Unlocking Democracy

John Denham talks about the future of democracy

‘Thank you very much for the opportunity to address you this evening.

This evening, I want to talk about our programme for strengthening local democracy. And particularly focus on the importance of clear and accessible information as a way of empowering citizens; helping them understand what public services are delivering locally and enabling them to press for change.

People sometimes talk about the importance of strong and powerful local government as though it is a goal in itself. It is not. Strong and powerful local government is a means to an end: a means of guaranteeing citizens’ rights.

Citizens have a right to shape their community. They have a right to influence the services they receive.

Sometimes, they will exercise those rights through personalised services.

Sometimes, they will exercise those rights through entitlements – such as those we’ve committed ourselves to in health and education – and their ability to get redress if those rights are not delivered.

Sometimes, they will exercise those rights through greater influence over service delivery – through their ability to shape how their neighbourhood is policed or to decide how offenders should pay back the community.

But we don’t all have time to be active democrats 24 hours a day.

So important as all those rights are, it is also vital that people have the right to elect a council which can lead, shape the area which they live in and deliver the services they need.

That is why, when the Prime Minister launched proposals to refresh our democracy and constitution; to restore trust and confidence in the political system, it was so important that he included the rights of citizens and the rights of local government in the areas which need reform.

So over the past eight months, I have been driving a series of measures which build on the steady and sustained transfer of power to local government over the past decade, but which, taken together, represent the most radical vision for powerful local government that has existed for many years.

We have put councils in the forefront of the drive to improve local public services, through the total place approach.

We are giving them greater powers to scrutinise and challenge other services.

We are expanding councils’ ability to lead the local response to challenges like climate change. We are encouraging and supporting them to develop new ways of raising income. And we are putting councils in the driving seat on new challenges like climate change.

Together, this puts councils at the heart of our efforts not just to protect but also to improve front line services.

But we believe we can go further still. To fundamentally reinvent the role of local government and local public services requires much more than simply asking those already working in those services to think differently.

We also have to open those services to much greater scrutiny and challenge from the outside. Allowing people to question and challenge what is happening.

This is the way to drive what the Prime Minister has called “third generation of public services.”

As he says, the next stage of public service reform will be characterised by a radical shift of power – not to those who run public services, but to those who use them.

That means all users – not just those who have always had a voice and the ability to speak up.

And the easiest, most direct way to ensure that users have the knowledge and ability to drive that change is through the internet.

“Thanks to the web, citizens are better informed, with higher aspirations and higher expectations of public services. They expect to be able to access the same quality of information at the touch of a button for public services as they can from the private sector.”

Thanks to the web, citizens are better informed, with higher aspirations and higher expectations of public services. They expect to be able to access the same quality of information at the touch of a button for public services as they can from the private sector.

And making more data about public services available opens up new ways of driving reform and improvement, with greater openness and transparency.

Greater transparency makes it much easier to look across all the services in an area and spot evidence of duplication or waste.

People can ‘health check’ what is happening in their area by checking how public money is being spent to make sure it is delivering value for money and the very best services possible.

And they can also use that information to press for change. Where councils or service providers fall short of the mark, or aren’t delivering what local residents want: people will be able to demand answers and come up with their own solutions.

There are already many different examples of ways in which citizens have used public data to raise awareness of issues; encourage engagement or call for improvements in their community.

Like fixmystreet.com (external link) where people can report problems like graffiti or fly tipping and challenge the council where these issues are not being addressed.

Most recently, Ben Marsh was able to construct a national map of the snowfall, as it happened, using Google Maps and Tweets from Twitter users.

What is important about these websites is that they are not run by IT experts – but are led and inspired through active citizen engagement.

It also opens the way for much more imaginative and creative use of that data: recycling information which has been collected for one purpose can be used for something entirely different.

Much of this data already exists but is buried deep within databases or impenetrable spreadsheets. We will bring as much as possible out into the open.

For example, where-can-i-live.com (external link) mixes data on travel times with house price information to give users a sense of where they can afford to live within a reasonable distance from their work.

Talk about local is another good example of this citizen initiative. Will Perrin, one of the driving forces behind this website and other local versions of it, says that the web offers the same ’21st century convenience’ that has transformed other services in society.

It gives people greater choice about when, where and how to engage with local democracy. For example, his website identifies relevant issues like planning applications and shows people how they can either comment or get more directly involved in the issues.

Making Government data more widely available like this could also drive innovation and fresh thinking.

Business people, social entrepreneurs, professionals – even individual citizens – will not only be able to identify where improvements can be made, but also come up with radical new ideas.

This opens the door for new solutions to old problems.

“We can’t necessarily prescribe or predict what the results might be – but that is part of the benefit. We could not have predicted what the web itself would achieve ten or fifteen years ago, but it has enriched all our lives immeasurably.”

We can’t necessarily prescribe or predict what the results might be – but that is part of the benefit. We could not have predicted what the web itself would achieve ten or fifteen years ago, but it has enriched all our lives immeasurably.

This is all part of a much wider cultural change within government – based on an assumption that information should be in the public domain unless there is a good reason not to – not the other way around.

The freedom of information act has helped to open the door. But the onus should not be on individuals having to ask for information: it should be on service providers to provide it.

At a time when we are working to rebuild trust and confidence in our democracy and politics, that is crucial.

If we get this right, it will help usher in a new era of openness, accountability and transparency in Government.

For both of these reasons – democratic accountability and public service reform – what’s being called ‘making public data public’ has become a real priority across Government.

That programme is being led by the UK’s Government Information Advisers: Tim Berners Lee – one of the founding fathers of the world wide web – and Professor Nigel Shadbolt, from Southampton University.

As you’d expect, that process is so transparent and open that you can, apparently, even follow what they are up to in real time on Twitter.

Just last week, the Prime Minister and Stephen Timms launched www.data.gov.uk (external link) – all available data from Government in one place.

The next big step will be making high level Ordnance Survey data available for free in April – and we are currently consulting on the detail of that.

My Department is currently working on three different projects which will make a big contribution to this overall strategy.

Firstly, by opening up local data to the same level of scrutiny as national data.

This is essential, because most of the data that people want about how services work in their area, is held at a local level – by councils, by the NHS, by the police and other service providers.

I have asked Nigel Shadbolt to chair a panel who can drive this work locally. It doesn’t just include people from councils – but also community activists who have already started to use public data to change their neighbourhood for the better.

Second, local spending reports: making it as easy as possible for people to see and challenge what is being spent locally.

This, was not of course, a new idea – and indeed, Unlocking Democracy itself championed these reports as part of the Sustainable Communities Act.

I hope people will recognise that I am responding seriously to the clear need and demand for more information to be made available locally – not just through local spending reports, but through a variety of mechanisms.

But I hope you will also recognise that our ambitions and agenda now go well beyond what was originally conceived of in the Sustainable Communities Act.

Ultimately, these spending reports will provide more data; more quickly; and be much easier to interrogate than the current local spending reports. We will, for example, expand the information covered to cover money spent by quangos, who, as you know, are often challenged for being too remote, opaque and unaccountable.

So, for example, people will be able to see and compare how much the Homes and Communities agency or the Learning and Skills council is spending on housing or education.

And we will ensure that the information isn’t just one-dimensional, but links back to the original data where-ever possible, for people who want to dig deeper.

This has lots of echoes in the ‘Total Place’ approach. A lot of councils have, understandably, found it difficult, expensive and time consuming to put together an accurate picture of all local public spending. But these more in-depth local spending reports will make more of that data easily accessible at the click of a mouse.

While this is not strictly relevant to my argument this evening, I know that this audience will be interested in recent developments on the Sustainable Communities Act.

One hundred and ninety-nine proposals have been put forward by the LGA; and we think it sensible for the moment to concentrate on those which cover priority issues where we can make progress quickly.

We will, of course, assess all those proposals properly and effectively, but giving each the attention it deserves will take some time.

But it is my intention that the Sustainable Communities Act should become part of the permanent architecture of local Government.

Finally, the third part of my Department’s contribution to the public data agenda is the new Civic Health report.

It will draw together a wealth of data from different sources about voting patterns, social habits, and feelings of belonging across Government: a whole variety of indicators about how people feel about the areas they live in.

Of course there are some broken families, some limited pockets of problem behaviour and we are working hard to tackle these. But it does Britain a deep disservice to generalise that makes the whole of our society broken.

The majority of British people are tolerant, play by the rules and get on well with their neighbours. We are a nation where community spirit thrives, where British values of fairness, decency and neighbourliness are in evidence everywhere; and where the majority of people get along together.

Today’s British Attitudes Survey shows, for example, that modern Britain is becoming increasingly comfortable with and accepting of diversity; more liberal in its views about other peoples lifestyles and choices.

Later this week, the Citizenship Survey will give an update on a range of issues about people’s involvement with and feelings about their community.

Previously, those figures have provided a picture of a society with strong levels of cohesion and belonging to the neighbourhood.

It shows that around a quarter of people are regularly volunteering. Four in five are satisfied with their area. Two thirds believe that people in their neighbourhood would pull together to improve it.

Far from being broken; these figures remind us of the active role that many people play in their community and the positive feelings that many have about it.

So the Civic Health Report will give people the information they need to talk up the strengths of their communities and challenge those that would seek to talk it down.

Where those tough challenges really do exist, these reports will help people see how they might turn things around and give people greater power to push for change.

In summary, our drive to make more data available in web-based forms will not only better support people’s right to know about what’s happening in their areas but also make it much easier for people to propose change.

Thank you very much.’

see links here http://www.communities.gov.uk/speeches/corporate/unlockingdemocracy

View All