Friday, 16 November 2012

PCCs and local accountability

I got an email from my mum this morning. When I was a wee boy I was always taken to the polling station by one of my parents to be with them when they voted. Eventually if I missed out on the chance to vote I’d be upset. This was part of my civic education and led to that excitement that me and Adrian Mole felt when we first when to vote (2001 General Election for me – Gordon Brown had engineered for me to get a hefty tax rebate in my April pay packet, so I happily voted for them). This morning’s email from my mum said, regarding the PCC elections in England and Wales:

“I spoilt my ballot paper by writing on it “This is a waste of public money.”  I overheard two older women on the bus talking about it, and one said she was not voting, as it was a waste of money and all the candidates were just out to get money from the public purse and would be hand in glove with the police.”

To my knowledge this is the first time my mum’s ever spoilt a ballot paper, and that the PCC elections drove her to this made me very sad indeed.

And it’s looking like the PCC elections are a complete disaster, with extraordinarily low turnout (no votes in one ballot box) and a very high percentage of spoilt ballot papers, such as my mum’s – this tumblr s keeping a record of some of them. A lot of political scientists are saying very practical things about what’s gone wrong and how turnout could have been increased.

Ironically, at this very moment I am reading the Conservative Party document Control Shift - Returning Power to Local Communities produced before the last election where they announced PCCs. On page five of the document they also make the point:

“The inevitable result of this relentless centralisation has been disenchantment with the local political process.
  • In 2008 only 38 per cent of people felt they could influence decisions in their local area, a figure that has fallen since 2001.
  • Local election turnouts have been consistently below 40 per cent, and in the most recent council elections in May 2008 turnout was just 35 per cent.”

Now it seems that their attempt to re-enchant people with the political process has backfired as people resist this sort of politicisation.

I also want to suggest another reason for apathy, or what could more rightly be referred to as ignorance. I’m reading this document because I’m co-authoring a paper on localism. I wanted to find some of the consultation documents relating to the localism bill. Then I came across what a lot of people are finding. (the Department of) Communities and Local Government are one of the first departments to move across to the generic UK government portal It is now impossible to find most things you want and a lot of the links just go to 404 screen without even links to the archived versions.

The logic of single portals like this from many in ecommunications is that people don’t care who delivers services or has control over a policy area, just what’s being done about it. The Scottish Government were one of the first to embrace such an approach with their “thematic” website. Admittedly this means they don’t have to change the website every six months when the directorates are restructured, but basically the only way into information on the site is through a google search. It seems enabling access for the “uninformed”  means that the likes of me who actually know what we’re looking for get completely lost trying to fathom out what “theme” our cross-cutting policy document might be under.

The other interesting, and I’d say shocking, thing about is that on the main “how government works”  page is just a gurning photo of Cameron. You have to scroll down quite a way to discover that most policy is actually delivered by local authorities and a recognition that devolution has even happened. The Scottish Government had a similar idea to create one portal for all public services in Scotland. I think, and hope, they’ve been abandoned because the response from local authorities was “oi! No! We do exist and do things, you know”. There was a real, and I’d say correct, fear that the institutions of government would get forgotten as they were so hidden. The justification for this approach was the good old Scottish, “what matters is outcomes” not who delivers them.

I think the PCC elections show us that this is rubbish. Actually people really do care about who delivers services and how those services are accountable. They do want services to be accountable to democratically elected representatives, not just performance cards or tax rates. Ironically, I agree with the Tories, people are not voting in local government elections because they feel that it has little control over services. But the government at both a UK and Scottish level are not improving the situation, and websites like need to be recognised as part of a wider problem of the managerialism of politics for the sake of a version of engagement.

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