Opinion: people power in local government

19 February 2015

Faced with ever-shrinking budgets and growing demand, councils will increasingly need the help of local people to keep their services sustainable.

Encouraging people to access services through cheaper channels is one way of delivering great results. Councils can point to numerous examples of how online services are not only cheaper but also faster, helping to deliver better services with high rates of customer satisfaction.  

From transport to social care, there remains untapped potential in digital services, but this is only one side of the story. What we really need is for people to do more, as well as to do things differently.

Nesta’s recent report, People Helping People, looked at how public services might be designed in a way that encourages social action, building on existing models like school governors, special constables and magistrates.

Few would deny that this model is preferable but if we are to harness people’s untapped potential in public service delivery and – crucially – still cut costs, I think we need to make it as easy as possible to get involved.

When someone shares a missing person alert on Facebook, I doubt they think of themselves as a special constable but they are in many ways a volunteer; just one for the digital age. Hitting ‘share’ and re-tweeting are quick decisions, almost second nature, and we need to encourage this style of volunteering as much as we need to encourage hospital visiting and befriending services.

We also need to look beyond this ‘one-way’ approach. Not only considering how to encourage people to proactively provide information to public services but also how to use digital engagement to create engagement in person.

In social care, for example, councils could provide social media toolkits that enable service users, carers and families to connect with others locally and effectively build their own support networks. By making it easier for people to meet up, share lifts, arrange joint trips out, we can help prevent social isolation and with it the likelihood of someone entering long term dependent care.

This scenario is technology-enabled, designed by the people who will derive the benefit and without doubt, cheaper. So people power does have a role to play in helping improve public services and cutting costs; we just need to make it easy.

Sue Holloway, Director of Services Strategy, Northgate Public Services