Race to the bottom

Shouldn't we be pulling people up rather than pushing them down?

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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7 Comments on “Race to the bottom”

  1. tomsprints Says:

    Good blog. This rings so, so true.

  2. LGworker Says:

    Well said. As I was reading this I was wondering if there is anything we could learn from the dreaded central government. Now I’m not saying the centre has it right but it is notable how many Minister Departments are on twitter, how it is easy to get video’s of select committees…est. Somewhere along the line someone/some people made a change in the Civil Service, because I’m sure when I was a kid the Civil Service was still using tried and tested tools and not know for using current technology. Will this happen in the Local Gov family? Interestingly in my Council, the Cllrs do want to use these tools but feel Comms won’t want them to…or at least that’s what they say.

  3. John McPherson Says:

    We’re in danger of missing the point by discussing technology, not information. Most old-style public meetings ate counter-productive and often unfair.
    Concentrate instead on deciding what level of engagement with citizens you want to offer (inform/consult/decide together/empower them to decide), be clear with everyone about the extent of their influence, then make sure everyone in the room has all the information they need in order to engage at that level.

    • localgov Says:

      I agree – the tech here was a secondary issue for me, the issue was in fact that getting information to all should be something to be pushed for, rather than restricting it without real need.

  4. Chris McCray Says:

    Unreal! I’m amazed this really is how councillors are behaving, and it’s not how business works. I’ve sat in many meetings where there’s been a mixture of paperwork presented and people using laptop computers to read from, record notes etc… It’s a great way to check and confirm of correct points made during a meeting with real, live, data.

    The technology wasn’t balanced and fairly distributed, but that doesn’t matter – to hold one group of people back until the others catch-up (or until corporate budget was released to buy laptops all-round) is a folly. And no-one gets bored and starts browsing stuff online – there’s not the time for that!

    The IE6 parallel is a good one, but there are ways around even that – upgrade everyone to IE7 or 8. Those systems that can only be accessed using IE6 you use a either a virtualised remote desktop that is configured to use IE6 for those people that need access, or even configure a ‘portable apps’ version of IE6 for those that need it. The equivalent in a council meeting would be to have what looks like a regular paper pad in front of you, but you’ve cut-out the centre and inlaid an iPad to disguise it. Fair means *and* foul…

    As for 5-pt printed Excel spreadsheets – that would get an immediate: “can these be reprinted at a larger scale, on more sheets, can you summarise” etc… demanded at the time by the chairperson, and if unable to fulfil that request, there would be a standing point that all future data is presented in at least 10pt.

    But really, is this how councillors behave? Luddites!

    • localgov Says:

      It’s not all councillors, I hasten to add! These were the exception (I hope), but that anyone would think this way was a bit of a shock.

      As for IE6, those negotiations have been had and still ICT have (in the past) refused. They can never explain exactly why though…

      And I love the thought of hiding an i-pad within an old paper pad!

  5. Give computers to councillors???? Next you’ll want to give them iPads, the sponging b*****ds

    How *DARE* councillors be provided with the equipment to do their job??? Only people rich enough to pay for their own equipment must be allowed to stand for elected public office!!!!!! Why stop at insisting councillors pay for their own equipment, we must also insist firemen buy their own fire engines, teachers should buy text books, soldier should buy their own flack jackets, the spongers!

    In case it’s not obvious, all tongue in cheek. Councillors have a job to do just like anybody else, and the should be provided with the equipment to do that job. I can’t believe how far society has gone rabidly down the road of “elected public office should only be accessible to rich people” while at the same time saying “how *DARE* rich people like David Cameron be politicians”.

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