Let's drop the Mr Bean image for Sim City

Increasing broadband Internet access will provide local government with real opportunities not only to improve citizen engagement...

Increasing broadband Internet access will provide local government with real opportunities not only to improve citizen engagement but also to transform its dowdy appearance.

Local authorities have an image problem. A recent survey of the public showed that when asked what well-known figure local government most resembled, the most popular choice was Mr Bean. Despite the parlour-game feel of this well-tried management tool, it does have a serious purpose: showing how an organisation's image is pre-conditioned in the public mind.

Simple e-government will help to reduce the continual frustration, bureaucracy and inefficiency that the public feels, but a step-change in public opinion will require far more. For years modernising authorities have grappled with ways of thoroughly engaging with their citizens and communities, but with very limited success so far. Big ideas are needed and new vehicles that will excite the many and not just engage the few.

Engaging the few does have a point though, as it can pave the e-way. Examples of success here include citizens being able to apply for passports and complete their tax returns online and potentially being able to undertake do-it-yourself local government services. Principal targets in the latter category include planning applications, land searches, individual care packages and library-based learning. Hopefully, all of these will be available before 2005, having been included in councils' recent Implementing Electronic Government statements.

Interactive broadband technology will improve the speed of access to all of these services and will thus help to build e-government credibility, but it can deliver much more.

The success of interactive computer games such as the Sim City series show that local government can excite and, moreover, interest the young. Why shouldn't UK local government have something similar that allows citizens to plan their own locality for real and have fun while they do it? And how about online brochures and virtual tours of schools for prospective parents? Or a traffic management game that allows the placing of road humps, bus lanes, parking restrictions, pedestrian crossings and then watching the consequences?

Moving from being the fictional Mayor of Liverpool in Sim City 3000 to a real citizen of one's own town can't be such a large step.

Off the back of these fun tools, citizens and highly localised communities could engage with their councillors and seek to implement the changes and improvements they have modelled. This would be real and dynamic community governance and would also allow authorities to consider re-deploying officer resources to front-line service areas.

Shifting the direction of local government towards a participative and empowering model requires broadband information and communications technologies and also the wresting of information from those in councils who wish to retain it to sustain their own empires. The solution to the latter problem lies in swift and proper implementation of the Freedom of Information Act in local government and being prepared to work with community campaigns to unblock local obstacles to change.

The current lack of community campaigns in this area should not be seen as an insurmountable obstacle either. New Local Government Network experience with elected mayors shows that local campaigning movements can spring up in the most unexpected of places.

We need visionary individuals who recognise that changing to elected mayors and empowering individuals and communities are seen as essentially anti-establishment by those who favour the status quo. In today's climate there is real power here, as the defeated existing council leaders in three mayoral selection contests to date have discovered to their cost.

Similar forces are also at work in the commercial world, with organisations such as Internet bank Egg realising that being perceived as anti-establishment can shift consumers from being fatalistic to choosing self-determination in a very short period of time.

Taking the mayoral and the commercial experiences together, there is the real prospect that local movements will develop that aim to empower individuals and communities using the combined forces of interactive broadband technology and anti-establishment feelings.

Other methods of promoting the acceptance of broadband technology in communities generally produce a feeling that they are products of the problem rather than parts of the solution, and require both leaps of faith by local authorities and incentives from central government.

Ian Keys is director of the Transforming Services Programme at independent think-tank the New Local Government Network

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