Opinion: White Paper lacks radical thought

The Local Government White Paper, released last month, disappointingly lacks teeth.

It sets out the Government's view that people need to be consulted on how services are run, and informed about the quality of services in their area, and should be able to call local bodies to account if services fail to meet their needs. This doesn't seem particularly radical - most councils regularly consult their communities on a wide range of issues.

But the White Paper also focuses on the need to move beyond ‘one size fits all' service models to focus on individual needs. The logical extension is that we also need to develop a more targeted approach to communication that addresses individuals rather than whole communities.

Many public bodies are already targeting so-called ‘hard to reach groups', which is shorthand for socially excluded people who, for a variety of reasons, have historically low levels of engagement with service providers. For me, ‘hard to reach groups' should also include people who shun local democracy because it fails to relate to their needs and interests.

The danger for all public services is that they simply fail to keep up with the pace of change in how people want to interact. Why are public sector websites almost exclusively used for information delivery rather than gathering feedback? Why aren't we asking residents to rate their interactions at the time they take place, rather than relying on annual surveys?

The growth of social media such as MySpace and YouTube, the proliferation of blogging, the use of feedback on sites such as eBay and Amazon, all suggest that technology is not decreasing interaction between individuals and organisations but increasing it.

This does not mean that local government should cease communicating with vulnerable or disadvantaged groups, stop providing information in community languages, or refrain from more traditional forms of engagement. But it does mean that if we are to address the personalisation agenda, it will have to be on everyone else's terms, and not just our own.

Lorraine Langham is co-founder and managing director of Verve Communications

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