Race to the bottom
Recently I found myself once again in a meeting with some of our local councillors. They were as usual a friendly and interesting bunch of souls, attempting to do their best by their constituents and planning a public meeting for local people to engage on the goings on of our council.
The subject of meeting papers came up, with one councillor spending five minutes peering at a printed excel table of five point type and miniature lines. As they struggled I made the point that it’s a shame that we can’t zoom in on paper in the same way that we can on computers or tablets. It was as if I’d accused them of witchcraft.
I then spent a good ten minutes or so hearing them discuss how they were against any person in a meeting, be they councillors, officers or members of the public, attending a public meeting and making use of any form of electronic device to store or access papers and information. Their thinking was that this gave these people an unfair advantage over everyone else in the room as they could access more information more easily and more quickly; therefore this made others feel uncomfortable, so it was deemed better to have everyone on a lower but level playing field.
I was stunned to say the least. As they were councillors and as they were changing mid-meeting from jolly and positive to boisterous and negative I decided not to make a larger discussion of this, instead getting back on topic and filing it away for later absorption and deliberation.
It appears that we are not willing for any person to put themselves in a better position than others in order to work more efficiently, and that we would rather work less efficiently overall as a result. I could understand it if they were simply uncomfortable hearing the tap of a laptop keyboard, or if they distrusted mobile phone users and were worried that instead of being in the room they were on Twitter or texting friends. This wasn’t the case however; they accepted that using such technology would be beneficial and help them to understand things better and this was what they didn’t like.
I wondered whether this attitude was limited to ICT and access to information. Were we talking about arranging for street sweeping and were faced with the opportunity for some members of the team to have particularly advanced brooms, would they deny them this privilege unless all sweeps had similar equipment? Would they not allow us to start upgrading some old CCTV cameras unless we could upgrade all at the same time?
Whilst I doubt this very much, if you’d asked me before that meeting if they would also deny people access to information I’d have been in equal levels of doubt.
These comments concern me, as I’m a firm believer in pushing people and systems forward wherever possible and inspiring others to catch up or better me if at all possible. A little competitive advancement has worked wonders for countless fields, with individuals and teams vying with each other to be the best and offer the highest level of service possible. Where innovations are successful these are replicated and built upon, where they are not then they are learned from and avoided.
I would have preferred to have heard them discussing the benefits of using technology in meetings and how we can make sure that more people benefit from it. If instant access to information is deemed useful, how could we make sure it is available at every meeting? If we’re worried about people getting bored and browsing online, how can we change the meeting up to ensure it is interesting enough to keep their attention firmly focussed in the room and on the issues?
It reminds me to the modern day classic conundrum of IE6; in many places it was or even is unable to be replaced and upgraded as a small number of systems would be affected. I’ve worked in places where the number of people who regularly accessed these systems was no more than a couple of dozen or so, yet the other several thousand had to suffer for this. The same can be said for some of these core linked systems, where any development or advancement may negatively impact a few so therefore forward progress is stopped.
Thankfully some of these are slowly being addressed, but the underlying attitude of no progress unless it is progress for all is worrying. Local government needs to be looking forwards, aiming not just to catch up with where other sectors are and where the public is or was a few years ago, but ahead to where it will be in the future, by the time our plans are made and development is completed. We should be aiming to be leaders and champions for advancing the work we do and the tools we use, and should be encouraged by others who are taking advantage of opportunities we are not to grasp them and up our own game, not to bring them down to our level.
Successful organisations make use of the right tools to get the job done. If these can be universally adopted all the better, if not then they should at least be available to those who will make the best use out of them.
If they bring these concerns up again I may consider politely telling them that we should not actually be allowing them to invite officers to brief them in advance, as having access to this information would put these councillors at an unfair advantage over other participants, so we should allow everyone to be equally ignorant.
I’m not quite sure that’s what equal opportunities really means, but it might make a point.
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