Sunday, April 02, 2006

Rural Areas - the Dark Matter in Local Government

I had the opportunity to talk at the Henry Stewart Conference on City Regions or Cities and Regions on March 29th 2006.

The debate was considering whether Cities should be the centres of their own regions - or whether Cities should interact in some overarching way with their hinterlands while preserving the status quo of administrative boundaries.

There is no doubt that a significant group of policy leaders are focussing on large Cities and their impact on growth and prosperity to the detriment of non-City areas. Cumbria got particularly bad press, being told to just accept that this is not their time.....

My concern is not that the urban centric argument is wrong - indeed my presentation was about how ALL towns or any size offer exactly the same opportunity for focussed growth. The problem is when only Cities count for anything and areas of the Country without a City are written off in policy planning terms.

Rural Areas are the Dark Matter in the Local Government Universe.

If we do not pay attention to the very significant population that lives nowhere near a large City and not very close to even a small town we are denying the rights of many people and potentially increasing deprivation.

Whatever the administrative boundaries of Counties, Regions, Districts or Cities there is an overarching natural affinity shown by real people for foci of specific interest. Travel To Work, Travel to Play, Travel to Shop, Travel to Learn, Travel to Hospital can frequently all have a different answer for the same one person, and that answer will be dependent on preference - citizens exercising real choice.

To limit growth and investment in job and facility creation to large Cities is to rob the rural areas of their ability to sustain the massive population that resides NOT in a City.

In South Somerset there is no City.
In Somerset County Council there is no City.

Residents of South Somerset are an hour or more away from Bristol, Bath, Bornemouth, Exeter. Influence of each of these is felt in some way but no one City is either dominant over the others or sufficiently imposing to (of itself) affect the local economy directly.

South Somerset has one town, Yeovil. It is about the 300th largest town in England, the same size -ish as Amersham, Grantham or Winchester. One third of the population of South Somerset live in Yeovil. One third live in about a dozen Market Towns, the largest of which (Chard) is about 1500th in the scale of largest towns. the remaining one third live in small villages, hamlets or in the open countryside.

All of these 150 / 160,000 people have the same right to economic support and potential sustainable growth as their counterparts in Cities. Indeed the cost of sustaining a rural environment is potentially significantly lower due to the lack of recovery work needed just to keep our Cities alive.

Unless Yeovil and Chard are developed to be the centres for local industry, health, learning, retail and are served by sensible infrastructure then the economy and viability of South Somerset will suffer compared with more 'fortunate' locations closer to Cities. This is both divisive and unfair.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Cutting the Wires

The New Local Government Network launches their report on wireless / mobile working today.

The text that follows is my contribution to that launch - the whole thing is accessible from the NLGN

New Local Government Network

Cutting the Wires

February 8th 2006

Paull Robathan
Leader, South Somerset District Council

Can I first say how much I welcome this report, the work that went it to producing it and the intended outcomes of making wireless communications a key aspect of front line customer facing service delivery and community engagement for local authorities?

Technology has only 2 positive outcomes for Councils or for any adopter:

1. Doing something that is already done better or cheaper – preferably both.

2. Creating new opportunities that just were not there before.

There is much cynicism, with some justification, about the first - especially where computers are concerned; but the second is undeniable – radio, the telephone, television, the internet and many other technological leaps have served to transform our lives as individuals and also the way we fit in society. Take-up of expensive new technologies has tended to be from the ‘top’ down, early adopters are usually well-off, technologically aware and middle class; the last to adopt many technologies are the very ones for which we local authorities have such a great responsibility – the hard to reach, disadvantaged , access deprived or language constrained groups and frequently the young and old.

Just for once we are dealing today with a technology that is turning the accepted norms on their head. Mobile telephones (as this report confirms) are evenly, or perhaps intuitively disproportionately distributed in our target communities, the young adult population across all demographic classes are ubiquitous users. The opportunity is presented to us for a direct route to the very people we sometimes seem powerless to interact with. The language barrier is also lowered by transactional access in a constituents’ own language with the query presented to the council staff in their language – this is not a function of wireless technology, BUPA were taking histories for patients this way in 1970, but the message is the same.

Throughout “Cutting the Wires” there are real examples of how mobile, wireless technology can improve customer services for Local Authorities. But many of these examples are self-contained or ‘pilot’ schemes. The true step change is coming with integrated mobile connection as a direct and flexible extension to core services.

Our approach in South Somerset District Council (SSDC), as a mainly rural environment, is to bring up the level of access and service delivery across the whole breadth and depth of our range of offerings. Where data is collected, manipulated, shared and retrieved our mantra has been to do it once, and once only. Whatever the circumstance the available data should be the same, up to date and consistent. Whatever medium constituents use to access our service, face to face at neighbourhood offices, via self-managed internet, over the telephone to our contact centre or direct to a back office expert, the same data should be accessible – and this should extend to the chance meeting in the street or at local level. Trouble reporting is intended to be done either direct by the citizen online, or via a member of the council staff and then tracked through to resolution in a single consistent way.

To do all of this effectively requires secure, integrated underlying systems and procedures. Forget the attractions of wireless for a few moments, think about housing management software, refuse collection route management, streetscene incidents such as dogfouling or graffiti, and all the other separate things we do. The man in the street sees as part of a single ‘Council’ function, with no desire to have to work out which specific department or council is responsible.

For several years my authority in partnership with County, fellow Districts, Police and other agencies have worked on developing a common management and response mechanism so that one point of contact can deal with up to 80% of all issues in one interaction. At South Somerset we have done that through tight integration of data and processing from the very front where the customer touches the Council, right to the very back office where the detailed technical work is done – and then all the way back out to the customer again.

By selecting a combination of software systems that can communicate and by dedicating ourselves to getting the foundation solid we can now look at every opportunity to engage with the outside world secure in the knowledge that the systems can cope. This I suspect will be one of the harder aspects of mobile technology to get done because there are no quick wins or shortcuts here. But once it’s done the results speak for themselves.

In 2005 SSDC won the Beacon Award for Getting Closer to Communities, which we do through a network of neighbourhood offices, broadband enabled community bus, a sophisticated one stop shop for housing, a common customer contact centre for telephone access for all services, interactive digital TV and direct internet access to web services. Mobile and wireless working is now a direct and straightforward adjunct to the core systems and services delivering additional and direct benefits. We can look forward to taking our services with us wherever we go, and supporting our most hard to reach communities as effectively as any other.

Councillors at SSDC all have wireless laptop computers with the opportunity to connect via broadband from any location in the district, because through the combined efforts of County and District South Somerset is totally broadband enabled. Our Council Offices have wireless access in the public areas, Council Chamber and meeting rooms and in the Members’ room. Security of internal systems is maintained by separating the access so that the wireless networks and broadband access is to the public services – virtual private networks with secure identification provide a route through firewalls for authorized users, whether home working staff or mobile workers. The same capability is available here at the LGA.

Initiatives along with our County colleagues have raised awareness and access by business, parish, town and individual constituent alike. We are moving towards embracing WiMax as discussed in the report as well as enabling local communities with WiFi supporting mobile PCs and PDAs.

10 years ago I worked for a global high tech company that fired a senior member of staff for using the Internet at work.

3 years ago delivering interactive access to our Council systems at neighbourhood offices required costly dedicated fixed wired connections.

Today I (and everyone else) can sit anywhere in the world and access (with appropriate safeguards) our operational systems from a PDA, laptop or networked computer – or use virtually free Voice over IP telephone connections.

The issue is not whether mobile or wireless technology is here yet – it is.
The issue is not whether the use of mobile technology offers a step change – it does.
The issue is ensuring that our operational systems are sufficiently robust and integrated to be able to deliver the opportunities mobile / wireless connection can provide.

The e-technology advances over the last 2 – 3 years in Local Government, sponsored by a far-sighted Central Government vision, have given authorities that chose the right road a massive opportunity to improve and extend services throughout the wider community.

This report demonstrates that the time is ripe for picking the fruits or our endeavours and I commend “Cutting the Wires” and its recommendations most highly.

Thank you.

Paull Robathan
South Somerset District Council.

Friday, January 06, 2006

Charles Kennedy

A very difficult few days for the Liberal Democrats.

Charles Kennedy did a very good personal political job yesterday by declaring his alcoholism and an election for the leadership at the same time. but it may have been very bad politics for the Liberal Democrat party

It is a pity that, from my point of view, he is very wrong if he thinks either the members or the general public are broadly supportive. In our locality every person I have spoken to today is convinced he has to go - either because they have thought this for some time or because they believe he has now nowhere to go after his statement last night. SKY NEWS is telling me he says he has overwhelming support - thats not what I see or hear.

The parliamentary party members who have finally and bravely gone public today with their concerns are clearly suffering from the pain of taking such extreme measures but they should be looking at what is best for the party. In a couple of years time we will be able to look back on this period and either say we ducked a major issue and became a divided and weakened party - or made a bold (if painful) transition to a leader selected at an open election giving us the possibility of another step change in support and power.

I do not think there is any reason why Charles Kennedy could not stand in the election, but it must be against the most credible and willing candidates. Ming, Mark Oaten, Simon Hughes and whoever else would stand must not be constrained by any historical commitment and Charles could free them from those commitments by standing down before an election - but then if he wishes standing again for the leadership.

The whole membership votes, and their single transferable vote will be final. If the result is Charles Kennedy again he is going to HAVE to work with people who have openly criticised him. If he cannot work with them then we may see a fragmentation of the party which would perhaps cause some even more cataclysmic change in the other parties - impossible to predict.

I hope that (whoever is elected) the new leader can be a strong policy advocate with presence, integrity and capable of inspiring a large number of dedicated and committed party members across the country.