors
  • it is well presented (not an eyesore)
  • environmental management forms part of design and implementation; ie. it does not damage soils, waterways and other elements of the natural environment and does not reduce the capacity of those environments to provide environmental services
  • it improves the social environment by introducing new opportunities
  • where possible, it enacts elements of relevant local government policies, strategies and plans.

These are the main things for councils, which do not need to micromanage community projects or place restrictive requirements on them. Council in this case—and this was the notion I held at the City—takes a civic entrepreneurial approach that makes it possible for people to take positive initiatives and to engage with public open space in new ways. This is not a managerial approach. It is an enabling approach based on local government as platform and citizens as developers.

As for adoption of the role of civic entrepreneur by local government staff, that was personally confirmed to me as a valid role by the well known social entrepreneur trainer, Ernesto Sirolli of the Sirolli Institute, at a talk he gave at the City of Sydney.

Local government as platform is a different mindset to local government simply as service provider. It is a different approach to vending machine government and the managerialism that comes with it. It requires, however, trust of communities and an open attitude in council to a new role for community engagement with public open space and with other council roles. Managerialism generally distrusts citizens to take initiatives.

It is time to move on from this old thinking. I believe that local government as platform is the way to go.

Proposition 3: Implement C3I and engage with with Citizen 2.0

To do this, though, requires another shift in local government mentality, another shift away from managerialism. The analogy here comes from military affairs where there is an organisational model known as C3I—command, control, communications (the 3 C’s) and intelligence (meaning accurate, relevant and up to date information).

Government specialises in the first two Cs—command and control—but its notion of the third C—communications—is usually limited to the one-way flow of press releases from the PR or communications department rather than an engagement with the public as a conversation. For some councils, the ‘comments’ function on their website is a first move towards public conversation and is commendable.

Web 2.0 brought features such as comments and turned the Web into a conversation. Social media is the other way that this happens, however councils have yet to trust their staff enough to allow them to use social media effectively—to use it as a conversation in which responses are required immediately rather than some time after a manager has given the go-ahead to respond. The conversation may have moved on by them, leaving council behind. Too slow, too little, too late.

Digital communications specialist Judy Grundstrom addressed the intersection of government and the technically sophisticated citizen at the Government 2.0 Summit in the US. There, Judy asked how what I’ll call it government 1.0, because it’s still essentially government of the industrial age, meshes with Citizen 2.0, the digitally-enabled citizen. The thing about Citizen 2.0 is that it is globally connected and thus open to innovations and ideas flowing in from all over the world, ideas that could be disruptive to the usual way that government goes about its business. Those ideas could cast new expectations on local government that those inside the structure are unfamiliar with and don’t know how to respond to.

Many local governments continue to communicate with the public via websites developed during the Web 1.0 era. That was the one-way web, government to citizen, and lacked any opportunity for the citizen to publicly converse with government. Take a look at some of these anachronistic websites and you find that content is more like brochureware or PR-speak. An example of how local government can transition way from this approach is provided, first of all, by the City of Sydney in contrasting its main website and its newer, Green Villages sustainability-focused web presence that allows comments. Similarly, Randwick City Council has its main website and its sustainability-focused website, reduceyourfootprint.

Unbelievable it might seem at the start of the second decade of the Twenty-First century, some councils actually continue to block staff access to social media, leaving councils completely out of the picture with what Web 2.0-enabled citizens say about it. Social media is where the public conversation is now and disallowing access or having sluggish social media policy suggests something of the digital stone age still prevails in local government.

What’s the likely outcome of this approach? First it’s that councils’ voice is largely missing in the online public conversation in social media. Secondly, by refusing to participate in the dialogue, councils leave themselves open to charges of disinterest in the people they supposedly serve and of administrative elitism.

The importance of I

The third C might be a difficulty for local government, however the big problem has to do with the ‘I’ in the C3I formula—intelligence… meaningful, structured information interpreted as a basis for action, that is. By being outside the public conversation councils can fail to gain insight into how people think, the new demands they are likely to put on councils and how they interpret council actions and policies. If councils don’t sufficiently understand what, why and how people think about them, how can they plan and communicate effectively?

Difficulties arise where council staff are not social media or Web 2.0 savvy. I have seen the surprise when community groups have posted stuff about council on social media and when staff were unaware of it until some savvy person on staff pointed it out to management. Incidents like this demonstrate how social media can be a disruptive technology, a technology that alters the usual way of doing things. Let’s imagine that council commissioned a person to produce a report about neighbourhood improvement. He eventually presents the report to council and soon after, perhaps because he thinks council is taking too much time to assess it, posts it online and invites people to email the mayor and CEO to lobby for the report’s acceptance and implementation. Needless to say, staff might be taken aback by this approach, as in usual circumstances nothing would be published until council has considered it. Thanks to online media, the author turns the report into a lobbying tool and disrupts business as usual.

What would be an option here? Something quite different to how councils usually behave. Council could set up a social media venue where they and citizens, including proponents of the idea, would engage in a public conversation so as the actions of all were understood. Who knows? Maybe something even better than the report would emerge.

Staff would likely see this as an added burden on their time and they would be right. But the ground has changed so much that perhaps doing things like this should now be core business for some staff, and not use communications staff… specialist staff. Maybe there’s things they do now that could be left undone? Communications policy wold have to change as well, of course, for to participate effectively in social media requires rapid response, and that mean council communications managers would have to trust staff. Sure, there would be mistakes, but a bigger mistake would be choosing not to participate at all or to have communications staff vet responses and turn them from something useful into something beige and bland and devoid of substance.

This, then, is the new order and local government, corporations and other levels of government will have to accept it and, if smart enough, strategise ways to creatively interact with these new and rapidly changing forms of public discourse.

Councils need to do more than lurk on social media platforms (most don’t even do this), simply watching what people say about them. What’s needed is council communications policy that recognises how the ground on which communication has shifted this last decade or less, how Web 1.0 is now finished and have staff ready to engage with the public in their speciality.

When it comes to toad’s preferred means of popular communications it seems that there is a disconnect between local government version 1.0 where it meets digitally-enabled Citizen 2.0, and local government that chooses not to participate will be the loser for this simple reason: in the age of Web 2.0 and social media, organisations have lost control over their public image—they are what digitally-enabled citizens say they are.

So, local government (all government?) as platform rather than vending machine… council restructured as collaborating teams… meaningful engagement with social media and the public conversation… how would these affect councils in Australia? Could councils become rusting enough to do this? Would they open a new, cooperative road to a complementary future? Maybe, just maybe what we need… is an experiment to try out the ideas.

A new approach to planning by local government. A local government sustainability educator works with members of a community organisation in designing usage for a council demonstration centre. The idea was to familiarise citizens with the design process and how local government works, demystifying it. This is local government engaging in the collaborative process of placemaking with communities.

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